The Media Panic About London's 'Child-Killing Snakes' Is Bullshit

The Aesculapians aren't going to murder anyone's dog, cat or baby.

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May 13 2014, 10:50am

A deadly Aesculapian snake (Photo via)

Baby-snatching immigrants are descending upon London, according to reports in the press this week. This time it’s not the Polish, or three families of Romanians, but an altogether more dangerous enemy: Pet-eating snakes that have infested Regent’s Canal, one of the bits of London that middle-class people still care about. Roughly the same length as Eastern Europeans, the snakes claim fewer benefits but eat greater quantities of babies, provocatively bathing themselves in sunlight that God intended British taxpayers to enjoy.

If you read the news, or you’re friends with gullible people on Facebook, you’ll understand the magnitude of this threat. The International Business Times leads with “Deadly Aesculapian Snakes on the Loose in London!” going on to cite unnamed "experts" who apparently “believe that one of the adult snakes could have the strength to kill a small dog”. The report goes on to claim that “LISI [the London Invasive Species Initiative], a government advisory quango, has called for the snakes to be eradicated.” AOL, a company that remarkably still exists, take a similar line: “Deadly eight-foot snakes that can kill cats and dogs invade London.”

AOL apparently take their lead from the Independent’s less sexy story, “Snakes capable of growing up to two metres in length invade Regent’s Canal”, bumping two metres up to eight feet at some point because, I don't know, metric is hard? The Independent’s story cites the Daily Star, which reported earlier on the 10th of May that “Killer…” – sorry – “KILLER snakes that are capable of crushing small children to death are on the loose in Britain.” The source for that claim? “Mum-of-three Sylvia Taylor, 33, said, “If they are capable of killing small animals then surely they could constrict small children?”

The Star’s imaginatively-sourced journalism also forms the basis of a Gizmodo report, which warns of “Alien ‘Killer Snakes’ Loose in London’s Regent’s Canal”, helpfully adding, “Those not aware of types of snake may easily confuse these European immigrants with the tame UK grass snake, seeing as both are long and a bit green.”

And inevitably the Mail pitched in with their own "investigation", reporting that a "row has broken out" between a “government quango” who supposedly called for the snakes to be culled, and defenders who claimed the beasts had been living peacefully in the city for decades.

Really? Well, of course not. Almost every part of the story – from the warnings of the London Invasive Species Initiative, to the involvement of London Zoo, to the biology and ecology of the snakes themselves, to the suggestion that any sort of row has broken out – is complete and utter bullshit. Literally the whole damned thing has been made up by bored hacks.

So, what’s the real story? Let’s start from the beginning. Firstly, yes, there are Aesculapian snakes at Regent’s Canal. The Mail claim it’s “thought their ancestors may have escaped from London Zoo”, but when I spoke to the Zoo yesterday, a spokeswoman suggested a more likely explanation: “Aesculapian snakes were being kept by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in the 1980s in a building the ILEA rented on the Canal bank close to ZSL London Zoo,” presumably part of some long-forgotten education project.

Have LISI, a government quango responsible for monitoring invasive species in London, called for the snakes to be culled? Er, no. I took the extraordinary step of bothering to ask them, and their press officer pointed me to a statement posted online under the headline “Killer snake headlines debunked”, which points out that the quango have never called for action, and that they have no plans to do so. It adds that there’s no evidence the snake is having any significant impact on London’s ecosystem, and that the snakes are a “docile and non-venomous species. Please rest assured that your children will not risk being crushed by snakes whilst wandering through central London.”

LISI’s spokeswoman mentioned to me that these stories seem to crop up every summer. A few seconds of googling dug up an Independent report from 2012, telling much the same story again but without the added tabloid hysteria. “But the actors, media types and rock musicians of Primrose Hill can take comfort in the fact that although their new neighbours are big, they are not venomous.”

Surely though, these monster snakes are dangerous? Journalists around the world have run suggestions from unnamed "experts" that the snakes can crush a dog or cat, but not a single one I’ve found gives any clue as to who these experts are. The claims all seem to trace back to that Daily Star report. So I went and found my own.

Dr Wolfgang Wüster is an expert on snakes in the School of Biological Sciences at Bangor University. For ten years, he and his postgrads have been studying another population of Aesculapian snakes that escaped from the Welsh Mountain Zoo and established a small colony at Colwyn Bay, North Wales. So are they dangerous?

“The largest thing they could kill and eat would be a smallish rat of a few hundred grammes. I suppose they could eat a new-born Chihuahua pup if you left one lying around in the right habitat, but then again, I suspect the seagulls or crows would get it first.” But what about the Daily Star’s mother-of-three? “The recent newspaper reports on them being able to 'crush cats, dogs or small children' are some of the most unfounded and irresponsible tabloid scaremongering I have ever seen!“

The fact is, these snakes are resident across most of Europe, from Russia to France, and they’re known to be completely harmless. “There are no records whatsoever from the entire European range of this species ever harming a person or a cat or dog!” In fact, the opposite is far more likely to happen. The snakes may be long, but they’re also soft and fragile; even a small dog or cat would rip one apart with ease. The worst harm they could do to a child would be a "nip", that “would hurt very considerably less than a hamster bite”.

It’s not even clear that the snakes can survive here in the long term. The small group at Colwyn Bay have held out for a couple of decades and do breed successfully, but there are still only 50 of them, and they haven’t spread far beyond the zoo’s grounds. Climate modelling carried out by Dr Wüster’s team suggests the local environment is pretty unsuitable for them, and will probably still be even after the effects of climate change play out. “We suspect that they currently rely on features peculiar to the Zoo to survive and reproduce – eg warm, damp animal houses, large compost heaps, that sort of thing – but that needs further study.”

Far from being deadly, child-snatching predators, London’s newest immigrants are likely scared, cold and defenceless, spending half the year hibernating through our shitty weather, and the other half dodging far-deadlier housecats. That much should have been obvious to any journalist taking even a quick glance at this story. But most didn’t; or if they did, they didn’t really care. Why work for a living when you can copy and paste some quotes from a young mum of three who's been speaking to the Daily Star?

@mjrobbins

Previously – Solar Power is Kicking the Kochs in the Balls

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