Tony Davis didn’t always like snakes.
“I was petrified of them before. Dad was always scared of snakes, so we were never around snakes and it just sort of stuck that he was scared of them, so I stayed scared too,” Tony explained.
“But when Dad died, I got on my own path and decided I wanted one.”
You could say Tony had a sort of mid-life crisis, or even awakening, when his fear of snakes was replaced by a fascination for reptiles at the age of 50.
“I was interested in turtles and lizards at school and we went down to a pet shop when we moved to Wagga from Tumut, and got talking to the owner of the pet shop and I finished ‘round at his place that night, saw his snakes and decided that I wanted one, and it just started from there,” Tony said.
Everything changed when Tony was bitten by a pet Taipan on 17 April 2010.
“When I was killed by the Taipan I had 95 snakes. Now I’ve got 45 snakes.
“I was just taking it out of the cage to clean the cage out and he slipped off, and bit me. I felt him hit me, but I thought it was his tail, not his head, as it was quick.
“But when I went to pick him up again I saw blood coming out of my finger where he’d hit me, I thought, well it couldn’t have been his tail that him me, it must have been the other end. It was Saturday at 11.40am that I got bitten, it was 11.50am that I was in hospital, and I was dead at 1.30pm.”
Tony Davis loves telling this story, which is anything but a tall tale.
“It was the antivenom (also known as antivenin) that actually killed me, they said.
“There’s a professor in Newcastle doing research on it and a report 18 months ago proves beyond doubt that antivenom used in spider bites and snake bites is more dangerous than the actual venom,” Tony explained.
“The local hospital didn’t have Taipan antivenom so they used poly antivenom, which covers eight highly venomous snakes. So being originally bitten by the Taipan, I was bitten again by a taipan, a brown snake, a black snake, a death adder, mulga snake, and the body couldn’t take it. So that was the end of it,” Tony said.
“I spent three-and-a-half weeks in Canberra Hospital and had six goes of dialysis, then came back to Wagga for another three weeks and they told me that I might get over it one day, or I may never get over it, and coming up to eight-years later I’m still suffering from it now.
“In this hot weather, come lunchtime I’m very lethargic, ‘cause it’s destroyed my kidneys, liver and lungs, but I still play with them and I still enjoy it. I’m just a little bit more cautious,” he said.
Tony is so tough you’d think he’d drop a few spoonfuls of cement in his morning coffee, but he’s really not too keen on the caffeine.
“I don’t drink coffee. I have some juice and a few Weetbix and then come down and clean the cages out, get the food ready for the snakes.”
Tony’s 45 snakes include 15 which are the highly venomous varieties, including eastern brown, western brown, red belly blacks and mulga snakes. The most dangerous like to hide under newspaper which makes cleaning out the cages interesting to say the least.
“They eat mainly rats and mice, and I buy all my rats and mice from Queensland. They’re cryovaced frozen and I take them out and thaw them back to body temperature.
“I don’t feed them and clean their cages on the same day.”
Tony chatted away in this interview as a large diamond python coiled around his neck, slowly hissing and constricting its muscles in a wave-like motion as it glided over Tony’s face, torso and hair. It was a little mesmerising and totally distracting to be so close, especially when the snake started to arc out in curiosity towards Tony’s interviewer, prompting a few heart palpitations.
When asked, Tony admitted the snake was getting a little tight around his neck at times.
Tony says he and his wife Marg are thinking of calling their new pet ‘Ticky’ after they pulled several ticks out of the snake’s smooth diamond-patterned skin. Marg thinks the snake is a female, but neither she, nor Tony, are overly keen to check, a manoeuvre which requires a probe to be inserted at the base of its tail, which, not surprisingly, sparks an unwelcome reaction.
Summer is the height of snake season and Tony is one of the most in-demand tradesmen in the Riverina.
“I was out answering a call at 9.30 last night. A lot of people think that I come out for free, but unfortunately it’s not,” Tony said.
The cost of snake-retrieval is anywhere from $80 to $1000 for hard-to-reach catches and travel costs.
“Sometimes when I mention that there’s a snake-catch fee, they change their minds and do the wrong thing and say, ‘Oh, we will take care of it ourselves’, which usually means they’re going to kill it,” he said.
Snakes are a protected species and killing them is illegal and can attract thousands of dollars in fines, and even a jail sentence.
“I travel to Deniliquin, Yass, Griffith and even this week to Tootool out past The Rock. I get about four or five calls a day.
“I’m not a snake finder, so those who call me out have to show me where the snake is. It’s a bit different in a house where it can be contained if they keep the doors closed,” he explained.
This week Tony was called out to the Juvenile Detention Centre after a snake was found in the exercise yard.
This Summer has been particularly busy, and, like a fire fighter answering an alarm, Tony immediately responds due to the nature of snakes, armed with a snake hook, pinner and bag, and over-sized tweezers.
“Quite often I’m sitting down to dinner and the ‘phone rings so Marg puts the tea in the oven or the microwave until I get back,” Tony said.
Licence conditions stipulate snakes have to be released within 20 kilometres of being found. Tony often takes the snakes to Pomingalarna Reserve which is popular for bike riders, horse riders and bush walkers.
“The riders don’t really like me, but the snakes usually disperse. I don’t really have a lot of options.”
Tony says if you come across a snake, don’t move, even if it comes towards you.
“If you stay still it won’t look at you as a threat, and will move away,” Tony explained.
“They’re fascinating, I feed them every week to 10 days and I watch every one of my snakes eat. It’s amazing as they eat things three or four times their size. It’s like watching a human eat a whole watermelon. A lot of people think they’re slimy, but they are nice and smooth to touch. But they’re a wild animal so you have to respect them,” he said
Tony may not be afraid of snakes or spiders and heights, but there is one thing that makes him nervous.
“I’m not real keen on the open water. The thought of a shark in the water. You can get away from a snake on land, but you can’t really get away from a shark,” Tony said.
For this Wagga Weekly interviewer journalist, visiting Tony and his menagerie is an experience in itself and when he brought out ‘Ticky’ the curious diamond python with its wriggles and hisses, the said interviewer was more than happy to give him, and the snake, as wide a berth as possible.
Despite the initial trepidation, the non-venomous python was mesmerising, and as Tony talked about the amazing qualities of this often misunderstood reptile, the less frightening it became.
Then it happened. The diamond python quickly slithered onto an out-stretched (if somewhat timid) hand and up one arm. The reptile hissed and shot out its forked tongue as it moved towards the neck and up over the face and hair, while the hapless journalist tried her best imitation of a tree.
As the encounter progressed, however, a lifetime of indoctrinated fear tore away in favour of amazement and respect.
Perhaps diamonds really are a girl’s best friend.