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Sydney's Snake Man

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000


BOTANY BAY NATIONAL PARK, Australia -- A 6-foot-long tiger snake, one of the "deadliest" animals in the world, slithered across the ground toward my feet.

"Come back here, you," John Cann said as he grabbed the reptile by its tail and tossed it into the center of the ring. "Where do you think you are going?"

The snake landed on top of another member of its species and proceeded to bite it several times. "No worries," Cann said. "It will just leave a little bump. The tiger's bite isn't fatal -- that is, if you are another tiger snake."

Cann saw his father, who started this snake show back in 1924, get bitten several times by tiger snakes over the years.

"He would just stop in the middle of the show, take out a razor blade, slice the wound and then rub in his antidote," Cann said. "He thought the antidote really worked. As it turned out, the old man was just immune to snake bites."

Cann's mother handled snakes, too. Back in the early 20th century, it seemed like every city and town had at least a half-dozen snake shows.

"She went by the name Cleopatra, one of three Cleopatras working the snake pits of Sydney at the time," he said. "But within a few years, the others were dead, victims of snake bites."

Cann's mother and father worked the business for several years, but then his father began having serious doubts about his antidote. "So he made Mum stop working," Cann said. "I took over when he retired."

But only after representing Australia in the decathlon at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Milt Campbell of the United Sates won the event, American Rafer Johnson took second, and Cann finished 10th. "I was young," he said. "Too young."

Decades later, Cann still has the catlike reflexes of a world-class athlete, which comes in handy when you spend most of your time in the pits playing with deadly snakes.

"I try to educate people so they know what they are dealing with," he said. "We have five varieties of deadly snake here in the Sydney area. Chances are if you are out walking through the bush and get bit, you got bit by a deadly snake."

Snakes are not the only reptiles you need to keep an eye on when you are camping. The goanna, a large lizard that looks like a mini Komodo dragon, also should not be trifled with.

"They'll wander into your camp with absolutely no fear of humans, looking for something to eat," Cann said. "But if you try to mess with it, it'll bite you.

"If you try to get it off, it will just clamp down harder until it hits the bone. Not much a man can do but just sit there and suffer."

The most common and potentially troublesome local reptile is the brown snake. "In the wild, if you step on a good, fresh brown snake, it will snap right up and bite you in the face before you even know what hit you," Cann said. "Just hope you have luck, a good first aid (kit) and a antivenin readily available."

Over the years, Cann has had to receive the life-saving "antidote" on six occasions. But chances are, if you get bitten, you will not be anywhere near antivenin for several hours. "That is where the first aid comes in," he said. "You have got to wrap the bite and keep pressure on it so the venom doesn't spread. Use a bandage, shirt, whatever you can find. Just wrap it tight."

Cann hopes his free snake show, which is performed in a national park just a few hundred yards from where Capt. James Cook made land fall more than 200 years before, will help educate and possibly save the lives of at least one Sydneysider.

But it is doubtful the show will continue after he retires. His children aren't interested in snakes. "They are scared of them," he said. "In a way I am glad, but I'm also sad. This show has been going on for 103 years in the same spot."

Cann likes to think visitors to the Olympics will take home a bit of Australia's history. Meanwhile, he'll keep handling his snakes.

"Take this red-bellied black snake," he said, showing the serpent to the crowd. "Deadly? Yes. Dangerous? No."

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