Rescuer or tormentor? Social media furiously debates snake catcher Vava Suresh

A popular snake catcher in Kerala was bitten by a cobra on January 31, while he was trying to ‘rescue’ it. The incident has sparked a debate on the scientific method of snake catching.
Kerala snake catcher Vava Suresh
Kerala snake catcher Vava Suresh
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Popular snake catcher from Kerala, Vava Suresh is out of danger but is in a critical condition at Kottayam Medical College Hospital, where he was admitted after being bitten by a snake on January 31. Suresh was trying to catch a cobra at a house in Kurichy village near Changanassery in Kottayam district, when he was bitten by it. A viral video of the incident shows Suresh trying to place the cobra inside a gunny bag as he is holding it upside down by its tail. To the utter shock of the surrounding crowd, the snake suddenly bites him on his right thigh. Suresh was later taken to the hospital after he fell unconscious and in a critical condition. The video has sparked a severe debate pertaining to the right method of catching a snake. Before diving into that, let’s see who Vava Suresh is.

Who is Vava Suresh?

Vava Suresh is a popular snake catcher from Kerala credited with catching more than 38,000 snakes and has received 3,000 odd bites. He is also called the ‘Snake man of Kerala’ by some people and is said to have rescued more than 190 king cobras. He was even featured in National Geographic and Animal Planet channels. He was so popular at one time that he had a dedicated mobile app named ‘King Cobra’ for people to contact him. He even has his own TV show called ‘Snake Master’ on a Malayalam channel.

Suresh has been catching snakes as a social service rather than a profession. In his journey as a snake catcher, Suresh has lost his index finger and movement in his right wrist due to snake bites. In February 2020, he battled for his life on a ventilator for days after a viper bit him.

In an earlier interview to The News Minute, forty-year-old Suresh had said that he first caught a snake when he was only twelve. That too a cobra! “I was walking to my school when I saw a snake. My instinct was to catch it and put it away from the road. I never thought that would become my profession,” Suresh had said back then.

What happened on January 31?

Forty-seven-year old Vava Suresh was called to rescue a cobra, and he was bitten by the snake when he tried to put the snake inside a gunny bag. As soon as he was bitten, he let go of the snake, which crawled underneath a stone nearby. Suresh, then caught the snake again and put it inside the bag, before being taken to the hospital. The cobra was then handed over to forest department officials. In the video that stopped as soon as he let go of the snake, people were seen scrambling and running fearing for their lives.

He was rushed to a private hospital in an unconscious state and later moved to the Government Medical College Hospital in Kottayam in a critical condition, where he was on a ventilator. Kerala Health Minister Veena George assured free medical care for Suresh.

What is the debate about?

Soon after the incident came to light, it sparked a three-sided debate in the public sphere, especially in social media. One was on the scientific method of snake catching and Vava Suresh’s method; the second on whether it was the right time to raise questions since he was fighting for his life and the third was from Vava Suresh’s fan club who supported his actions.

‘Scientific method is about safety’

According to Deputy Director of Forest Training Institute in Arippa, Thiruvananthapuram Muhammad Anwar, “The scientific method of snake catching concerns safety of the person catching the snake, the snake and those in the immediate surroundings,” he says.

“If a person, without this knowledge, tries to catch a snake, three things happen. One is that his life will be in danger if it is a poisonous snake; two is that if one tries to catch snakes without understanding its biology or body, the snake will be in danger. Even if we free such a caught snake, it will not survive. Three is, if the snake escapes somehow, there is a danger to those living in the surroundings,” explains Anwar.

He says the Kerala forest department recommends the ‘bag and pipe method’, where a pipe is fixed to the mouth of a dark bag and kept in a corner of a building. “Snakes don't crawl in open spaces, but will tend to move towards corners. As far as snakes are concerned, if it sees a natural hideout it will get inside. It is a snake's natural instinct. We make use of this instinct. We use a hook to guide it towards the hideout,” he explains and adds that it was the method followed by renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker.

What happens to a snake if it is caught in the wrong manner?

“Snakes are normally caught in the head or the neck so that it doesn't turn and bite us. Humans can stand straight bearing all the weight because we have such a strong backbone. But a snake can only lift its head to 1/4th of its total body length; that is how weak its backbone is. So, even if the snake’s tail is pulled in the opposite direction to that of its movement, the bones might dislocate or break. If it is caught using its head strongly, there are chances that the bone might get injured. Even if other bones along its body break, the internal organs will get damaged resulting in internal bleeding and it might die. Also, if damage is inflicted on its neck, a snake can never eat. Even if it is let inside the forest, it will starve to death,” Anwar said, speaking about the sensitivity with which a snake must be handled.

What is the right time for this discussion?

This is not the first time the discussion around snake catching and Vava Suresh’s practices is taking place in the public sphere. Suresh is well aware of the Forest Department’s practices and has responded to questions of the same in several interviews. On one such occasion, he is said to have asked, “Why should I, a person with 25-30 years experience get a license? Why should I stand before these ‘small kids’ and catch snakes and get a license?”  Despite enduring several snake bites and life-threatening conditions, Vava Suresh has refused to comply with the forest department guidelines.

Kerala High Court advocate Harish Vasudevan, in a Facebook post, asked whether a good vehicle driver is the one who has the least number of accidents and follows road safety measures or one who would play around while driving a car. He has also said, “Vava Suresh should either learn to do his job properly or stop doing it. The government should stop him from doing it”.

On the other hand, there is also growing support for Vava Suresh. Author and social critic VS Anilkumar in The Political Editor,  says, ‘a thousand correct things will not be negated by a single mistake’. He questions how many scientific mountaineers have been in great danger and how many world champions killed in car racing? “I have read that it is not your fault; but it is your accident,'' he says. Meanwhile, there are also voices suggesting he be counselled or at the very least receive formal training and protective gear.

What are conservationists’ thoughts?

Vijay Neelakantan, a nature conservationist and wildlife photographer from Kannur district, had told TNM that conservationists like him ‘strongly believe that snakes are not to be caught or sent to forests.’

“We’re removing them from their natural habitat and leaving them somewhere else. How will they be able to adjust? There can be many adverse factors there due to which they can’t survive. Snakes should be rescued and released within a kilometre so that they don’t lose their habitat. That is where they live, where they know the water and food sources,” Vijay points out. KTS Pannyal, another conservationist from Kasaragod says that temperature, humidity and other animals that prey on snakes can all be adverse factors. “Take the case of vipers… they live in dry areas. So how can they survive if we release them in a forest?” he asks.

Inquiry into Vava Suresh’s hospital clips

The latest development in Vava Suresh’s health is that he is stable and is taken off ventilator support on Thursday, February 3, after he showed signs of improvement. According to IANS, doctors attending him said that the decision to remove life support was taken on Thursday morning following which he was breathing comfortably. On Wednesday night, he opened his eyes and responded to questions asked by the medical professionals, they said. Even though he was breathing on his own, the decision to move him out of the ICU would be taken after observing him closely for another 48 hours.

Meanwhile, video clips of him in a hospital on ventilator support have been circulating in social media, which again caused an outrage where people questioned about the violation of privacy of the patient.

Soon after this, Health Minister Veena George ordered an inquiry into the issue and sought a report from the medical college superintendent on the incident.

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