Few things strike fear into the heart of the average person like big snakes. So, when an 18ft (5.5 metre) Burmese python found its way into the home of an unsuspecting family in Hampshire on Tuesday, I imagine the photos made for disturbing viewing.
I say “imagine” because I’ve always loved snakes – I keep 170 of the most deadly reptiles in my role as senior herpetologist at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
So how does an 18ft python find its way on to your roof? Often people buy pythons as babies, when they are just a few feet in length. But then they grow. And, without wanting to state the obvious, pythons are strong. Many could easily push an enclosure lid open, which is why best practice is to keep them locked securely.
Some bigger snakes could even crack the glass of their tank and, with the summer’s balmy weather demanding windows are left open for months at a time, snakes could easily find themselves slipping out for a gander around their local neighbourhood.
In this case, the python in question was owned by a neighbour, but it’s not clear how it escaped. It’s also true that some owners, knowing how many people are scared of snakes, might not tell their neighbours about their new pet. But responsible ownership is crucial – if a snake of that size decides to wrap you up, there’s not going to be much you can do about it, aside from poking it in the eyes or other vulnerable areas, and hoping for the best. Some keepers find a squirt of hand sanitiser to the snake’s mouth can buy them enough time to get away, but it’s unlikely a member of the general public would have a bottle to hand at exactly the right time.
It’s hard to say how often snakes escape, and it’s true that it’s a more common phenomenon for smaller, non-venomous species such as corn snakes and rat snakes to enter ducting or pipes, or communal attic spaces in terraced houses.
It may be tempting to make light of these seemingly freak incidents – after all, how likely is it for a python to pay you an unannounced visit – but it’s important not to scoff at the risk big snakes could pose to the public. And even the most experienced of keepers can get caught out.
Residential ownership of pythons is certainly an issue of growing concern among some of my peers. In 2020, it was thought that more than 500 venomous snakes were kept as licensed pets in the UK. But anyone can own many of the large constrictor snakes (which aren’t venomous), including Burmese pythons, making them much more difficult to track, and more widespread.
In real terms, escaped pythons can be more dangerous than the venomous snakes I care for. A bite from a cobra could be deadly, but normally you would have time to raise the alarm and locate some anti-venom. But if a python made its way into a bedroom and grabbed a child, by the time the parents got up there, it could be too late. As for a python lurking in your garden? That would be a very dangerous scenario for your dog, or your neighbour’s cat.
So what should you do if you find a python in your bedroom? Stay back, don’t approach it and don’t antagonise it. Call the RSPCA or local reptile society as they will have people who can deal with them. You would be surprised at the distance from which they can strike. Reptiles can make great pets for people who can’t own a dog or a cat because of rental restrictions or work commitments. But to dismiss their very real danger would be foolish.
Paul Rowley is a senior herpetologist at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine