April 11, 2017

Lawyers and snakes

There is no shortage of stories about lawyers and snakes.  This one, though, is a little different...

Leslie, armed with her snake stick, ready to catch a snake
(Photo by Samantha Davies)

Leslie, armed with her snake stick, ready to catch a snake

Some background

For more than 13 years, I practiced law at a firm in Wilmington, Delaware, in the United States.  I made partner.  My career was going well.  I enjoyed what I did and the people I worked with.  There were lots of intellectual challenges that my brain happily worked through.

But…and there’s always a “but.”  I began noticing—because my friends kept telling me—that I would get really excited talking about volunteering at the zoo and helping people get over their fear of snakes.  People told me that I “lit up” when talking about snakes or other wildlife.  And, since 2008, I had been traveling to various places in Africa for safaris every chance I got.

It took a while—years, actually—before I realized that I would be happier getting into conservation full-time, and believed that I could actually do it.  So, I did! 

My last day at my law firm was March 31, 2016—to the date, exactly one year before I passed my assessment drive in Karongwe and became a field guide.  Although I miss my legal work, and some days I’d prefer not to be hot, sweaty and covered in dust…I made the right decision! 

I chronicle my adventures in a monthly newsletter called Working With My Hippo.  Anyone can sign up by emailing me at leslie@polizoti.com, and past newsletters are on my website: www.workingwithmyhippo.wordpress.com.

Leslie Polizoti in her element
(Photo by Samantha Davies)

Leslie Polizoti in her element

Why EcoTraining’s Field Guide Course?

I love safaris.  For me, they are a time of reflection, and a chance to observe and interact with wildlife in a way I never thought I’d be able to.  The word “wonder” sums it up; per Google, “wonder” is “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” 

So, the minute I learned that foreigners could become field guides, I knew I wanted to be one.  I saw it as a unique opportunity to learn, to understand, and to be immersed in all things wildlife.  Choosing EcoTraining specifically happened in 2014, when I visited Londolozi.  One of the best guides I’ve ever had said he trained with EcoTraining and they were number one.    

Fast forward through a lot of great volunteering experiences last year—which included 3 months learning how to safely catch and care for venomous snakes at Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Kenya—and I finally took EcoTraining’s 55-day Level 1 course in February and March of this year.  Thanks to EcoTraining, I can confirm that immersing oneself in the bush and learning as much as you can…only makes the wildlife more wondrous!

(Photo by Samantha Davies)


My Level 1 course was held at Selati and Karongwe reserves, in the greater Kruger area.  I came prepared with my snake sticks (you can imagine the questions at the airport), and we had some great snake encounters!  The tally includes: an egg-eater, a reticulated centipede eater, a black-headed centipede eater, a boomslang, 2 juvenile southern African pythons, a marbled tree snake, and a Mozambique spitting cobra (the “mfezi”).  The egg-eater was the first snake I caught on the course, and one of my favorites.

Egg-eaters…eat eggs.  (It’s so neat how they do it—I wrote about it in my October 2016 newsletter.)  They are harmless, and don’t even have teeth.  For defense, egg-eaters primarily rely on their mimicry of two snakes: the black mamba and the night adder.  The inside of an egg-eater’s mouth is black, like the mamba; their typical defense is to rub their scales together—which makes a rasping noise, because their scales are textured (called “keeled”)—and strike repeatedly to show off their black mouths.  In addition, they have a pattern and coloration that mimics a more venomous snake, called the night adder.  The night adder has cytotoxic, tissue-destroying venom that—although not usually lethal—causes swelling and pain.  There’s no anti-venom, you just have to power through and treat the symptoms.

Marbled tree snake
(Photo by Leslie Polizoti)

Marbled tree snake

All of this is highly relevant when you’re awakened in your tent at 10pm at night by a shout of “snake!,” you stumble out with your snake sticks, and see a snake that could be the harmless egg-eater or the venomous night adder!

Because none of us were confident that we remembered the differences between the egg-eater or night adder, I caught the snake with my snake tongs as if it were a venomous adder.  We put it in a bucket to get a better look—and confirmed that it was a harmless egg-eater.  You need to look at the snake’s patterns and body shape, carefully—if you have any doubt, treat the snake as venomous.

It was a great experience for folks to get up close and personal with the harmless snake.  After a short time—so as not to stress the snake too much—we released it where we found it!

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