A MAN who lives with 250 snakes says we should respect them, writes SARAH HUDSON
Since Adam and Eve, snakes have copped bad PR.
Deadly and decidedly uncuddly, they rank with spiders and sharks as the most feared creatures on the planet.
Sean McCarthy, however, begs to differ.
Though he shrinks from the comparison, the 38-year-old is the Steve Irwin of the reptile world.
Through his Mornington Peninsula business Snake Handlers, Sean has made it his mission to travel around rural Australia, and the world, not only as a snake catcher, demonstrator and educator, teaching courses and holding workshops, but also as defender of all reptiles.
So in demand is his business, he is away from home most weeks and he's always hiring more staff.
Sean has even been sent by BHP to work on a Pakistan mine to help lower the death toll from cobras and vipers.
And he's come cheek to jowl with komodo dragons (known for swallowing humans) after being hired as security by the BBC in Indonesia for a documentary on the creatures.
Soon he's heading to Zimbabwe to sort out some of their problem serpents.
No, he says, he's not mad, he just wants a fair go for the average copperhead.
"I like to challenge people's beliefs," says Sean, who has never been bitten by a snake in a lifetime of handling them.
"The first thing we learn about snakes is the evil serpent and for 200 years in Australia we've been told how dangerous they are and the best snakes are dead ones.
"I don't want people killing them, not because I'm a lover of them, but because it is possible to live with them and avoid them. I think all animals have their place."
Sean grew up in Wangaratta and, like most country kids, had a fascination for slithery critters.
He was encouraged by his dad, who was a primary teacher with a passion for biology, zoology and field trips.
"Dad taught me how to observe their behaviour, not to hurt them, and to let them go."
As an adult Sean was for some years a semi-professional basketball player and then, after injury, turned to taekwondo, becoming the 2001 Australian heavyweight champion at the sport's World Cup in Vietnam.
When a mate offered him his business, Snake Handlers, in 2005, Sean's love of reptiles was rekindled.
Today he has a 10m by 10m reptile enclosure in his backyard with 250 inhabitants and 46 species, including Australia's top five deadliest snakes (the inland taipan is No.1) as well as umpteen bearded dragons, turtles, blue-tongue lizards and even a giant tarantula.
He estimates the collection is worth more than $500,000 (he asks that his address is not revealed to keep the collection safe).
Sean studied for a bachelor of science degree and has worked at the CSIRO. When he started in the snake business, he would get callouts 24/7 to catch snakes in backyards.
These days he largely leaves that to his staff, as well as snake-catchers he trains around the state.
His staff also oversee children's party and classroom demonstrations, which he started early in the business.
Sean is in demand for mining industry workshops. As Australia's only accredited venomous snake handling course trainer, he is often in the outback working with Rio Tinto, BHP, Anglo American and other mining giants on snake protection.
"Native animals are protected so it's a legal requirement for mines to remove them safely so no animal is harmed," says Sean, a father of two, whose wife, Stacey, works with him in Snake Handlers.
"If you want to relocate them you have to be trained - that's what I do.
"It's quite an extreme working with mines around the country, then coming home to a kids' party for reptile demonstrations."
But wherever he goes, his philosophy is the same.
"Snakes are to be respected. If you fear them, then you have an adverse reaction and you can frighten them.
"You can't teach a person to have empathy, but you can teach them to reduce their fear, to relax."
He says one study showed horses killed 40 people in Australia each year, cows 20 and sharks 12, but the death toll from snakes was eight.
- Details: snakehandler.com.au/ or ph: 0418 809 797.