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Zuzu Irwin’s Ophidiophobia

An image of my nanny, the snake charmer and three-year-old Zuzu, 1982, Sri Lanka. The backdrop is my current porch and the shrub in which a snake was chasing lizards today, 2012.

I was 3 years old, taking a nap with my dad. I awoke to see a monstrous black creature slithering along the floor by the bed. I crawled to the edge of the mattress, watching the snake’s sinuous movements with a detached terror. The thing curled up under my parent’s bureau. I woke my dad, who proceeded to kill it with one of his golf clubs. The smashed black body was almost as tall as my father when he carried the carcass from the room.

As it turned out, that snake was one of many that were being thrown into our yard by our landlord, hoping my parents would break our lease.

Welcome to the wild world, Zuzu Irwin!

Growing up in Asia and Africa, poisonous snakes were a normal part of my life, creeping in and out of my day-to-day existence. My ophidiophobia was ingrained from as early as I can remember.

These are the rules:

  1. You never walk into a dark room.
  2. You never put your hand in a drawer or cupboard without looking in first.
  3. You never traipse through bushes or trees.
  4. You remain ever vigilant.
  5. If all else fails, here is the number for the British Medical Centre — they have antivenom ready on call.

Once in Sri Lanka, early 1990s, at the beach, our hotel organised a night with a snake charmer. My mum insisted that we go, for the “cultural experience”. Always a great crumbler to peer pressure, or pressure of any kind, I agreed to be draped with a huge boa constrictor. The snake’s speckled yellow body, cool and slimy against my skin, writhed over me. The charmer’s other wards crawled around the floor.

As was common in Bentota Beach, the power went out.

In the darkness, I felt the snake tighten. After an eternity, or moment, the power returned. Everyone, shaken, eyes wide, trembly, politely found a way to leave the room.

The charmer removed the scaly boa from my shoulders. I wanted to vomit. Recalling that moment, I still do.

The next day, I had a horrible red, itchy, pus-filled rash on every part of my skin that the snake had touched. Shoulders, arms, leg.

Years later, New Delhi, India. We moved from our downtown Vasant Vihar home to out to a sprawling property outside the city. The place was cheaper than living in the city, had acres of land around it, a pool and a beautiful 4-bedroom house. A gorgeous place, but too good to be true.

What the owner failed to tell us was that a family of kraits, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, had a nest in the fancy and eco-friendly water cooling system that would have been a great substitute for air conditioning in the hot and sticky Delhi heat.

One day, my dad was coming out of the play room, which also substituted for his exercise room, early in the morning. As he tried to close the door, it wouldn’t shut all the way. He yanked and yanked. Nothing. Looked on the floor to see if a toy was blocking closure. Nothing. He looked up: A long black snake was dangling from the air vent, its back broken. That was the first of the kraits.

My dog Cubby found the next one, a baby krait, who tried to climb into an electrical socket only to be fried to a crisp.

Like in a horror movie, kraits were literally crawling into our bedrooms and dropping to the floor from the air vents above.

The beautiful water cooling system was boarded up and more than a dozen kraits were found and killed. But that did nothing to stop the recurring nightmares I would have about snakes, snakes, and more snakes crawling through the central vents and swarming my room and the house. To this day I still have those nightmares.

But the kraits were only the beginning. During the four years we lived in that house at Shakuntala Farms we had multiple encounters with cobras, vipers, boa constrictors, pythons, more cobras and more kraits.

We had a lovely pool, but it was far from relaxing to sit out there, keeping half a brain peeled for inevitable reptilian movement in the bushes.

The British medical centre in Delhi had a dozen kinds of anti-venom in their fridge in case one of us got bitten. My mother put snakes stones in each room as a first response. Snake stones are a porous rock that has the ability to draw out snake poison from a wound, in theory. Each week we would be quizzed on what to do if we see a snake and God forbid, if we were bitten.

You’re probably wondering why we hadn’t left that house altogether: The snake threat was ever-present, but not necessarily a daily occurrence. Sometimes we’d go for months without a sighting. Yes, those were probably the winter months. We all, quite simply, hoped for the best.

One night I was home alone with my sisters, babysitting as usual, and our dogs were acting really funny about a corner of the room near the kitchen. Whimpering. Whining. Vigilant, but keeping their distance. Tres bizarre for our Barky McBarkersons. That night, my mother, who was on a field trip, had a dream that there was another snake in the house. The next day, in that corner, we found a huge black python curled up asleep. The dogs knew it was there but even they were too scared to bark.

Shortly after that close encounter I went off to university and my family moved back into New Delhi proper. My mom couldn’t take the snake threat anymore, so convinced was she that someone would get bitten by the neverending slew of creatures.

My first day at university, 1997, meeting my dorm mates one of them whispers to me, “I’ll show you a secret.” I’m like, cool, no problem. Half of his room is a huge tank with a boa constrictor, same colour as the one I held all those years before, but three times the size. I screamed. A proper balls-out, bloody murder kind of scream. “SHHHHHH!” Everyone said, as they laughed at my reaction. “Pets aren’t allowed!”

Even in America I couldn’t escape snakes, and I thanked Ganesh that the fellow with the protean boa did not live on my floor.

Between classes, my friends and I would sit and smoke cigarettes on the patio of the campus’s cafe. Wendy decided she was going to do one of those personality tests that ran rampant in the late 1990s. In this one you had to draw a picture with a house, a lake, a tree, some other things and finally a snake. After we all drew our images she would interpret them for us.

I agonized over the snake. First I drew no snake, explaining that it was hidden behind the tree, as many of the snakes in my life had been, a secret and deadly threat. Then I changed my mind and drew the snake as a frame for my picture, seeing that snakes had been an ongoing and pervasive force of terror throughout my life.

When the time for interpretation came, apparently the snake was representative of one’s sexuality, inspiring a great deal of mirth in my friends and a great deal of confusion in me. I started to understand that for some people snakes are not a part of reality, they are members of a world far removed from the one people inhabit and thus serve only in a metaphoric function.

I felt so sad at the huge gulf between my experiences as a Third Culture Kid and these all-American kids, and I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be one of them.

Then I “met” the Chicana feminist philosopher Gloria Andalzua, whose essay “Entering the Serpent” gave me a wholly different perspective on snakes and was the start of many years of my own monstering: The serpent is the wild feminine that has been eliminated, murdered, and tamed by a genocidal version of Christianity and its colonising project.


For a time I was able to reconceive of my own terror of snakes, my real life experiences with them, and transform that into an empowering narrative. I even went so far as to ask my friend Fester, who would often wear her yellow garden snake around her neck like living jewellery, if I could spend some time with them together. Simon was harmless, tame and unable to bite. We sat together on the lawn, I watched him watch me, I would gasp with fear every time he looked my way and he, sensing my discomfort did not come near me. Warily, we’d meet eyes and I was able to see what Andalzua spoke of, the ancient wisdom in his countenance, his ancestors the dinosaurs, his history that was intrinsically tied with mine. However, I could not bring myself to hold him or touch him.

Years later, my Navajo sister-from-another-mother told me that their respect of a snake’s power is so strong that they have dozens of regulations with regards to seeing, touching, even thinking or talking about a snake. In fact, I wish I knew some of those rituals to cleanse myself after writing this post!

For me, Snake Medicine has come to signify respect. Respect for nature, respect for each animal or person in their own place. Snakes are powerful creatures who do not belong in terrariums or as pets. If they are given the freedom to exist on their own terms, we have nothing to fear. As humans continue continue to alter the natural world to suit its whims, snakes will teach us respect as they in turn make our human existence less secure, like here in Florida where non-indigenous snakes now outnumber their indigenous counterparts, upsetting the balance of both flora and fauna.

And oh the irony. For the first time since all the terrors in India, I’ve already had two snake sightings in the backyard during this year in Florida. Apparently they were harmless, but not to my psyche.

Where and how have snakes fit into your life?

©2012 Sezin Koehler, Photo by Zuzu Arbus

2 thoughts on “Zuzu Irwin’s Ophidiophobia

  1. You bring back many memories….there are some details in the above I would tweek….if you would like. Of course the farmhouse was the most extreme.
    My times were the day we thought it was over and then as I sat sunbathing the huge green pit viper that appeared behind me, mouth open coming straight for my chair….but chasing a huge frog. not me. And the day the krait and I had a swim together! And poor Molly. Kraits in the night over Vishnu’s family. The snake charmer and the king cobra that came out of the bushes. The neighbor workman who died while rolling over a cobra in his sleep. Kraits dangling in the bouganvilla by the window. Over 100 experiences in India; many also in Colombo. The last one I had there was the dogs playing with a tiny creeping thing, to see it was a baby snake. The cook and I were terrified as we unrolled all the carpets….not sure what would be inside. Nothing. So the mother had to be in the pantry….and sure enough there was the mother cobra. Oh well, I could go on and on and on and on……I see this as being lucky….we all survived!

    1. Mummy, yes, I remember all those times, too! Way too many close calls. And the time when there was a cobra in the bush and it was one of our birthday parties or a school party. And how Cubby would run off into the garden and the field and we’d frantically scream at her to come back. And the times that the snakes came over the wall, I think those were pit vipers, and Khanna killed them with a tree branch. I’m sure there were so many more small encounters, but the big ones really stand out. It was such a shame about that water cooling system, especially since we never got enough power out there to properly run the electricity. It would have been perfect! Thank gods we all survived. I always think of “Poisonwood Bible” and how upset we both were when we finished reading it. Things could have been sooooooo much worse, as Barbara Kingsolver imagined!

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