‘I deserved what I got’: Contrite Hong Kong snake catcher hails hospital staff who saved his life

Experienced catcher says he plans to be more careful after Chinese cobra bite costs him part of his finger

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 10:55pm

A Hong Kong snake catcher has hailed the hospital staff who saved his life after he was bitten by a Chinese cobra, and said he hoped others would not “be as stupid as me” and do the dangerous job without gloves.

David Willott expressed his gratitude to the “great” doctors and nurses at Tseung Kwan O Hospital, despite losing half a finger, after being infected with the snake’s potentially deadly venom.

The 50-year-old father-of-two, who has been catching snakes for more than 30 years and is attached to Sai Kung police district as a catcher, was hurt during a call-out to a snake in someone’s back garden in Tai Wan village, Sai Kung, on August 18.

Having caught the 3ft-long Chinese cobra using a metal hook and a grabber, Willott was bundling it into a bag when it bit him on the middle finger of his right hand.

“As I tried to tie the top of the bag, I felt some pain,” he said. “I thought it was a staple from the bag. But within a moment, I knew it was a bite.”

Willott said at first he did not tell anyone he had been bitten, and made sure to finish the job before seeking help.

“I didn’t scream. For me it is about saving face,” he said. “I just tied the bag and asked the police to call an ambulance. I just went to my car and asked my wife to drive me to the police station, where we dropped off the snake and I was picked up by the ambulance.”

He said the pain was “not a walk in the park” but not as bad as he had expected.

When he got to hospital doctors gave him antivenom, which is often enough to neutralise the poison, but in this case was not.

Willott discharged himself after a 24-hour stay in hospital. But after only 10 hours, during which his finger had turned progressively blacker, he returned to have part of the finger cut off. He was also feeling the effects of the toxin from the venom which, given more time, could have affected his central nervous system and killed him.

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At first he asked his doctor to amputate his whole finger, but was very glad the doctor managed to save the bottom part of it.

“I really want to emphasise how grateful I am to them,” he said. “The doctors and nurses were great. The hospital was very modern but it was just overcrowded. [The staff] have a really hard job and they do not get paid enough.

“I am also glad my doctor did not listen to me when I asked him to cut the whole finger off. At that point I was just thinking that I wanted to get out of hospital.”

There are between one and three snake catchers registered with each of Hong Kong’s 23 police districts. They are paid about HK$800 per call-out.

And the catchers have become increasingly important as urban expansion means more snakes are discovered around Hong Kong’s homes and businesses.

Traditionally snake catchers were just local residents who caught the animals for free on an ad hoc basis. These original snake catchers still exist, but no longer kill their prey to be sold to snake shops for soup, as they used to.

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Now they tend to avoid harming their captured snakes.

Willott, who has now been bitten seven times by venomous snakes, has already returned to work despite his ordeal. But he said he intended to be more careful in future, by wearing more protective clothes on call-outs.

The former barman and Island School student said he hoped his injury would serve as a warning to other snake catchers, particularly as he was not wearing gloves when the snake bit him.

“It was my fault; I deserved what I got,” he said. “People attempting to catch snakes have to know not to be as stupid as me, otherwise someone is going to get killed.”

He said he had received hundreds of messages of support on social media after fellow snake catcher William Sargent highlighted his ordeal on the Hong Kong Snakes Facebook group. Sargent paid tribute to Willott’s bravery and commitment to preserving snakes as “part of our ecology and not simply as a pest”.