"Come here, quick! A snake!"
My daughter Annika was playing outside with the dogs when she spotted a black snake lying leisurely in the grass between our small wooden deck and the garden wall. Its head was hidden inside a bush, so all we could see was its tail and mid-torso, which was swollen and writhing. Obviously it was digesting freshly-swallowed prey. I ran inside to grab my trusty reptile identification book while my wife phoned the local police station. We're all too timid to challenge a snake; let the professional snake catcher come and take it away.
Trouble is, we were told by the officers who arrived minutes later, the Hong Kong Police's professional snake catcher is, inexplicably, based in the city, in Sai Wan district, which is about as far away as you can get from any of Hong Kong's rural districts where snakes commonly encounter humans. He needed to drive twenty minutes to the pier, catch whatever was the next public ferry, then walk to our house. It would be two hours before he arrived. Meanwhile, the two policemen would stand there and keep an eye on our visitor.
Based on the markings on its torso and tail, I identified it positively as a Wolf Snake, non-venomous but aggressive when caught. Probably it was best to chase it out of the garden and let it disappear into the surrounding fields.
We watched it for ten minutes while it lay there digesting, its stomach churning and twisting. At last it started to crawl away. Then it took a sharp right turn and headed into the hollow gap beneath the deck, which was the last place we wanted it to go.
My wife grabbed an umbrella and pounded on the wood. The frightened reptile pulled out and did a U-turn across the top of the deck. But we wanted it to head in the other direction, toward an opening in the stone wall. Cathy kept pounding. We weren't worried about some harmless non-poisonous snake. But we wanted it out of there.
Outside the garden a small crowd of passersby watched the action. Someone shouted out, "Need some help?"
When there's a snake around, it isn't surprising to find a local Chinese villager eager to assist, in return for taking away the bounty to make soup. But this voice--I still couldn't see who it was--sounded American.
"We've got a snake here," I said.
"No problem," the man replied. "I'll catch it for you. Do you know what it is?"
"A wolf snake."
"They're no trouble," he said.
I led him and his friend in through the gate and pointed across the deck. They were both Caucasians.
"That's not a wolf snake! That's a cobra!!"
A chill ran through me. Moments before we had been calmly moving furniture out of the way, and Cathy had been scaring it with the umbrella, just a step away from an aggressive, venomous species.
"You got any tools?" he asked. "A spade? Some garden shears?"
Cathy fetched them, and he and his friend went to work. Fortunately, the cobra had just eaten, making it less of a threat. He stood over the snake and, aiming the spade like a spear, pinned it down. His friend leaned over with the shears and snipped its head off.
"Thank you, Lord," the first guy whispered.
He introduced himself as Edward. I've encountered him once or twice in the area. He lives in another village and has caught numerous snakes on his property. His friend Craig was visiting from another part of Hong Kong. Craig is from the bayous of Louisiana and said he's caught more snakes than he can count.
"If they're non-venomous, I just want to chase them away," Edward explained. "Otherwise I pray first. If I get a message back that I have power over this snake, then I do what has to be done."
The police left, relieved. I picked up my snake book again and saw the mistake I'd made in identification. Wolf snakes are tiny and have different markings. This one was four feet long.
I don't believe in arbitrarily killing one of God's creatures. But perhaps it wasn't arbitrary that Edward and his friend just happened to pass our way at just that moment when we were noisily drawing attention to a snake which we thought harmless. He prayed for power over it, and received it. You can't argue with that.