Everyone please be careful if you are walking your dogs in Hong Kong’s beautiful Country Parks, especially in Sai Kung in the hot summer months. There have been 2 reported python attacks on domestic dogs in Sai Kung in May 2014 alone. The snakes are waking up after a long winter hibernation and are hungry. The heavy monsoon rains are also flushing some out of hiding (one was found in North Point recently). The heat and humidity are rising too, so cases of heatstroke (in dogs and their owners) are also on the rise.
At this time of year everyone needs to be more diligent about avoiding heat exposure, snakes and other venomous creatures. HK has a number of dangerous snakes (on land and in the sea) and other wee beasties and they are in abundance at this time of year. Educate yourself on the difference between pythons and other snakes, which could be venomous or not (eg. cobras & rat snakes are very similar looking – cobras are venomous and rat snakes are not – even snake experts have trouble telling them apart when they are not reared up to strike). Do research on the internet and watch some of the many snake programs on Animal Planet & National Geographic channel.
Even with over 52 different indigenous species of snakes living peacefully in HK’s country sides, snake bites are extremely rare. Saying that, you still need to be aware of your surroundings, as a number of snakes in HK (especially the King Cobra, Chinese Cobra, white lipped “Bamboo” pit viper, mountain pit viper, banded Krait, many banded Krait, coral snake, red necked keel back and banded sea snake) are extremely venomous and can easily kill humans and dogs alike. If you see a snake, do not confront it. It does not want an altercation with you but it will attack if it feels threatened (or hungry in the case of a python). Some snake venom kills quickly, some takes time (you will see an immediate reaction to a King Cobra bite but may not see symptoms from a red necked keel back bite for up to twelve hours). Reactions also vary in different people. Symptoms can include severe pain and swelling in the region of the bite, paralysis, muscle weakening, shortness of breath, to uncontrollable bleeding. If you, your friends, family or your pets get bitten by a snake, spider or other beasties – stay calm, keep your heart rate low and get to a vet or doctor immediately.
If you come across a snake:
· Stay calm and do not create any sudden movements.
· Back right away from the snake and avoid direct eye contact or interaction with the snake. This will show the snake that you are not a threat. Once the snake feels safe it should just slither away.
· If the snake is in a contained area on your property, then please call the Police on 999 and they will arranged to have it removed. If you have any enquires about snakes, please call Dave Willott on 9677-0470.
· Where possible take a photo of the snake from a safe distance and make a mental note of its colouring. If the snake bites you or your dog, then the doctor/ vet need to know what kind of snake it was before they can administer the correct type of anti-venom. There are 2 main types of venom produced by different venomous snakes: Neurotoxins (which affect the nervous system) - and hemotoxins (which affect the blood) and each requires a different anti-venom). Make sure they know what kind of snake it was that bit you and that they have the right type of anti-venom in stock and enough of it. FYI, SPCA stock both types of anti-venom in their Wan Chai and Sai Kung Centres but their stock is limited.
· If both you and your dog get bitten by the snake keep calm, but prioritise yourself; call friends to help you with your dog.
· NB. Not all snakes are venomous and not all venomous snakes will inject venom when they bite you, but to be safe, seek urgent medical attention ASAP.
· In any emergency situation: call ahead to your nearest vet (or doctor if you too are bitten) to tell then you are bringing the dog (yourself) in and the weight of your dog (you). The amount of anti-venom administered is based on your weight. Make sure they can see you right away, have time to prepare the anti-venom for you and that they have enough of it.
· Keep you and your dog calm (increased heart rate and movement will increase the speed the venom moves through the body) and (if your dog has been bitten) carry your dog in a way that the bite stays below the level of the heart (as this slows down the speed that the venom will move around the body) . If the snake bites a limb, then the dog has a higher rate of survival than if it bites it in the neck, heart or abdomen.
· Do Not: put ice on a venomous snake bite.
· Do Not apply any type of tourniquet following a venomous snake bite.
· Do Not attempt to suck or cut out the venom.
· Do not attempt to capture a live snake.
· If the snake is dead, then bring the body with you.
· If the bite occurs on your own property and there is a shed snake skin (from the snake that bit you) nearby that is safe to get to – bring it with you (as it could help to identify the snake).
· This vital information (some of which was taken from the SPCA’s Pawprint magazine – issue 93, some from the internet, some from snake programs on the TV and some from snake enthusiast Dave Willott) could help to save you and your dog’s lives.
If you want to protect you and your property from snakes/ harmful spiders:
· Always go walking with a fully charged mobile phone (i.e. with enough charge for the length of time you will be out) and do not walk on remote trails alone.
· Wear wellies or thick boots and trousers when out walking, especially at night.
· If walking at night, wear a headlamp or carry a torch, so that you can see what you are standing on and what is around you. NB. Headlamps are better than torches as they allow you to keep your hands free to carry a stick/ hold a dog leash etc.
· When trail walking watch what you are standing on or walking close to but also be careful over overhanging spider webs. Avoid using your phone (except in the case of an emergency).
· Bang the floor with a stick or walk heavily if you are near anywhere that a snake could hide. This will warn them that you are coming and they will not be startled.
· Avoid walking close to thick undergrowth and in thick forest.
· Reduce the clutter in your garden/ number of places the snake could hide and cut back any low lying undergrowth in and around your garden and on your local dog walk and sweep up any piles of leaves and throw them out. Snakes like to hide (unless they are sunbathing/ basking - Snakes are ectothermic reptiles that do not need to use their own energy to warm up, instead they sunbathe and lie on hot roads and rocks to absorb heat for energy). If you are driving your car and see a snake on the road (quite common in rural areas), try not to run over it. Stop and let it slither by. You don’t want to kill it and you don’t want it to wrap itself around the undercarriage of your car and surprise you later!
· Sulphur is (in Dave Willott’s opinion) a complete waste of time. Nothing exists like that to deter snakes and it is harmful to other things around the house too.
· Check all your drains and doors (including sliding doors) for gaps. Do the finger test - if you can get a couple through, then seal it up. In the next couple of months we will be seeing more snakes, and by September the baby ones will be coming out. They will be the ones to try and get inside (quite common with baby cobras). NB. Baby snakes can often inject more venom than adult snakes as they haven’t yet learnt how to control the amount of venom injected, so treat them as you would an adult snake.
· Snake season in HK is generally from March to December with most being sighted between May and September.
· Open drainage around your house doesn't help. But covering it up means you will have drainage problems, so you need to consider that. Just cover all the ones leading INto the house.
· Do not leave rubbish or food around that will attract prey like rats (that snakes like to eat).
· Do not leave your car door, window or roof open whilst it is parked.
· Do not leave your windows and doors open if you live close to thick shrubbery. A couple from Che Keng Tuk recently left their French doors open to air their house and when they came to sit on their sofa later that evening, they noticed that a venomous red necked keel back had slithered under the sofa. Luckily no one was harmed.
· If you see that the bush areas close to your road and favourite trails are becoming overgrown then please call up 1823 and report this, so that the Government can send someone to cut it back. You may need to stress the threat of snakes to get them to act quickly.
Pythons: Burmese Pythons are not venomous but have around 100 razor sharp teeth in their mouth and are extremely strong. They crush their victims by putting their mouth over the animal's mouth (to stop it biting them and to asphyxiate them) and constricting around them until they can no longer breathe in and out. Once dead, they swallow them whole. If one wraps around a person or a dog, you need to loosen their constricting grip as quickly as possible by unraveling them from the tail up, grab the last foot of the tail with 2 hands with one hand firmly on the very end. Do not move your hand up the tail, as this will allow the snake the opportunity to wrap its tail around your wrist (definitely not what you want!). Hold on tight, move backwards and straighten and lift the tail whilst pulling it back firmly and forcibly (not an easy task as these snakes are heavy and strong). The adrenaline will kick into to help you! Watch where you are standing, as you don’t want to injure yourself in this process. Move the tail around from side to side and keep pulling it back until the snake has let go of your dog. Pythons use their tails as an anchor, so when you unsettle their anchor, they feel unsettled and will try to get away, leaving their prey behind. You could also try bending the end of the tail into a U shape (as this could stop them constricting further) and (if they still have hold of you or your dog and you have someone to help you) squirt ethanol type alcohol (if you have some available) directly into their mouth, preferably directly into the trachea (which will extend out to help the snake breathe in an attack). Pythons do not like alcohol in their throats so the aim of this is to get them to release their grip. DO NOT try this if the python does not have prey in its mouth or it will most likely bite you. If the trachea is not visible then try squirting the ethanol as best you can into the mouth through its teeth. Hitting pythons is useless, as their bodies are one big and extremely strong muscle. Their jaws are also extremely strong and difficult to prize open when they are gripping prey. As soon as you/ your dog are free, get yourself and your dogs away from the snake (especially its head) as quickly as possible and go straight to your vet/ doctor. NB. You can buy ethanol from your local pharmacy and keep it in a squeezy bottle in your pocket when you are out hiking in the hot summer months in rural areas. Try to avoid (where possible) injuring the python (as it is a protected species in HK) and make sure you report the incident to the Police and AFCD afterwards (so that they can try and capture the snake to prevent the same thing happening to someone else).
Recent Python attacks: The snakes in these incidents were just trying to survive by finding food. The owners were just trying to enjoy spending time in the country park with their dogs, who all need exercise. Dogs are allowed to be off leash in country parks, so long as they are under control and not causing a nuisance. Thousands of people walk their dogs off leash on a daily basis in HK's Country parks without incident. Python attacks are rare. It is just coincidence that these two, sad and unfortunate incidents happened so close together. The dogs’ owners are not irresponsible; the pythons could just have easily have attacked the dogs if they were on leashes, or even the children. Just because python attacks have happened in the Pak Tam Chung location before (a number of years ago) does not mean that these dog owners were aware of these attacks (HK is a very transient place), nor does it mean that they were aware that pythons still live there. It certainly does not mean that people should never walk in these locations again, just that they should be more aware of the natural dangers around them and keep their children and dogs close to them when near thick undergrowth.
There are a number of negative comments on SCMP’s online articles about the recent python attacks (http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1515080/pet-dog-crushed-death-python-second-attack-two-weeks) in relation to the responsibility of the dogs’ owners (some are just plain nasty and some are from people who clearly do not like dogs or who rarely walk their dogs); I am not sure what these people are trying to gain by throwing salt into the wounds of these dog owners; there is no point in trying to blame anyone. In my opinion, if people have nothing positive to say then they should keep their comments to themselves. There is enough negative energy in the world without adding more.
If large pythons are attacking dogs on popular hiking trails and next to camp sites then the AFCD should cut back the vegetation close to these places and the snakes should be caught and relocated to more remote areas with a suitable food source not associated with humans. But then again, how many remote areas do we have left when the HK Government are allowing our beautiful country parks to be developed by greedy developers.
It is recommended that you never let your dogs off leash during the summer months, as this will increase their chances of survival. However, this is not always practical when you have multiple dogs that need a lot of exercise. My own male dogs were born in Ma On Shan Country Park and have run off leash in the woods (where I am sure there are many snakes and other beasties) several times every day all year round since they were born in 2008 without incident. A dog’s natural instinct is to survive, so (like snakes) they will avoid potential dangers when necessary and will protect themselves when they feel threatened. It is a risk that something will happen to them, but a small one. They love running in the woods, so I let them enjoy it. Yes, we could all keep our dogs locked up inside our homes forever to minimize potential dangers, but what quality of life would they have? It is like saying you would never let your child cross a road or get on a bus on his/ her own because they might get run over or the bus might crash. One day (once you have taught them road safety and how to be independent) you have to let the apron strings go and let them live their own lives. It would be very sad if an accident was to occur, but you can’t stop them living life in case some dreadful thing might happen one day. You just need to make them aware of the potential dangers around them and teach them as best you can how to survive in this world; then let them live life. Yes, there will be times when they are a bit late coming back and you will worry about what might have happened to them, but that is all part of being a caring parent/ dog owner. You can avoid taking them to areas known to have serious potential dangers, but please don’t stop taking them out and giving them the opportunity to play and run safely. They not only need exercise, but they also need the mental stimulation of experiencing different sights and smells.
To avoid meeting snakes in the summer months, try taking your dogs to ungazetted beaches (gazetted beaches in HK have a lot of restrictions and have life guards to patrol them). If your dogs have 100% recall, are friendly, you can control them and you can ensure that they will not cause a nuisance to others, then feel free to let them run off leash and have a good play and run around. If you have multiple dogs and there are other people and dogs around, do not let them all off leash in one go as that can be very intimidating to other people and other dogs and pack mentality can occur. When they get hot on beaches then they can always cool down in the sea, but please remember to take lots of fresh water for them to drink and provide some shade from the sun for them (dogs can easily get heat-stroke in summer months, which quickly leads to massive organ failure and death in dogs – if not treated in time). Avoid taking them to unshaded areas for long periods in the middle of the day and do not dress your dog up in clothes or put shoes on it. If your dog has long hair, then you can have it trimmed in the summer but do not shave it or cut it too short, as the hair can protect them against sunburn and overheating. Early mornings/ late afternoons or evenings are best for summer beach walks. There are also areas in some country parks with wide open spaces with little undergrowth for snakes to hide. These areas are also good for dogs to play and run around. If you are someone who doesn’t like dogs, then feel free to go to a gazetted beach where dogs are not allowed and do not try and spoil things for the millions of dog owners in HK who want to enjoy spending time at ungazetted beaches with their dogs.
If your dog does get heat-stroke, then you need to cool it down ASAP and get it to a vet immediately. Dogs sweat through their paws and also pant to release heat. They will usually try to lie down in water if they need to cool down but generally don’t like to get their heads wet. Make sure they have lots of fresh, cold water to drink and douse their feet and tummies in cold water or place cold packs on them whilst rushing them to the vet. If you are hiking and you see your dog constantly look for shade and trying to hide under a bush, then it is overheating and you need to get to a cool place and give it lots of cold water ASAP.
Incidents happen: I was hospitalised for three days in August 2012 from a Golden Orb spider jumping on me and biting my eyelid whilst I was out with my dogs in Ma On Shan Country Park. These spider bites are not normally lethal but I had a severe reaction to the bite I received. My neighbour's son was hospitalised when he accidentally disturbed a wasp's nest whilst playing in the same country park and was badly stung by a large number of wasps. This doesn't mean that we no longer go out and enjoy the natural beauty HK's country parks offer us, it just means we are more aware of the potential dangers of living so close to nature and respect that. Snakes, spiders, centipedes, hairy caterpillars and other wee beasties are an important part of our natural ecosystem. Cobras eat rats and other snakes, which is all natural and a good thing, caterpillars turn into butterflies. Please don’t try and kill them, please just learn to live along side them and respect them; they were here long before us!
Hazel Black - Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Founder, Chairman and CEO of HK Rescue Puppies.