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Image: Archi Banal
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MediaJanuary 18, 2023

A hisssstory of snake headlines in Aotearoa

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

The snake in the spa pool is just the latest in our proud, bizarre history of snake-based news stories. Alex Casey takes a look back at some of the best.  

It feels like every other week there’s a story about snake popping up somewhere it shouldn’t be in Aotearoa. On Monday, MPI launched an investigation after a North Shore resident found a snake luxuriously nestled behind his spa pool. The man described the discovery as “bizarre and disconcerting”, but this is just one in a litany of snake sightings across the country. Whether it’s headlines about snakes on beaches, snakes in utes, snakes on building sites or snakes on TikTok, snake stories are becoming one of our biggest news beats. 

Inspired by our latest self-care spa snake, I had a slither back through the archives to see if we’ve always been this psyched on a good snake story. What I found was pages and pages of snake yarns, dating all the way back to 1886. That very first bonkers news story – from The West Coast Times, titled ‘The Auckland Snake’ and featuring an interview with a cordial manufacturer (?) who captured a snake (??) at the Ellerslie Grandstand (???) – didn’t even make the top ten list. But these ones did: 

10. Snake found in road tunnel

(The Press, December 1972

The scene? Lyttelton tunnel, 5.15am. The suspect? A small grass snake on the end of a shovel. “I thought it was a lizard when they showed me,” said tunnel supervisor Mr J. Storey. “On close examination, it looked like a snake all right.” Guessing it may have fallen from a box on a banana truck, Mr Storey was quick to quash any moral panic. “There will be no snake hunt”, he said defiantly. “It is the first snake I have heard of at Lyttelton.” 

9. A moving essay on the snake

(The Auckland Star, 1904)

I’m sorry, this is not strictly a snake sighting, but it is a very charming excerpt from a publication called “Country Gentleman” written mysteriously by “a small boy in a fairly well known school” (sorry Deux Moi). “A snake is a worm that has lived a happy life and grown fat. If you see a snake, go where you can’t see it as soon as possible,” the small boy writes. “An adder is a snake, but a lightening calculator is not a snake.” 

8. Snake found in wheat cargo

(The Press, 1954)

Port workers in Timaru had to act quickly after a 2ft 4in pale brown snake was found under a tarpaulin while they were offloading wheat cargo way back in November of 1954. It was not known at the time of reporting if the snake was venomous or not, but perhaps even more concerning is this cliffhanger closer: “Although the snake was killed on Thursday evening, its nerves were still twitching this morning.”

We love our snakes. (Image: Toby Morris)

7. Snake in factory, cyanide gas used

(The Press, 1964)

In the most aggro entry into this canon, a 4ft long black snake spotted by watchmen at a Penrose factory led to an almost military operation storming the site. “The warehouse was fumigated with cyanide gas tonight… Police with a double barrel shotgun, three Agriculture Department men and workers with batons combed the box-lined storeroom today.”

Despite the snake having what sounds like a rather beautiful tinge – “blue like a starling’s wing” – veterinarian Dr R A Wheeler did not mince his words: “It must be found and destroyed. New Zealand is a snake free country and we want it to stay that way.” 

6. Snake found in bushes in suburb of Auckland

(The Press, 1964)

The story begins normally with a dead snake being brought into a newsroom. “A dead snake 2ft 7in long was brought into The New Zealand Herald office tonight,” it reads. “It had been found in some bushes in Titirangi.” After being dissected by a snake expert, assumedly among the ashtrays and typewriters of the Herald office, she was unable to identify the curious blue-green snake, determine how it made it to Titirangi, or find a cause of death. 

Two days later, some clarity. “The snake was dead when it arrived in New Zealand; it was smuggled in a preserved state; it was found in the bushes at Titirangi already in a bottle of fluid.” As it turns out, the two boys who found it were spinning major yarns and their father had to call the paper to set the record straight about their “utter nonsense”, before saying one of his sons had a “vivid imagination” and it was simply in a jar on the neighbour’s property. Shots fired! 

5. Snake in hold – men flee ship

(The Press, 1976

A chilling report from Auckland in November 1976: “Men in a hold of the Soviet freighter Kotovisky scrambled for the exits when the cry of ‘snakes alive’ went up.” Union official J Hewitt described the snake, found deceased, as “greeny-spotted” in appearance. “No-one was taking any chances,” he continued. “It was thrown at me and I got a fright all right.” 

4. Live snake found buried in sand heap

(Poverty Bay Herald, 1939)

The good people of H S Motors in Gisborne were shocked to find a live snake in a load of sand, which had recently been extracted from a nearby beach. “The snake, which was not very active when found, had a brown scaly appearance on top, the colour underneath being yellow,” the description reads, “it was about as thick as a sausage.” 

3. Snake draped in a tree

(Waikato Times, 1945

Another day, another poisonous snake found too far inland. This time the people of Te Aroha were treated to a poisonous ringed sea snake curled around the branch of a tree in Church Street, mystified as it was “unlikely it could have swum there.” But like our lovely sausage snake in Gisborne, this too comes with a watertight comparison: “about the thickness of a man’s thumb.” 

Snakes on a beach (not in 1938). (Image: Tina Tiller)

2. Absolute snake mayhem

(Assorted publications, 1938)

1938 saw the invention of the Biro pen, the birth of Kenny Rogers and not one, not two, but three snake local sightings. The first came in May with the extremely unnecessary headline “Maori captures a snake”. According to reports, a 30-inch long snake was found by two local children in Mahia Peninsula “some distance from the sea”. Curiously, after being killed it was forwarded to the editor of the Wairoa Star, who sent it on to the museum. Say what you will about the media these days, but we just don’t get as many dead snake deliveries as we used to.

The snake onslaught of 1938 continued with two more sightings in June. A three-foot long live water snake washed up on Dargaville’s Bailey Beach on June 15 – “the snake has a black back with yellow belly and yellow stripes turning to circles at the tail.” Just one day later another 21-inch spotted blue and yellow snake, “which apparently had not been long dead”, was discovered by a man walking along Ninety Mile Beach. Did these brave snakes risk their lives trying to get their invisible hands on a brand new Biro? Sources say: it’s possible.

1. A Shannon snake story

(The Horowhenua Times, 1892

One of our oldest snake headlines also happens to be the single most bonkers yarn of the lot. In August 1892, the Horowhenua Times published an “extraordinary snake story”, the outlandish details of which the editor at the time said “he has no reason to doubt.” Mr Henry De Costa reported that he kept finding his cow completely dry of milk when it came to milking time, suspecting either “an unscrupulous neighbour” or “a nearby bush man”. 

One morning he reports being “almost thunderstruck” to discover the real culprit, “a large snake coiled around the udder of the beast, quietly sucking her milk.” The snake, promptly killed, was found to be a 6ft 3in death adder that had most likely nestled in the hay around his farming equipment when De Costa moved from Australia earlier that year. Unfortunately De Costa has not replied to The Spinoff’s request for further comment on the matter. Sweet dreams!

Keep going!