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Free handling refers to the practice of handling highly venomous snakes with your bare hands. The snake is easily in striking distance and the free handler has to judge the snakes temperament and actions to avoid a bite. Often if one is calm with the snake and does not restrict its movement, the snake may be reluctant to bite. However, these animals are still unpredictable and at any moment the situation can turn bad.
When and why do people free handle snakes? It has become somewhat of a cult movement amongst a few snake handlers and there is never a good time to do so. It is largely and ego thing – or a quick adrenalin fix – picking up a freshly caught Cape Cobra with your bare hands and letting it hood in front of your face and you are the hero amongst those around you, provided you are not bitten. Needless to say, several free handlers do get bitten.
A number of free handlers claim that using their hands – and not snake handling equipment on the snake, is less stressful on the animal. But having seen a number of videos of free handlers taunting the snakes for a response – for photo or video purposes, it’s obviously hugely stressful on the animal.
We do not have an issue with free handling, provided that it is not shared on social media where impressionable youngsters might be tempted to copy what they are seeing.
Another consideration is the cost of a snakebite, especially now that we are experiencing a severe shortage of antivenom. An average snakebite from a highly venomous snake where the victim spends a day or two in an intensive care unit easily costs in excess of R100,000 to treat. In cases where patients require surgery, the bill could exceed R1M. Most free handlers do not have medical insurance and rely on free treatment in a state hospital. This is a waste of resources and taxpayers’ money. Additionally, no medical aid would pay out for a bite where the patient was known to have risked a bite due to negligence such as free handling.
For the above reasons we do not allow any free handling photographs or videos on our social media pages, nor do we condone such practices at our training sessions.