Friday, March 05, 2010

Snakes in Paradise

Probably the Bible is to blame for our fear of snakes. Satan, as the Tempter, took the form of a serpent and convinced Eve to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, soon to be followed by Adam.  As a result G-d banished them and the human race from Paradise. Even people who haven’t bothered to study the Bible know this legend, along with the stories of Noah’s Ark and the great flood, and Jonah in the whale’s belly.  Granted, many of these carnivorous reptiles are poisonous or can kill an animal bigger than a man by constriction. However, attacks on humans by snakes are quite rare and usually done in self-defense, while threatened.

Close to the cottage where I spent all my childhood summers was a nest of adders, the only poisonous snakes in Finland. Once in a while one would venture to our property and I could never quite understand why my father rushed to kill it. I watched them slither in fascination, keeping a safe distance. I soon learned that the only way a person would be bitten was to accidentally step on one or near its head. Snakes are very sensitive to vibrations and easily sense when people or large animals approach. Usually they rush into hiding. I would often go with my parents, especially with my mother, deep into the woods, to collect berries or wild mushrooms; wearing rubber boots was a no-brainer. One time we returned to the summer home after a week’s absence and a viper had shed its skin right on the table on our deck. I was truly amazed by the beauty of the scales and it didn’t bother me that we were soon eating dinner exactly where the snake had spent probably days going through its molting.

The idea of serpents attacking people and causing mass hysteria has been used over and over again in books and movies.  Terrible films such Snakes on a Plane and numerous primitive low budget series for television don’t do justice to these remarkable creatures. Their slithering is an amazing form of moving about, many species being able to climb trees using the same motion, not to mention swimming at high speeds. Harmful rodents are a delicious dinner to many, as are other snakes. Of the poisonous varieties, all have different neurotoxins. Obviously a snake needs to be immune to its own lethal cocktail, yet it has to be able to kill or at least paralyze another one of its cousin. Fast food is not on a snake’s menu. As it lacks the teeth to chew or tear into the flesh, its mouth and digestive tract has to expand and stretch enormously when needed. A snake eating another one practically its own size will take a long time. One end has been digested and is on its way out when the other is still waiting to be swallowed.

It is the human form of these serpents that I find more toxic and dangerous than the real ones. I have had my share of them during my lifetime. They have varied in size, origin and toxicity. Some have appeared in pairs: Easter European Viperoff and its Western counterpart Adderall come first to mind. Western Rattlesnake and a Burmese Python (digesting a Florida alligator),  Dendroaspis polylepis alias Black Mamba and its partner Israeli Robotic Snake are other examples. The latter is not a live snake, but since it has no feelings, it qualifies. Not entirely a snake, there was a Fang in one workplace driving people crazy. Another little pesky serpent with a Napoleon complex, a Meek Puff Adder, has last been seen on the East Coast. Down Under they have more poisonous snakes that on any other continent, however my encounters with Australian human legless reptiles are limited. Perhaps they are doomed to fail outside of their home territory.

Snakes and their toxins are a treasure chest for pharmaceutical research. Decades ago anyone traveling to the Soviet Union from my home country had trouble finding merchandise to buy. They all brought back snake ointment, Viprosal, made in part from a viper and supposedly quite effective for treating pain. Recently, I found an article about Cobra venom in the Time Magazine, being used to treat cancer pain. With some research I discovered that the substance has been used for centuries in China and other Asian countries and has finally found its way to mainstream Western medicine. Supposedly 30 times stronger than morphine, it must be a gift from heaven for those who are suffering and have developed a tolerance to opioids. I was surprised to find that it is possible and legal to buy diluted Asian (Chinese) cobra venom in this country where it is sold under the name Cobroxin or Nyloxin, both as an oral spray and a topical gel. A stronger Nyloxin Rx is available by prescription only. I am the ultimate skeptic but had to try the stuff. To my amazement it seems to be effective. After the few initial uses my heart rate increased but by now there are no side effects. Pain signals are blocked quite successfully as the  treated area (with the gel) becomes numb. Best medicines have always come from nature!

I have definitely lived in this country for too long, now that I’m willingly buying snake oil, the butt of jokes. Perhaps there always was some truth to it being effective; it was the doctors who wanted to stay in business and purposely gave it a bad reputation. Another ridiculed saying, being able to sell ice cream to the Eskimos, is probably equally twisted. Why wouldn’t they enjoy it as much as you and I?
illustration by talvi