How often are snake charmers bitten

look into my eyes

It was his last words, "Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes over, brother," said Mack Wolford, 44, a minister in the United States. Immediately afterwards he died of the bite of a rattlesnake. For many years the man has used rattlesnakes in his revival sermons, danced with them, the snakes grazed his hands, his neck. But once Wolford wasn't paying attention - or was simply out of luck.

They are called "Serpentes", a suborder of the reptiles. With 2800 species they overshadow everything that moves dangerous animals on this globe. Science estimates that there are up to 5.5 million bites per year, more than 420,000 poisonings and around 100,000 deaths, especially in the world's tropical regions. Snakes live above and below the ground, they get along in sweet and salty water, live on trees or in swamps, in the desert and in the high mountains. Snakes are unique, their skills fascinate science. "Most accidents happen because people underestimate the snakes," says Guido Westhoff, head of the tropical aquarium in Hagenbeck's zoo in Hamburg. Westhoff has lived with the reptiles for as long as he can remember. Had terrariums in his apartment, mambas, cobras, rattlesnakes, sometimes 80 animals and more. "It only becomes dangerous when you can no longer see them," says the doctor of zoology.

World on Sunday:

The snake priests in the United States claim they can control rattlesnakes and deadly otters, defying the venom. Is this attitude based on zoological expertise or do the men have help from above?

Guido Westhoff:

These people get bitten all the time. They dance with forest rattlesnakes and trust God to help them after a bite. Doctors or antiserum refuse them. Sometimes they even survive. But anyone who deals with snakes, whether researcher, lover, conjurer or showman, knows the rule: At some point it will hit everyone. Even the best, most reputable professionals are bitten. Just recently, one of the most renowned snake researchers was caught by a cobra. It's like driving a taxi: Anyone who has been threading their way through heavy traffic for years will at some point experience a crash, no matter how safely they drive. It's just a matter of probability.

Have you been bitten yet?

No. Fortunately. But it will happen, that much is certain. These preachers take the snakes out of the box with their bare hands, carry them around and dance. That would be far too dangerous for me, although I know that I could safely carry many of my poisonous snakes on my hand. My snakes know me, they don't feel threatened when I take them out. Still, I don't. After all, I don't ride a motorcycle without a helmet either.

Are you expecting a bite? From someone who loves snakes as much as you do, that sounds ... strange!

Eight out of ten bite victims say the same thing: I didn't know the snake could do that. Most people underestimate their snake. A classic case: someone owns a small rattlesnake and transports it in a plastic box. He carefully lifts the lid, wants to fish the animal out with the hook. For a moment his finger is on the crack. The rattlesnake can see heat. She notices the fingertip - and in a flash aims the poisonous tooth at the tip. A second classic accident goes like this: A person opens his glass terrarium and makes sure that his hand stays behind the pane. But the rattlesnake can use its highly sensitive heat sensor to distinguish very precisely where the glass is and where the hand is. In a flash she finds her finger - behind the glass pane. Snakes are incredibly fast. Anyone who thinks they have known their snake well for twenty years will one day astonish it with an agility that is second to none.

Agreed, snakes are quick. But are they also nifty?

I have a third story for you: A cobra owner has had cobras for thirty years. He sees his animal lying dead in the terrarium. He taps them several times with the snake hook, of course he knows that these animals can pretend to be dead. He types and types. For a quarter of an hour. As soon as the man has the snake in his hands, it brings it to life and bites him. A typical example of how humans underestimate the snake.

Thousands of years after Adam and Eve, man still underestimates the snake's ruse ...

It has long been known that snakes play dead. You turn on your back, let your tongue hang out and stop moving. Our domestic grass snake is just as good at this trick as the cobra. However, this is less ingenious and clever than more efficient protection against being eaten.

Are snakes smart?

Rather not. There are, of course, snakes that are smarter than others. King cobras, for example, or mambas. They distinguish between people, recognize their carers, behave curiously or interested. You can see their emotions in these snakes. Long meandering means interest. Fear is expressed by twitching the head, the snake then licks more slowly, moving the tongue up and down. Anyone who sees this should rather keep their distance. With pythons, on the other hand, you can never be sure what is going on in them. They can lie motionless in a corner for weeks. But anyone who prematurely declares them "stupid" is probably doing the animals an injustice.