Made famous by The Snake Wranglers
Snehal Bhatt, 55, made famous worldwide as “The Cobra Girl of Gujarat” by the second episode of the National Geographic reality television series The Snake Wranglers, died in her sleep from a heart attack in the early morning hours of January 23, 2017 at her home in Vadodara, Gujarat, India, leaving behind her husband and son.
The Snake Wranglers emphasized Bhatt’s skill in rescuing pythons, cobras, and other vipers, but she was actually known for expertise and outspoken advocacy on behalf of every kind of animal.
Became “social worker for animals”
Earning a university degree in zoology, Bhatt was discouraged by her family from becoming a veterinarian, and instead earned a masters degree in social work.
But, while helping people, Bhatt felt all the while that she should be helping animals.
“As a child, I brought injured birds and fledglings home and looked after them. I felt terrible when people killed crocodiles and snakes. When I was in college, some boys killed a snake behind the biochem department. I remember feeling so helpless,” she recounted decades later.
Founded Gujarat SPCA
Founding the Gujarat Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1993, Bhatt was trained in handling snakes by Raju Vyas, widely considered India’s leading herpetologist. Bhatt then circulated her telephone number to all the firehouses in Vadodara, asking the firefighters to call her in event of reptilian emergencies.
Bhatt was subsequently credited with returning as many as 300 crocodiles to the wild after monsoon floods in Vadodara, along with rescuing thousands of snakes found under all sorts of circumstances, from the mundane to the dramatic and even the comic.
Wrote Gyan Marwah for The South Asian after the Snake Wranglers episode featuring Bhatt debuted, “She has been threatened and physically attacked several times by poachers,” while leading “a one-woman crusade to rescue India’s most dangerous snakes—cobras, vipers, and giant pythons—from frightened townspeople, crooked snake charmers and devious poachers,” who “continue to trade illegally in snakes,” often defanging snakes for exhibition by snake-charmers or for ceremonial release.
Dangerous as some snakes and many poachers can be, Bhatt found snake charmers more menacing. Traditionally, snake charmers “charmed” captive snakes kept in baskets not to entertain tourists so much as to advertise their skill in luring snakes out of hiding places among the mud bricks of villagers’ huts. A common snake charming trick was––and is––to release snakes into unsuspecting people’s homes in order to dramatically find and remove them, upon being hired.
Snake charming is now technically illegal throughout India, partly on behalf of snakes, partly also to prevent exploitation of the poor and gullible, but remains widely practiced, especially in rural areas.
“In doing battle with the charmers,” Marwah wrote, Bhatt “has been threatened and physically attacked several times in the course of her work. She now carries a pistol to defend herself. Today, however, largely due to her efforts, Vadodara is free of snake charmers. Whenever farmers in the area spot a snake in their fields the first person they call is Bhatt.”
Said Bhatt herself, “It’s a welcome sign that the farmers here are responding to me. The country has lost almost 25% of its heavily forested land in the past decade. As humans encroach on forested areas, people and animals are being brought into close contact – with deadly results for both.”
Along with taking over the snake charmers’ job of catching snakes, Bhatt took over their role in entertainment––in a very different way. Instead of using snake shows to make villagers afraid of snakes, Bhatt sought to allay needless fear, and to teach non-violent responses to snake invasions of homes and workplaces.
“Through these shows, we want to achieve a closer relationship between man and snake,” Bhatt told Marwah. “Only if we educate the villagers, if we create awareness amongst them, will they stop killing snakes. We have been able to tell people that we understand that you are afraid this animal will kill you. That’s the reason why you’re killing it first. Instead, call us. Don’t kill it. And we will help you out.
“I am talking to them,” Bhatt added, “about what snake charmers do, and I am showing them the venom glands and the venom. When you de-fang a snake, there’s another fang right behind that grows and generates fresh venom. What the snake charmers do is, they burn the venom glands with hot rods. In such cases, the snake is incapable of either hunting or eating. It dies within two months. We have caught snakes with maggots in their mouths or with their mouths stitched up. It’s cruel.
“I get very angry whenever I see a snake charmer,” Bhatt admitted. “It’s like there’s a bomb inside me. I don’t see him as a person at all. I just see how many snakes he has killed.
“I know snakes cannot speak,” Bhatt said. “But the gratitude in their eyes when they’re saved, when they’re released, is something that I live for. It’s the will to save an animal that motivates me. When I release a snake into the wild, I believe I’m returning Mother Nature’s child. When I release a crocodile, they always circle back and come back, as if to say goodbye.”
Lots of Snehals?
“We try to take these animals as far as possible from human habitation so that they’re not hunted down again. We have to save our wildlife and for that we need more dedicated people. I am sure the day is not far when there’ll be lots of Snehals in this country,” Bhatt finished.
Bhatt did inspire several other people to take up her work, including Wildlife Trust of India wildlife aid program director Jose Louies.
“All what I am today is because of her in many ways,” Louies posted to Facebook. ” I remember seeing her on a Sunday evening when I went to her house in Vadodara with a cobra baby. My life changed on that day as I got into snake rescues and later landed up in a full-time wildlife job,” initially with the New Delhi-based organization Wildlife SOS.
“I don’t want to cry or put a sad face,” Louies said. “She inspired a lot of people and walked away.”
Bhatt was hospitalized on one occasion after intervening when she saw men capturing street pigs and trucking them to slaughter. Articles in the ANIMALS 24-7 archives document that Bhatt led an undercover investigation of elephant polo in 2006-2007, and complained to public officials later in 2007 upon learning that a local Hanuman temple was keeping three elephants without possessing legal ownership certificates.
In 2010 Bhatt denounced the Surat forestry department in public statements after a leopard was shot as an alleged “man-eater” despite a dearth of evidence that the leopard in question had been involved in several recent nearby fatal attacks.
More recently Bhatt worked with Nick Jukes of InterNICHE to introduce use of non-animal alternatives to dissection in Vadodara schools.
Street dogs & monkeys
Bhatt also waged a running media war against public officials in Mumbai, Thane, and elsewhere who failed to invoke wildlife protection laws against sidewalk monkey shows, and/or allowed violence against street macaques instead of practicing non-violent deterrence––the most effective form of which tends to be not persecuting street dogs.
While street dogs can also become a nuisance and sometimes a menace if encouraged to congregate in inappropriate places by human feeders, street dogs when left to forage tend to chase macaques away from neighborhoods where the dogs might find food scraps. This in turn encourages the macaques to stay in the trees, eating their normal diet of fruits and leaves, instead of trying to steal and sample human food.
Commented Erika Abrams of the Udaipur charity Animal Aid, “We were very sad about this loss. Snehal was a doll besides being a firebrand.”
“Small fierce fighter”
Elaborated People for Animals founder and former minister of state for animal welfare Maneka Gandhi, “Snehal was a small fierce fighter with anger and energy and a nose for facts and an intolerance of cruelty to animals. She took on the local administration and the state government many times, especially over the terrible local zoo mismanagement. The state repeatedly tried to punish her by framing her in cases that were simply about rescued wild animals. She stood her ground, but became increasing fragile and easily riled.
“In Gujarat there is a curious dichotomy,” Gandhi continued. “There are any number of people donating to cow shelters, while drinking the largest amount of milk per capita in India. But there are virtually no animal activists or shelters for other animals. Snehal stood out for her integrity and commitment to all life. Her death is a great, great loss and all of us will miss her passion and drive. The state has lost its main warrior for animals.”
AgreedShubhobroto Ghosh, wildlife project manager for World Animal Protection in India, “Snehal had a lot to contribute. As a wildlifer, I feel her loss is irreparable, in a field where there is a dearth of sincere people.”