Shy boy slipped out of maths class to catch reptiles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2007, 12:00am

I've been obsessed with snakes ever since I came to Hong Kong at the age of nine from England in the 1970s.

Some people love Arsenal, but for me it's reptiles that does it. I even have three pythons and others as pets.

As a kid I can remember from time to time skiving off double maths on Thursday so I could go up to Hong Kong Cemetery and see if I could find any snakes there - and often I would.

Actually, my interest in snakes began with dinosaurs, particularly the Tyrannosaurus rex, and then moved on to reptiles.

When I first came to the territory, I'd hear these stories about snakes and creepy-crawlies. I found I loved listening to those tales because it enthralled me.

At that time no one seemed to be into snakes and there were few reference books on them. In fact, I think there was only one book on venomous species in Hong Kong, yet there're about 50 other non-poisonous kinds.

I was lucky I had such an interest because I didn't enjoy school. I found learning difficult and I'm sure some of the teachers thought I was a little slow. Now I wonder if I had a learning difficulty; to this day I muddle the letter b with d.

Furthermore, I'll never forget taking the part of a ghost in a school play by Charles Dickens called A Christmas Carol at primary school and finding it difficult to speak in front of an audience.

The teacher had kindly given me a ghost part with no lines. I had to enter from one side of the stage, walk around then exit from the other. I worked myself up into such a stew that I ran outside afterwards and threw up. It wasn't as if anyone knew it was me on stage because I was covered in a white sheet.

When we came to Hong Kong, dad had been in the Royal Navy and got a job lecturing at the Polytechnic University. We were an ordinary family, originally from Hull in northern England, and at the Island School I found there were all these other kids who had so much money. Many of my friends' parents went out to work and they were looked after by helpers. As a result, a number of them went off the rails and got into trouble. From that I learned I was different.

Even though I went through the stages of being a skinhead and punk, I was very polite, not silly and certainly not a nasty brat. We had a helper who came to the house part-time. She was like an auntie and we were forbidden to treat her as a maid.

The problem with the schooling I had was that it was geared to kids going to university and I wasn't cut out that way. So, after retaking Form Five and getting my O-levels, I left school.

My first job was as a delivery driver, which was fun for a while, and there were other jobs, such as being a dog handler, which suited me fine. I'd work 16 hour shifts and it also gave me a chance to look for snakes.

Another time I worked for Kadoorie Farm, working with the animals, and then I landed a job with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department doing various projects, including surveys on illegal turtle traps and annual ones on reptiles and amphibians. It's been right up my street.

I'm also a snake catcher and that came about by word of mouth. People heard I was good with snakes and the police call me up when they have an incident to deal with. It's not difficult to catch a snake. You don't have to grab it by its neck, for example. In fact you can just pick it up by its tail.

I sometimes feel people are disappointed because there isn't much of a show involved. I suppose I'm asked to catch snakes once or twice a month. Each time I'm paid HK$500.

I've come to the conclusion that there's not much room for people like me who don't have a particular niche and kids need to consider that. I sometimes feel like a square peg in a round hole. Certainly, I hope my kids leave school with qualifications because I've learned this is a changing world and whether you agree or not, and despite having a wealth of experience, qualifications do matter.

Dave Willott is a consultant herpetologist and snake catcher. He was talking to David Phair.