Snakes, spiders and sharks

Snakes, spiders and sharks probably represent the unholy trinity of creatures that new migrants fear the most (notwithstanding those spoof stories about drop bears – and they are spoofs). But what’s the reality of living cheek by jowl with Australia’s deadliest animals, and how much do they actually figure in our everyday lives? In reality, not much.

True, we live in Canberra, which most Aussies will freely tell you is pretty chilly by Aussie standards. That means that compared with, say tropical Queensland, there are far fewer varieties of snake here than there are further north.

In our 14 months here, we’ve only ever seen one snake in the wild, and that was when we were on holiday in Wilsons Promontary National Park – even then, it was only crossing the road that we were driving along, so it doesn’t really count as a close encounter.

Close-up of a snake's head.

Thankfully, this snake was safely behind glass at Canberra Reptile Zoo.

According to the ABC, the Eastern Brown is the most common snake in the Canberra region. It’s highly venomous, but it’s also extremely shy, which is why most snake bites in the ACT seem to affect pets – curious snuffling dogs or territorial cats that don’t have the sense to back off when they see one. Thankfully, Mr Pup hasn’t encountered one either, but we’re very watchful when he’s off the lead, especially in more rural areas, such as his favourite swimming creek.

A dog sits beside a creek.

There are no crocs in Canberra buy keep an eye out for snakes, especially outside of town.

Spiders are a different story altogether however. They are everywhere. When we first moved into our rental house, it had been empty for a few months and it seemed that not a day went by when we weren’t squirting insect killer at some creepy-crawly or other. As a non-native, it’s hard to know which ones are the most dangerous, so we operate a ‘spray first, ask questions later’ policy.

What I do know is that the scariest spiders are probably among the least harmful. The huntsman spider is big by European standards – think tarantula sized. It does bite, but a nip will usually only result in a bit of soreness and swelling. In fact, the huntsman is a pretty good spider to have around because they actually eat the smaller, more dangerous arachnids that you really don’t want to encounter.

That’s all good and rational but, as this chap will testify, big spiders are scary, however harmless you many know them to be. I had a similar experience to the man in the video last week. I went to let the dog out for his late night wee when, as I slid the patio door open, something fell onto my arm. I looked down and flicked it in response, and a huntsman as big as my hand fell to the floor in front of me. Cue much running around for the big can of spider-death chemicals.

Close-up of a spider on a window.

This chap took up residence above our kitchen window and would come out at night to feed on mosquitoes.

As I found, the huntsman spider likes to tuck itself away in little hidey-holes such that it can often catch us unaware, like this one which decided to take up residence under a car door handle. Similar stories abound of them emerging from under toilet rims or falling out from behind car sun visors.

When it comes to sharks, the more observant among you will have noticed that Canberra is not by the sea and, to my knowledge, there are no sharks in Lake Burley Griffin. But on a hot weekend, Canberrans love nothing more than to high-tail it, often in convoy, to the coastal towns of southern New South Wales where, just this week, several holiday resort beaches were closed following sightings of sharks close to shore.

A boy plays on a beach with his dog.

Beaches are a big part of Aussie life, but it pays to be shark aware.

The Aussie media loves a shark story and will often blow the danger out of all proportion. In fact, when it comes to dangerous animals, nothing trumps a shark tale, except perhaps a croc story, but then we don’t have crocodiles this far south.

In truth, very few people are killed by any of these animals and, as long as you use common sense, your chances of them presenting any danger to you is pretty low.

According to statistics, since 2010, snakes have killed one person in New South Wales. In the same period, there have been four fatal shark attacks in the state’s waters. Meanwhile, the last record of a fatal spider bite was in 1979 – largely thanks to the anti-venoms that are now available.

So, if the snakes, spiders and sharks aren’t going to get you, what will? Well, according to an old article in the Sydney Morning Herald, the most common animal-related death is caused by horse-riding, which caused 40 deaths between 2000 and 2006.

A child, about to mount a pony.

Guess which animal is associated with most deaths in Australia.

But even with an avid horse rider in the family, against a population of 23 million, those are pretty small numbers, so there’s no reason to hang up the hat and crop just yet. In fact, none of these numbers add up to anything like the hysteria that is attached to the animal in question and, with a good dose of common sense and a can of insect spray to hand, you should survive a move down under just fine.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Snakes, spiders and sharks

  1. I have trained myself over time to be ‘ok’ with spiders. By ‘OK’ I mean that I will attempt a relocation. This policy applies to everything so far, poisonous or not, although with the huntsman it has only a few chances to play ball. Everything goes in a jar and gets dropped in the ‘bug pot’ – David Attenborough would have a field day in there!

    I last relocated one from just outside the front door (in the ‘could drop on my head zone’), on the end of a broom further into the front yard. But the damn thing had some kind of homing instinct…it just wanted to be near the door. I eventually convinced him to stay away, but by golly we had to have some stern words.

    Snakes…now there’s a different story. Never encountered one in my home territory but I’m forever on alert, especially with a dog as you say. But as you say, more people fall off horses….

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    • Blimey, attempting to relocate everything definitely puts you in David Attenborough territory. We’re firmly in the ‘make it go away right now’ camp. Yes, we’re wary of snakes but I think Canberra’s a slightly different proposition to, say, Queensland. Having said that, our new house backs onto a golf course so we may have to be more vigilant in the future.

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  2. It took a couple of years of regular spraying to clear this rental of redbacks. Now there is only the occasional appearance. For all other spiders, there is one rule: Not Allowed Inside. I tried relocation for a few years, but no more. Its instant death preceded by an apology and a restating of the rule.

    The worst encounter was recently when I was so very tired and work was so very stressful. A huntsman fell from my towel onto my ankle. I have never before squealed so loud or dance so dramatically with such heart-felt emotion. The sight of this spectacle in the bathroom mirror did not help temper the horror. Outcome: I need to buy a new shower screen! Cracked it when I fell over.

    Thankfully, my next encounter was more true to form: brief surprise followed by cucumber cool.

    Enjoyed your post.

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    • I think redbacks have an instinctive awareness of when rental leases change and move in wholesale when the previous residents vacate the premises. ‘Not allowed inside’ is a great rule… do you have a sign at spider level so you can say you warned them? 😉 But yes, it’s the huntsman spiders which, despite all logic, induce a primal response whenever they drop on you. Cue much yelling for the insect spray while simultaneously stamping wildly. I don’t think I’d last five minutes as an outback jackaroo.

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  3. Mark says:

    Love your blog. But you’re in more danger from insecticides sprayed indiscriminately than insects or arachnids. I believe there is only one venomous spider in the Canberra region that is likely to be a danger to humans – the redback – and as as far as I know this species has never been implicated in a human fatality.

    By the way, the first pic above isn’t a snake, it’s a blue-tongued skink (you can see a leg in shadow to the left of the head), which feeds on snails and insects. Thankfully they’re very common in Canberra gardens (saw one yesterday) and are quite comfortable around people (and popular as pets). Grow to around 50 cm in length. The blue tongue is barred to warn off predators such as dogs. Non-venomous and won’t bite unless provoked.

    On the other hand, the eastern brown snake is highly dangerous and can be very aggressive if threatened, but will avoid people if possible. I’ve had a couple move towards me while trying to scare them away (in a large semi-rural garden). By contrast, the black snakes (mainly the red bellied species around Canberra), found mainly found around water where they eat other reptiles and amphibians, while venomous are not considered dangerous.

    On the south coast you’ll often see carpet pythons with the distinctive python head shape and beautiful markings (in contrast to our mundane looking venomous species with heads that seem to be merely an extension of the body).

    I hope you continue to enjoy to enjoy your life in Canberra.

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    • Hi Mark, Thanks for the pointers. I’m absolutely clear that my response to these things is not based on fact, but primal fear. I’m sure you are right about the chemicals but it’s a bit like antiperspirants — much as they’re probably not doing us much good, the alternative is much less palatable!

      Oh, it’s a skink? You’re probably right, I took that shot at the Reptile Zoo in Gold Creek. It looked snake-ish to me but, as with the spiders, to someone who doesn’t know much about this stuff, its appearance is enough to make me back away quietly whatever the realities of actual danger.

      Spiders aside, I think we’ve probably been quite removed from a lot of wildlife by virtue of living in suburbia. Our new house backs onto a golf course so we’ll probably have to be a bit more vigilant in future — especially where the dog is concerned.

      Thanks for the clarifications again, they’re truly helpful. And thanks too for the good wishes. Now that we’ve decided to put some roots down in Canberra it feels even more like home.

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