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Donate now to: BSB 062-578, account number 101 373 52. Money well spent. Thanks.

George the Snakeman

George Ellis gets woken by the phone, and it’s a lady who has woken up thinking her husband was back early from work, but no, it’s two big Black Snakes mating on the bed beside her, right against her body. She doesn’t know whether to freak or freeze. Freeze, says George, and jumps in his truck. He found the place, found his way in, grabbed the snakes and then she freaked. Nobody was bitten, but they took a while to stop shaking. The snakes went back to mating, in a box in the back of George’s ute.

So what do you do if you wake up like that, or see the last half-metre of a Brown Snake disappearing into your daughter’s bedroom? In Byron Shire, we call George Ellis. He has rescued about 3000 Brown Snakes, three hundred Red-bellied Black Snakes, and some very rare and interesting specimens which found themselves in the wrong place, for a total, so far, of about 7800.

Byron Bay Snake Patrol George EllisWelcome to Byron Bay, please don’t walk on the Brown Snakes. He has been our “George the Snakeman” since 1996, even though a businessman in Melbourne registered the trademarks ‘snakeman’ and ‘snake man’ since then. Section 124 of the 1995 Trade Marks Act allows for ‘prior use’, so George Ellis will always be our ‘George the Snakeman’.

Byron Bay needs George. He serves not just the modern town, but the ancient place, before settlement. The reason we live surrounded by National Park is that we hacked our way in through bush and swamp, chose a place near the beach and settled. In the early days boys would make money killing snakes and selling them for skins, ‘by the foot’. There were plenty to be had.

Now we’re here, and so are the snakes. They have their routines. They travel up and down the coast, behind the beach, and apparently more down than up, according to George. He says that most of the snakes he intercepts on their way through Byron Bay are heading south. Jonson Street runs all the way to the beach, and the food smells from the many restaurants draw in the rats, and the Brown Snakes follow.

Byron Bay is a snake magnet. Most of the Brown Snakes George rescues in Byron Bay are on the main street, Jonson Street, or within a couple of blocks. When a woman was bitten on the foot outside the kebab shop in Jonson Street, by a Brown Snake, she later said it might have been nice to have been warned to keep an eye out for them.

But no, Byron Bay is a tourist resort, and we don’t want to scare the customers away. There are no warning signs to watch out for some of the most deadly snakes on the planet, which infest this place. George gets no funding, or recognition, from government at any level, and little support from the business community. Sometimes his expenses get covered by a donation, but not often enough.

When George was called to the Byron Shire Council offices to remove a Brown Snake, they said ‘send us an invoice’. Yeah, like George is going to get his accountant right onto that. He’s not in business, he just has a calling.

The Police like George, and respect his calling, especially when he’s on call 24/7. If you ring 000 with snakes mating in your bed, in Byron Shire George will probably get a call. Our Police already risk their lives for us every day, without the additional snake-handling, so they call George.

Byron Snakeman
Police thank George “The Snake Man” for his snake removal services, in 2007

One Melbourne Cup day a six-foot Brown Snake swam through the swimming pool near the beach, underneath a woman doing laps. The pool guy poked her with a leaf scooper and told her to get out, now. The snake got out too, and headed for the Beach Hotel, across the road. Children who had been in the pool were being hurried onto a bus when the snake saw the gathering crowd and headed for safety, under the bus. George had to grab it and pull it back onto the road, and it swung and struck. Ripped the glove off his free hand with its fangs; it was that close. The snake took off towards the crowd which had poured out of the pub, and George had to push some drunk out of its way. After George caught the snake, the guy wanted George charged with assault for pushing him. Police suggested that wasn’t a charge likely to stick in the circumstances.

George (Snakeman) Ellis with Brown SnakeWhen George releases snakes, in certain places, as is his legal obligation, he tells them to beware the hand of man. Snakes generally avoid people, and they live many years, and learn.

The quickest way to get bitten by a snake is to mess with it. Our Brown Snakes are second in the world for toxicity, and don’t mind a fight. They can strike and kill any animal that comes within about a third of their body length, in an instant. They are born venomous, and the really big ones can have bad attitude. Red-bellied Black snakes are mild by comparison, but pack a mean bite. George knows from experience.

When a snake is seen in the street and then disappears under a car, nobody wants to go near it. When George dismantled a Porsche in Lawson Street, it left on the back of a truck, and got on local TV. The metre-long Brown Snake had been found, eventually, in some chassis rail under the rear end. So, when a black snake disappeared into a car outside Cheeky Monkeys, George felt fortunate to have spotted it fairly quickly.

There’s a plastic inner guard under the wheel arch, where the Red-bellied Black Snake had a hold. George had the head, but it didn’t want let go. Then the plastic popped and gave way, and George fell on his butt, still holding the snake. Never let go the snake.

But, as he fell, it bit him, on the thigh. He stood up and, still holding the snake, which had settled as they do when he holds them, he asked a policeman to please pull down his pants a bit. An unusual request, but unusual circumstances, and yes, there was a bite mark.

He put the snake away and prepared for an unpleasant night. Ring a few people, ride in an ambulance, get very, very sick.

There are antivenoms, but they are certainly not a cure. Local hospitals avoid them because of side-effects like anaphalaxis and cardiac arrest. Snakes use their venom to kill prey quickly and turn its insides to mush for easy digestion. Snake-bite victims can bleed to death internally.

If there’s even a slight possibility you or a friend may have been bitten, immobilize and firmly wrap the bitten bit and get to hospital immediately. (see First Aid) The usual hospital test for ‘envenomation’ (‘did it get ya?’) is to draw blood and see how quickly it coagulates. There are tests where the venom off the skin at the bite site can by ‘typed’, but George knew he’d been bitten by a Black Snake, and that very few people die from Red-bellied Black Snake bite. He declined the antivenom.

He was, in his own words, in shit from ankles to shoulders. His body emptied. He had no choice but to simply live through it, so he did.

George’s ‘right attitude’ saves lives, and not just his, or the statistically certain casualties from the thousands of snakes he’s removed. Sometimes just quietly being there is important.

A woman rang to say she’d had a close call when a snake brushed past her ankle while she was hanging out the washing. She just wanted someone to talk to about it. George paid her a visit, just to be sure. She was upset, understandably, at her close call, but it seemed to George it might have been closer than she thought. He asked her to check her lymph nodes for swelling, and tested her vision, and suggested perhaps a trip to hospital might be wise, just to be sure she hadn’t been bitten.

The blood test at Mullumbimby hospital indicated envenomation, with consequent internal bleeding, and she was rushed to Lismore Hospital for treatment. Close call, happy ending.

If there’s even a chance you’ve been bitten, get help. Snake fangs are needle sharp. In some species they are hollow, like a syringe, and in others they are grooved. Some are more ‘efficient’ at delivering venom than others. Even a scratch can be life-threatening.

Every day George Ellis is rescuing snakes from people and vice versa. He’ll never know how many lives he’s saved, and how much suffering he has prevented. Sometimes people give him ‘petrol money’ when he saves their children’s lives. Local politicians and businessmen don’t want to know about him, and newspapers fear litigation from Melbourne if they even mention him. George is devoted to his calling, despite opposition. He is an Aussie ‘quiet achiever’, an unsung hero.

Plenty of people are happy to say George is a good bloke, and does important work, but there is little value in stating the bloody obvious. Some people put their money where their mouth is. These people make it possible for George to continue his work. Join them.

Make George’s day, while he’s out saving lives. Stick some money in his bank account, so he can keep going, and so he knows he is appreciated. BSB 062-578, account number 101 373 52. Money well spent. Thanks.

Brown Snakes mating
Eastern Brown Snakes courting in a carpark in Byron Bay