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Singapore Sling

Singapore Sling

I was not entirely happy about leaving the wildlife wonderland of Australia at the beginning of 2001 for the starkly contrasting concrete jungle of Singapore. Its lush rainforest had been chopped down and the entire island almost entirely paved over. All for the worship of money, and the prevailing mentality was that nothing would get in the way of that. The draconian approach of the government was immediately apparent with not-so-subtle signage in the airport, such as WARNING: DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW.
As it is almost directly above the equator, Singapore was so humid that I felt like leaving the apartment wearing my scuba gear. The apartment was yet another anonymous cell in one of the giant beehive hells that the Housing and Development Board constructed in kit form all over the small island. Most white Western expats lived in high-price enclaves with others of the same ethnic flavor. But I wanted to save money while in Singapore, so instead chose to live in one of these massive, industrialized complexes that cost only a third of the rent of something more salubrious. The furnishings came complete with hot and cold running cockroaches—the bloody things were everywhere, but they were not nearly as cool as the ones in the cult classic film Joe’s Apartment. No congenial Brother Ralph. Instead, these mindless cretins lurked under every plate or any flat object. I was forever nuking them in the microwave. How they got in there I have no idea, but exploded roach smells even nastier than microwaved mouse.
The air quality was absolutely shocking. I arrived right after nearby Indonesia commenced their annual torching of large swathes of primary forest to destructively clear it for the palm oil plantations. The prevailing winds carried the smoke directly to Singapore, creating terrible air pollution. The bathroom sink would have a layer of grey powder on it by 3 p.m. Socially, Singapore is a very strange and maddening place at times. It is the kind of place where the government has crack squads of scientists trying to isolate the part of the human genome responsible for bad thoughts and free will. Combined with a manic worship of money, this leads to a uniquely twisted population. It extends to all levels of society, and is immediately apparent to any traveler who has the misfortune to take a taxi in from Changi Airport. The taxi drivers rip off customers by quickly pressing on the gas pedal and letting it snap-depress. The truly infuriating part is that it is a no-win situation. Along with a low-grade case of whiplash the customer gets charged more, and the moronic taxi driver loses out too, since such rapid, repeated accelerations use up more fuel. Whenever the alien stresses of this cultural clash got too much for me, I would ring my mates Chris Hay and Tim Nias. Their strange senses of humor and empathy would decompress me greatly.
One day, I woke to the horror of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. While not affecting me directly through death or injury to anyone I knew personally, the Twin Towers attacks were nevertheless deeply disturbing. I noted that, at best, there was ambivalence from most of the Asian population in Singapore, while certain Middle Eastern segments were definitely on the side of the terrorists. Some did not directly advocate such horrific actions, but rather pointed out the geopolitical genesis of such madness. It was reminiscent of the kamikaze pilots in World War II, also driven by religion, in that case Buddhism and Shintoism; the pilots were known as the “divine wind.” But a very different ill will blew that day.
At almost the exact moment I turned on the television to find out about the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, I received a phone call letting me know that my mate Joe Slowinski had been killed by a krait bite in Myanmar. As the details emerged, I felt the oil and water combination of grief and anger. It was such a senseless and preventable death, brought about by the classic fuck-up cascade. A teaching case of exactly what not to do in the field. The perfect example of how a person could survive one mistake, but not a series of mistakes. In short, it was a total clusterfuck, where a domino reaction occurs, with a body at the end.
It was peak rain season, a difficult enough time to be in the field under any circumstances: hot, humid, and with mud that suction grips every step. This alone would cause anyone to be fatigued enough to make mistakes. However, Joe was leading a very large expedition that was plagued by poor forward planning. Inefficient delegation meant that Joe had far too much on his shoulders, leading to additional distraction. The less-than-optimal situation was exacerbated by local corruption—the items the expedition had paid for in advance to be provided in-country were either insufficient quantity or absent entirely. They were also in an area outside the permits-approved zone. The straw that broke the camel’s back was that the night before the fateful event, Joe was drinking copious amounts of alcohol until the small hours. At 8 a.m. the following day he certainly wouldn’t have been within the legal limit for driving, let alone in shape for working with venomous snakes.
It was at this time that a local snake catcher came and said he had a wolf snake in a bag. Joe reached in without looking first to verify the identity of the snake. Under no circumstance, even if it is my handwriting on the bag, would I reach in without confirming by visual inspection that the bag did indeed contain a non-venomous species. It is suicidal to not check, and to accept someone else’s opinion that a snake is harmless, especially when the stated snake looks virtually identical to another local snake which happens to be lethal. Joe pulled his hand out with the snake clamped on to his finger. It was not a wolf snake. It was a krait.
The remoteness of the area, the lack of a doctor as part of the field team, the absence of antivenom and proper artificial respiration equipment on-site, the alcohol in Joe’s system reacting synergistically with the venom, the inability to communicate effectively with a medical center, no extraction plan, being outside the approved area causing difficulty in obtaining help from the military for extraction, poor weather hampering helicopter transport once arranged, and other variables all combined into the perfect storm. The basic equation was: no antivenom + no doctor + no transport = no chance. In addition, pressure-immobilization bandaging was not immediately applied and the venom was absorbed at full speed and with maximum efficiency.
Joe progressed through much the same stages of neurotoxic effects as I had with my death adder envenomation, as the toxins paralyzed the voluntary muscles. Loss of physical coordination was the first obvious symptom, as his arm and leg muscles were steadily impacted. This was accompanied by slurring of speech, ptosis, giving a cockeyed look, and, most ominously, difficulty breathing. As they were woefully ill-equipped for such an event, the expedition members took turns giving Joe mouth-to-mouth respiration once he was no longer able to breathe on his own. Joe’s sense of humor was present to the end, with him mischievously signaling that he only wanted the female team members giving him artificial respiration.
While all this was going on, a logistical nightmare emerged when help was sought from the Myanmar government. Obtaining permission for airlifting and getting hold of the antivenom was extremely complicated and time-consuming. While he could talk, Joe had said he would have refused antivenom if it had been present, since he had had an allergic reaction to antivenom previously. This is a maddening mentality all too present in herpetologists. The only effective treatment for envenomation is antivenom. Any allergic reaction can be managed through the use of injectable adrenalin and antihistamines. In any case, no antivenom was available, nor was there any artificial respiration equipment. Mouth-to-mouth respiration is sufficient for short-term, acute use. However, it is ineffective over the long term in providing enough oxygen while inflating the lungs enough to prevent suffocating fluid build-up. The only cold comfort I could take was that as the neurotoxin-induced paralytic effects progressed towards the lethal climax and he entered the locked-in phase, he would have been experiencing the same euphoria I had from my death adder envenomation. So he at least died pleasantly, rather than screaming in pain and agony.
Joe’s death hit me especially hard since it was very much of case of “but for … there go I.”
Things were getting a little too much for me, so I was very happy to retreat to my snakes. I had established a very large and diverse collection in one of the off-exhibit quarantine buildings at Singapore Zoo. The head vet, Paolo Martelli, was a herpetologist and he had fitted out the room with a custom array of cages on all walls. The cages were still empty when I arrived in Singapore, so with Paolo’s permission I filled them with snakes from all over the world for my research. We had it all, including iconic snakes like Gaboon vipers, king cobras, green mambas, Fea’s vipers, and boomslangs. Most important from a research perspective was the tremendous assortment of strange snakes which had the more primitive venom delivery systems consisting of enlarged teeth in the rear of the mouth. Their venom glands did not deliver the venom as a high-pressure stream, as a cobra’s would. Some of these snakes were harmless to humans, but still of significant evolutionary interest. Others, however, like the olive sand snake from Africa, were as toxic to rodents as a cobra, and thus posed an obvious human danger. Even more so since there weren’t any antivenoms that would cover most of them. We had the boomslang antivenom before we got those snakes, but it took us a year to get the keelback snake antivenom from Japan. That was a far from ideal situation. By the time we obtained it, we had already milked those snakes for sufficient venom and moved them on to make room for new species.
One of the most delightful parts of this new research was starting to work with slow lorises. These adorable little creatures are the only venomous primates in the world, having a bite that is extremely painful. They also coat themselves with a secretion produced by glands on the insides of their arms that causes allergy-like effects in potential predators. The relationship between the arm secretions and the bite pain was unclear. Dissecting preserved specimens, I noted that the submandibular salivary glands were unusually enlarged, which suggested the source of the bite pain, with the arm secretion thus being unrelated. It was exactly the kind of riddle I liked unraveling.
Helping me with the research was my student Ryan Ramjan, and also Tim Jackson, who had just finished high school in Sydney and was taking a year off to live in Singapore with his parents, who had recently moved there. We formed a very tight team and had a lot of fun. We spent many hours exploring the zoo, as we had access to all areas, on and off exhibit. We would often be found at the reptile house chatting with the awesome curators, Bernard and Francis. Bernard had been bitten not long before by a monocled cobra, a bite that basically melted one of his fingers, leaving a scar that we examined with great interest. Knowing background details like that only makes one that much more respectful when milking the same snake for its venom. We were also regular visitors at the vet hospital, hanging out with Paolo, who was never boring because vets always have the best screw-up stories. One incident in particular stands out. Paolo had several very large pythons in residence at the vet hospital. Whenever one of the carnivore departments had a spare live rabbit, it would be sent over to the hospital for Paolo to feed to his snakes. He came in one day, saw a rabbit, absent-mindedly snapped its neck, fed the pythons, and thought no more of it. Four hours later, one of the administration assistants came over to chirpily inquire how things were going with the check-up of the pet bunny belonging to the niece of the Deputy Zoo Director. Oops.
My usual morning routine consisted of eating breakfast of roti prata at the National University Hospital cafeteria with Tim, and then taking a taxi to the zoo. One morning we were running a bit late, but I desperately needed some coffee as I had been up late watching European Champions League football. Coffee in Singapore is served at a temperature that is only slightly less than that of the surface of the sun. In the equatorial heat, it takes forever to cool to a level that won’t scald. As we didn’t have time this day, in my sleep-deprived state I settled on a cunning plan. I would cool it down with some of the liquid nitrogen I had with me. I poured about 50 cc into the coffee, which promptly erupted into a spectacular three-foot-high brown geyser. The room full of people, several hundred of them, went instantly silent. As we rapidly packed up and headed for the exit, Tim quite rightly gave me a look that said in no uncertain terms that I had just made the biggest dumb-ass move he had ever had the privilege to witness.
Getting in shipments of snakes was like receiving Christmas presents, and was always cause for excitement, with us quivering in anticipation. One lot in particular stands out, but not for the best of reasons. We had a shipment come in from Malaysia that contained a large number of banded kraits. Kraits have a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde split personality: they are typically rather calm during the day, but absolutely psychotic at night. This fits with their behavior in the wild, where they hunt at night and sleep during the day. By the time we got back from the inevitable complications of bringing boxes full of venomous snakes through any airport, let alone somewhere as draconically bureaucratic as Singapore, it was 10 p.m.
Before we unpacked the shipment, I ran through the basic safety protocols with Ryan and Tim. First, I said, always assume that there is a snake loose in the box. Saying this, I levered a crowbar under one edge and applied force to lift the lid off. It was tightly nailed on and the wood was very thin. So instead of completely coming off, only a long pizza slice section tore off. This was enough for us to get a glimpse of a narrow black and white head looking up and giving a death stare before diving back into the dark confines of the box. There was silence as we contemplated this turn of events. This meant that there was at least one of these highly venomous snakes loose in there. How many more would be loose? We delicately removed more of the lid, snapping off successive pieces until we had enough of an opening to remove the bags one by one with tongs held by heavily gloved hands. It turned out that six more kraits were loose. The bags were decidedly not to the standard of my specific instructions. Even though they were double-bagged, the snakes had pushed through the corners, which were held together by poor-quality thread. This at least provided an opportunity to reiterate that even when snakes are double-bagged, always assume they have got out of the first bag. Just after I imparted this lesson, I opened up one of the bags still containing a snake, and resting on top of the inner bag was a krait. This was a completely unacceptable state of affairs and I vowed to never order from this vendor again.
As part of the process of obtaining venom samples for the research, several times I milked the giant king cobras that were kept in room-sized enclosures at the reptile house. While I had kept one when living in Portland, nothing had prepared me for the experience of walking into a giant cage where four very large specimens lived. The saving grace was that these snakes were so intelligent that they responded to certain behavioral cues. They establish territory by rearing up as high as they can, and they determine dominance by tapping on the top of the other’s head. The one tapped would drop to the ground and slither away. I used this to my advantage by tapping on their heads to buy me time to move into position. Upon my entry, the eight foot female would always zip agilely up the rock wall to the top, scaling the ten-foot structure effortlessly and with great alacrity. The much larger males, however, would stand their ground. All the males were at least twelve feet and the biggest was over thirteen feet.
Milking these king cobras was the most physically challenging event of my career. While taipans were faster and more agile, the size and strength of the king cobras was like nothing I had ever encountered. To milk them I would wrangle them into a black sack which had an opening at the end; this was wrapped around a wide, clear acrylic tube. I would let the snakes slide along the inside until the head was just out of the tube. I would then hold a large plastic container in front of them, which was readily bitten by these massive snakes. The venom yield was staggering—enough to fill a shot glass and containing hundreds of milligrams of toxic protein.
One day I had a mangrove catsnake that was over six feet long swallow my entire thumb and then set about working its stubby rear fangs into my flesh. It took nearly two minutes to remove it. By then I was well and truly envenomated. We had already discovered in the lab that the venom was over a hundred times more potent on birds, their preferred prey, than on mammals, which they only rarely ate in the wild. So I was not too concerned about my welfare. However, in addition to some loss of balance due to the neurotoxins, I developed the most splitting headache. So I popped a few pills of the only painkiller I had handy: codeine. It promptly cross-reacted with the neurotoxins to produce the most intensely delicious high, far surpassing the death adder venom effects, but without any of the paralysis. Singapore is well known for being very harsh in its approach to drugs, so at that point I was probably the only legally high person on the entire island.
My research was concentrated on tracing the evolutionary history of a particular type of snake neurotoxin called three-finger peptides. These were the signature of venoms from cobra-style snakes, including Australian snakes such as the death adder, but were not known at that time to be in the venoms of any other snakes. Indeed, it was not settled at that point how many times venom had evolved in snakes. The prevailing theory was that vipers and elapids (including cobras) evolved their venoms separately, and that the other snakes were all non-venomous. However, this did not account for the existence of lethal species such as boomslangs in between. They were considered as special exceptions, which struck me as evolutionarily nonsensical. The line of investigation I was pursuing was that all of these other snakes lacking front fangs were, in fact, venomous. It was because the majority were not dangerous to humans that they were considered not to have venom—an anthropocentric bias that obscured the evolutionary reality. In fact, they were using venom to stun non-dangerous prey like frogs or geckos and the venom was delivered to these thin-skinned prey through a low-pressure system involving repeated chewing. The enlarged, grooved teeth in the rear of the mouth are sufficient to create wounds in the prey’s thin skin, allowing the influx of venom.
My first big breakthrough came with a thin-bodied, fast-moving striped Asian snake called the copperhead racer (sometimes known as the radiated ratsnake). Tim, Ryan, and I laboriously milked over a hundred of these by knocking them out with an anaesthetic called Zoletil, then massively stimulating the venom glands with a chemical called pilocarpine and collecting the secretion as it gushed out. Isolation and sequencing of the dominant component revealed it to be of the same class as the typical cobra-style neuroactive three-finger toxin. Bioactivity testing demonstrated a high level of neurotoxic activity, comparable to that of death adders. This showed that not only was venom an early-evolving characteristic in snakes, but that these unstudied snakes were a rich resource for biodiscovery. This was exactly the kind of key breakthrough I needed to make the difficulty of living in Singapore worthwhile. Relief flooded my body, as I knew my professional venom research career was well on track.
The research breakthrough happened right at the point I could not handle the cultural pressure-cooker of Singapore anymore. I had accumulated enough data to write several key papers. I had also saved up enough money to live in Australia for at least a year without having to work. So I quit with no plan, other than to move back to Australia and lose myself in the outback. Happiness was the Changi departure lounge.

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