Lawyers and snakes

Some background

For more than 13 years, I practised law at a firm in Wilmington, Delaware, in the United States.  I made a 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 travelling 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—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 [email protected], and past newsletters are on my website:

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.


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 favourites.

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 defence, egg-eaters primarily rely on their mimicry of two snakes: the black mamba and the night adder.  The inside of an eggbeater’s mouth is black, like the mamba; their typical defence 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 colouration 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.

All of this is highly relevant when you’re awakened in your tent at 10 pm 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 was 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!

About the Author:
Annemi Zaaiman

Annemi Zaaiman

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