The snake charmers of the German army.
By Klara Weidemann
"If nothing else will work: load your P8 and fire," says biologist Patrick Boncourt, as a threatening hissing sound comes from several plastic boxes in the corner of the courtyard. Together with a group of German army medics, Boncourt is visiting a reptile sanctuary in Munich, where, with the help of sanctuary director Markus Baur, he's helping prepare the soldiers for deployment abroad. Today they're learning how to deal with dangerous reptiles - more precisely, poisonous snakes. "People's lives always come first," says Boncourt. But the sanctuary, the only one of its kind in Germany, also teaches soldiers how to protect animals. "Our goal is ensure everybody's safety," says Boncourt, adding that when people know what to look out for, it's quite possible to live safely alongside all sorts of animals. "We try to make snakes less scary," Boncourt says. A rat can be almost as dangerous as a cobra, he explains. The soldiers learn how to evaluate how dangerous a snake is, how to calm it, trap it and release it again. All six soldiers taking part on this overcast morning are due to be deployed to Mali or Afghanistan in the coming months, where it's more than likely that a poisonous snake could slither into their camps. Baur carefully opens the lid of one of the plastic boxes. Over the past couple of days, the soldiers have already been practicing with ties, dolls and non-poisonous snakes. Today they are being confronted with poisonous snakes that live in Asia and Africa so as to create more realistic conditions - and nobody is volunteering to go first. "The animals have purposefully not been defanged," says Boncourt. Nor have their fangs been milked. "Nobody told us this before the training started," says Christin S, one of the soldiers, nervously. As Baur allows two Indian cobras to slowly glide into the courtyard, one soldier comments: "The most important rule is the tree." Boncourt nods in agreement: Stand still, breathe deeply and don't move. As long as you don't annoy the snake, it won't attack. The first soldiers stand still and let the snakes slide around their feet. The cold-blooded animals seem peaceful despite the temperature being 19 degrees Celsius. Then comes the next box, containing a spectacled cobra. "Oh God, this animal is disgusting," says Daniela S. With visible unease, she uses a metal pincer to pick the snake up out of the box. The 40-year-old has already been on seven deployments with the German army. But at her next station in Mali, she's fairly sure this training will come in handy. "The base there is small, there's hardly any trained vets," she says. As soon as the cobra touches the ground, it begins slithering towards a manhole cover and has already half disappeared down a hole before Baur manages to grab it and pull it back out. No snake has ever escaped from the sanctuary, he says reassuringly. Munich's famed Englischer Garten park is right next door to the sanctuary, and nobody would be pleased to find a large poisonous snake disrupting their picnic. "But if the snake was as calm as he is now, it would be fine to let him off in the park," Baur jokes. "I have retained a healthy respect for the animals," says 25-year-old Christin S at the end of the session, adding that she's no longer afraid of snakes. All the participants agree that there's a big difference between simply looking at a snake and having to touch it. But they feel well-prepared for the eventuality. Police officers and firefighters are regularly trained at the sanctuary too. "What lots of people don't know is that if you find an animal, it's actually the fire brigade that's responsible for it," says Boncourt. -DPA
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