Snake City – Catching Cobras on Camera

You’ve likely seen the snake-catching duo, Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett, in their hit Nat Geo Wild TV show Snake City. The show follows the couple catching snakes in human-inhabited areas of South Africa before releasing them safely into the wild. We caught up with them to find out what life in front of the camera is really like.

There seems to be a lot of excited hype in the show? Why is that?
Of course it’s hyped up. It has to be. It’s reality television. When you’re appealing to a mainstream audience they want to see us in dangerous situations. They want tension and drama, so we make sure they get that when we’re catching snakes. It wouldn’t be a very interesting show if we just strolled in casually and chatted calmly before easily scooping up the snake with no drama. Also, during the 4-month filming period, we capture close to 100 snakes. However, for a six-episode season, only 30 of those captures will actually make it to TV. Only the captures with the most viewing appeal and the greatest elements of danger make it – those captures which can make the most of any element of danger, where we are telling the audience just how dangerous the situation is, what could go wrong and why they should keep watching because anything could happen!

Snake City is a show designed to entertain and educate. But snake specialists aren’t necessarily the intended audience so we are not surprised when the reptile keepers and handlers who watch our show aren’t turned on to what we’re doing. I’m sure they’d prefer a more scientific and less exciting type of show, but that’s not what Snake City is. Sorry folks. That’s not what we do.

Is the show staged?
Every call we get is genuine and we never know what we’re going to find when we get there. We should also point out that only the best and most exciting footage is aired in the show. There’s a lot of really boring, routine footage that never makes it to air. I guess that might make it seem as if it’s all high tension and drama too.

Saying that, we do reshoot things we missed the first time, things like the greeting when we arrive at a scene or the bit where we put the captured snake in a bag or when we catch it with tongs. Reality filming is hectic – particularly when filming venomous snakes, so there are times when the cameraman misses one or two moments. If we didn’t get good shots the first time round we reshoot those scenes again afterwards. I always say that there’s only one thing that’s fake in Snake City and that’s my hair colour.

You seem to get criticised from your handling methods sometimes. Do you think that’s fair?
That is a little bit annoying sometimes. We find that much of the criticism comes from people who are used to handling venomous snakes in a well-designed snake room with no obstacles or obstructions. There aren’t any screaming onlookers and they don’t have a camera crew begging for more appealing angles. They don’t have to dig behind fridges or under beds, and there are no snakes hanging above their heads in trees or three-feet-deep in a bush. Oh, and their snakes are probably captive-bred and handled regularly, whereas the ones we catch are wild, usually stressed out and ready to bite. Pretty much everything you learned about handling venomous snakes in captivity goes straight out of the window.

We also get criticised for using tongs. I have no reservations about using tongs with mambas, especially in the wild and chaotic conditions we work in. Without tongs we’d be putting ourselves and the people around us in danger. Using tongs is the only safe way and it’s not cruel if you know how to use them correctly. It might be possible to get away without using tongs sometimes, but we would only get away with it for so long before we were bitten. Most of our catches are reactionary and it’s very different to the pre-meditated process you can do in captivity. It makes tongs a must-have tool.

You mentioned working with film crews made things interesting. How so?
The most obvious issue is the need to have cameras on the hooks and tongs we use. The cameras get in the way, they get caught on things, they change the balance of the hook you’re using and sometimes the snakes use the cameras as leverage to get up the hook towards us. We spoke to the production company about the problems the cameras were causing and they replied to say that the shots we get from those cameras on the tongs are a vital part of ensuring we have as many awesome angles as possible during the actual moment we catch the snake – so we’ve had to get used to using the hooks with cameras and do our best to work around the problems.

The other consideration is the ‘bums and backs of heads’ problem. The camera crew are always telling us we need to face the camera more, but that’s not always possible. I’d rather be watching the snake than smiling at the camera. We do our best to face front but our viewers will probably recognise our backsides more than they recognise our faces!

What do you think is the purpose of Snake City?
Nat Geo Wild as a channel is focussed on conservation and education, and this show is an ideal tool to bring education through entertainment. So, yes, it’s about entertainment, but there’s more to it than that. It sounds a bit grand to say that we save lives, but that really is what we do. Obviously we usually save the lives of the snakes we capture, because if we weren’t doing what we do that snake would probably be killed. We are also saving the lives of snakes all over Africa and all over the world. By putting these animals on TV we can raise awareness and understanding for these creatures to millions of worldwide viewers. We get lots of fan mail, much of it saying ‘I used to hate snakes and would kill them, but now that’s changed because of your show’. In a country like South Africa where killing snakes is the norm, we’re getting emails from people who have caught and removed non-venomous snakes because they knew they were harmless and didn’t want them to be killed by other people. They often have to catch the snakes in secret and not tell their family because they just wouldn’t understand and would want to kill the snake.

The show is about raising awareness. Traditionally in South Africa, most people would kill a snake on sight. They’re feared and considered a bad omen by many people regardless of whether the snake is venomous or not. Before they saw our show lots of people would put themselves in danger by trying to catch or kill a snake they find in the wild. We’re teaching them that the safest thing to do is to leave it alone and let it go on its way unharmed, and to call a snake catcher if the animal is causing a problem in the home. It’s safer for all concerned.

How did the show come about?
I’d moved to South Africa with my then wife and got involved with catching snakes because of my experience of keeping venomous reptiles in the UK. I didn’t know when I first arrived in South Africa that there are snake catchers in pretty much every residential area of the country. Catchers have their own patch and we don’t infringe on any other catcher’s turf.

By coincidence there was a filmmaker who lived close by and he found out what I did for a living. He suggested we produce some pilot shows, following me on a call-out to record the drama of snake catching. Months went by and I heard nothing, so I’d almost given up on the idea of being a TV star.

In the meantime, one of the staff at the production company had left to work elsewhere and raised the idea of the show with his new employer. The company asked me to come in to chat with them about a show, but I was busy and quite disillusioned with the whole TV thing so I told them I’d try to pop in next time I was in the town where they were based. But they kept calling, so I made a special journey to see them. I was part way through explaining what I did when my phone rang with a snake-catching job. “Grab a camera!” I said. It was a Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica) in someone’s garden, so the crew followed me and filmed the event. They sold the idea to Nat Geo and the rest is history. Now we’re on our fifth season and the show is broadcast in 177 different countries.

Have you ever been bitten by anything venomous?
Simon: Not on the show, but I have been bitten by Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) twice. One bite occurred in South Africa and there was no easily available antivenom to be had, so I had to sit it out. Soon I was vomiting and sweating and it was very painful, like my arm was on fire. I had to sit with my arm in a bucket of ice. I didn’t sleep for three days, the pain was that bad. I think I’m lucky to still have all of my fingers.
Siouxsie: I was bitten by a Night Adder (Causus rhombeatus) which caused by arm and the lymph nodes in my armpit to swell up. It was quite painful and throbbed for about a week. Also, during one show while on camera, I had Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica) venom sprayed in my eye which, since I’m allergic, caused an extreme reaction. Even if I just get it on my skin it causes swelling. Not nice.

Siouxsie, is it true that you have a connection with Peregrine?
Yes, I worked there for a while in 2017 and Sally in the Livestock Department is my best friend. We originally worked together at Paradise Wildlife Park and hit it off straight away. I’m afraid you’ll have to edit any of the stories Sally tells you about me. None of it is publishable.

Has life changed much now you’re famous?
Not that much really. We do get recognised quite often so we’re always aware that there may be fans around. We get lots of fan mail and, although we have a team to answer much of it, we still make the effort to respond personally to as many of them as we can. To be honest, interacting with fans is the biggest part of the job. For instance, we regularly do Facebook Live broadcasts and go to events promoting the show. It’s a lot of work behind the scenes that people might not be aware of.

Snake City affects our lives when we’re not filming in many ways. For instance, we can’t have any other type of work because we never know when we’ll be shooting off to South Africa to begin filming. Sometimes we only get a couple of weeks’ notice, so we can’t have massive collections of animals like we used to. I used to care for lots of animals that I had rescued, and I just can’t do that anymore, which is a shame. I wouldn’t swap it though. We’re really lucky to have a job that pays us well to do what we enjoy. It’s a bit surreal sometimes.

Editor’s note
I met with Simon and Siouxsie as they were filming a piece for Nat Geo Wild on Facebook Live. On display there was a Mangrove Viper (Cryptelytrops purpureomaculatus) and a Brazilian Rainbow Boa, with Simon and Siouxsie explaining to viewers about the taxonomy and care of these animals.

The first thing that struck me about the couple was how welcoming and friendly they are. It’s nice to see that their on-screen persona doesn’t change when they meet people in real life. But the real take-away from the time I spent with Simon and Siouxsie was how knowledgeable and compassionate they are about the animals they work with.

For the purposes of this article it was important to cover the most interesting talking points that readers might be interested in. However, the editing of the piece meant it was difficult to express Siouxsie and Simon’s evident love for reptiles. Despite adding some amount of manageable risk to themselves in their efforts to make the show entertaining, they commonly advise their film crew about what is and isn’t possible in terms of safeguarding the welfare of the animals they encounter. It’s important to them, and that was apparent throughout the whole interview.

Both Siouxsie and Simon have spent a great deal of time and money rescuing animals too, amassing large collections of reptiles which needed care that nobody else was giving them at the time. Indeed, Siouxsie is still involved with a reptile sanctuary in the UK when she’s not filming Snake City. If you only watch the show or read what is being said online it would be easy to come away without understanding how compassionate and caring the couple are. It’s reassuring to see that as well as being consummate professionals, they’re also thoroughly nice people who care deeply about animals.

Snake City – Catching Cobras on Camera

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