When I was 13, my entire middle school obsessed over the story of a fellow teenager who broke into the National Zoo in Washington to steal a pair of Gaboon vipers, stuffing the deadly snakes into a garbage bag and tossing them over his shoulder.
He escaped on a city bus with plans of building his own zoo, a dream that collapsed when a snake bit through the bag and into his shoulder, nearly killing him as the world kept a puzzled vigil. Who would want a fanged and venomous reptile?
But middle-schoolers definitely understood. They coveted dangerous animals the same way they craved dirt bikes and ninja throwing stars. How many kids in my class must have imagined pulling out a viper in the schoolyard, sending the principal up a flag pole?
I thought of that unfortunate snake thief last week with news that Ali Iyoob of Orange County had been bitten by his pet king cobra, then attempted to drive himself to the hospital through nausea and blurry vision.
I wish him a full recovery, but I wonder out loud about the wisdom of keeping animals capable of killing people with a single bite. With apologies to Iyoob, who seems like a good fellow, is there really any reason to own one other than the adolescent thrill gained by holding something powerful in your hand?
The question opens a precarious door. Rottweilers have been known to maul children. Horses kick people in the head. Still, a king cobra seems like a far bigger gamble. I asked some people in the snake community who told me that Iyoob had experience and knew what he was doing, but a glance at his Facebook page shows that I’m not the only one to question the value of indoor venomous animals.
“Are you crazy?” one person posted under a picture of the cobra. “What if she tried to bite you?”
“She tried,” Iyoob wrote back. “A lot. But if you know how to work with them you can use the tools at your disposal to keep the business end away from your body.”
“WTH? I don’t understand the whole ‘hot’ thing,” said another, using a slang term for venomous snakes. “Why take that kind of risk?”
“Difference of opinion I suppose,” Iyoob wrote back. “All I keep are hots for the most part. It’s simply what I enjoy and find the most interesting.”
I’ve seen more retorts from “hot” snake appreciators since then, one of whom said detractors don’t understand the serpents’ role in the ecosystem. I’m not questioning their role in the wild; only their role in your living room.
I asked an acquaintance in Harnett County, Chris Eichele, whom you may remember from a few years ago. I wrote about Chris in 2014 when he stepped on to his son’s school bus and told the riders there that if they continued to bully his stepson, they’d have to deal with him personally – an act that got him charged with a pair of misdemeanors. Anyway, I recalled that Chris was also a reptile enthusiast and kept some venomous snakes. He stressed that any responsible owner values safety and emergency protocols for “just in case” scenarios.
Why would anyone keep a king cobra? I asked him.
“Just their look,” he told me, “same as all reptiles. They are beautiful animals.”
I understand how it’s possible to see beauty in a menacing thing. “Tyger, tyger burning bright” and all that. But isn’t there a difference between, like William Blake, admiring “fearful symmetry” from a distance and reaching out a hand to pet it?
Almost 20 years later, Louis Morton, the snake stealer, returned to the scene of his youthful folly with Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy: “God, she’s beautiful,” he said, looking at another viper. “And I’m not going to lie: I’d still love to have it.”
To close, I found this quote on, of course, Pet-Snakes.com: “There can only be two possible answers to who keeps these kinds of snakes. Dedicated people with a great admiration for these amazing creations of God, or idiots.”
Maybe there’s no difference.