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  • Writer's pictureBriar Mitchell

Is This What Cleopatra Saw?

I stood there, absolutely frozen in place, because I was sure if I even breathed I was dead. There was a cobra, a real live cobra, hood spread out and shaking slightly, just staring at me from a few feet away. Nothing between us but air. The conflict between fight and flight was raging behind my eyeballs like a small nuclear war. I could not decide what to do; run or what…what? Confront the snake? A cobra? That did not seem like a viable alternative. Never in my wildest dreams did I picture this being part of this day, or any day. I’m pretty sure the snake didn’t think that far ahead.

At the turn of the 1990’s, in Los Angeles, I was working on a large painting for Greenpeace, and, was adding many animals to the piece. One morning, over coffee, while I was studying my sketch, I thought a cobra would be a really interesting addition. They were such a recognizable shape, I thought they would be a good addition to the project. What was I thinking? Stop thinking!

I was aware of seeing cobras in pretty much every Tarzan movie, along with, any film or TV show that took place in India or Africa. They always looked the same. The snake would rise up out of nowhere, spread its hood and looked like death incarnate. I am here to tell you, when you see this phenomenon in real life, oh yes, it is truly terrifying.

Was I about to die? After a few seconds, I started to feel like no, my odds were improving. Why did I think that? The head snake handler at the Los Angeles Zoo who invited me to come look at the cobras was just standing there, looking at me. He was actually next to the opening where the snake was. The zoo had two of them. Enormous, thick, long Egyptian Cobras, and, they lived in a glassed in exhibit. The back though, where we were, was wood with a 3x3 foot door set about 4 feet up in the back wall of the display. When he opened the door for me, the snake had bounced right up into that opening and then popped open its hood. I can feel the temperature of my blood dropping again as I recall this moment.

Would he really just be standing there, the head snake handler at a major zoo, if I was in any danger? A teensy part of my still clear mind told me that no, he would not just stand there. If I was truly in danger, he would turn on whatever amazing snake wrangling gizmo they had there in the snake house at the zoo to save me, but no, no, he just stood there watching…and smiling. He was smiling which meant he was either Hannibal Lecter or there was something I didn’t know yet that was keeping me safe.

The snake popped its head up higher. The hood was still distended and it was still staring at me and it was still weaving side to side. My camera was up to my eye, with, a large flash unit on the top.

Should I take a picture?

Are you insane – I screamed in my head? There is a live cobra shakin’ its thang right in front of you. If you fire off that flash, it will fly right at you and then, my nieces and nephews get to fight over who gets my Miami Vice video collection.

From the corner of my eye, I watched the snake handler again. He had a small, round net on top of a long stick and if the snake started to inch up higher, he put the net over its head and pushed it back down, just a couple of inches, but it readily slid down each time he used that.

Still not moving, I managed to squeak out a question to this man.

“Am I in danger here?”

He said no, in such a laid back, casual way, that had I not been looking at a live cobra staring at me I would have bludgeoned him to death with his net on a stick apparatus. He was privy to something he was not willing to share with me yet.

A few more moments drifted by. The snake never moved. The snake handler never moved, except to, push the snake back down again from time to time. I took a picture and fired off my flash. I could see the snake through my camera’s lens and, it never moved.

OK, what in the hell was going on here?

I pulled my camera away from my face and jumped back as far away as I could, which in that building, was not far enough. All around me were glass tanks FILLED with snakes, all of whom looked at me like I was a hors’dourve. They were closed into their tanks, however, that cobra was still standing up, staring at me through the small opening in the back of its exhibit from across the room. Nothing between me and the snake except air.

The snake handler, I could see, was fighting back a laugh. The opportunity to enjoy such a big joke at my expense, was apparently, too great to miss.

“Why am I not dead?” I asked, doing my best to sound cool.

The handler finally pushed the snake back down inside of its exhibit box and closed the door. He explained to me, doing his best not to laugh, that cobras cannot spring forward like a rattlesnake does. The cobra really just strikes as far forward as it could fall, so, I was not in any danger, because, it could not fall forward looking at me through a smallish opening in the back of the cobra exhibit.

So, I learned the truth about why I was safe. I still wanted to bludgeon this man with his stick for letting me get so scared, however, part of me was starting to realize I had experienced something rather unique, and, was alive to tell about it.

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