On being a herpetologist
The snakes, the crocodiles — I’ve been in love with them all my life. I owe it very much to my dear departed mother who, when I was four and brought a snake home, didn’t say, ‘Get it out of here!’. Instead, she said, ‘How beautiful, shall we keep it?’. What a way to start. And that was it. For the rest of my life, I just became a snake nut. When we moved to India, in 1951, however, she began to think differently since we were moving to the land of cobras. She was worried about how her little kid would react to the snakes or how the snakes would react to him.
Anyway, it all worked out and I’m still alive. I have noticed that most kids are very interested in little things that creep and crawl, and most parents are not interested in having them interested. Every step of my career was ordained by fate. For example, when I was in school, I brought a pit viper to the biology class and carried it safely in a nice big, glass jar and the biology teacher said, ‘Wow, what a beautiful snake! Let’s put it on display and keep it in the lab for a while’. So, there’s been a lot of encouragement all along.
On his Mumbai days and making films
That was a very interesting time too. Hobnobbing with the likes of Vyjayanthimala and Dev Anand. (Whitaker’s stepfather set up the first colour processing lab in Bombay). I was nine or ten years old. It was all lost on me, quite honestly. When I talk about it now, people are like, ‘really, you’ve met them?’ We were sitting there watching the rushes of their latest films and it sort of moved something very deep inside me, that reaching out to people through film is really the way to go. We set up the Snake Park in Madras and a million people came there the first year, but every film we have made has been seen by tens of millions of people.
On snakes, the underdogs of the animal world
People are pretty derogatory about snakes. It has always been the underdog in the animal world that attracted me. I became very fascinated with bats and toads and things that people usually don’t cuddle. I was always a bit against domestic animals — cats and dogs. Lately, my wife has been able to convince me that dogs are very lovable and we do love the dogs we have at home. But I still am for the wild animal.
On conservation and tolerance among rural Indians
In India, we’ve got a level of tolerance among rural Indians that is beyond belief. Nowhere in the world is a country where all its major predators are still existing. We should take that as our big lesson and make sure people continue to feel that way.
On educating people about snakes
Most importantly, if we didn’t have snakes, we would be overrun by rats. They are the snake’s favourite food. On the other hand, it’s difficult to get people to learn how to avoid snakes and getting bitten. Especially in a country where we have 50,000 people dying of snake bites every year and many more getting permanently injured by snakes; it’s avoidable. But getting these messages out there, especially to rural India, is not easy. We are a country steeped in misbeliefs, so it gets a little awkward to say that what your grandfather told you is a lie.
One has to do it in a much more diplomatic way and get it across to people that snakes are not after us. Snakes are, in fact, very frightened of us. We have invited them home because we have invited rats home. The amount of garbage we hand around and the crops we grow are perfect for rodents as well. People often say, ‘Don’t go into the forest, it’s very dangerous. There are a lot of snakes there.’ Just the opposite is true. It’s ‘don’t go into the rice fields’, that’s where the snakes are.
Another problem is that a lot of people are bitten while they are sleeping on the ground in their huts in villages by a particular species of snakes called the crate. A simple thing like a mosquito net could prevent that. So, there are simple solutions to these very, very severe problems but getting the word out is our biggest challenge right now.
-express features service