Meet Lantau snake charmer William Sargent

 Pui O snake buff William Sargent aims to remove the fear factor from some of Lantau’s most numerous residents. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

When Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) escapes his rival archaeologist by plane at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, he finds himself sharing his cockpit seat with Reggie, his pilot Jock’s pet snake. “I hate snakes Jock, I hate ’em,” Indiana growls as they fly away. Questionable representation of South American indigenous peoples aside, the classic character gives voice to what many of us feel about our legless, eyelid-free reptile friends.

As Pui O resident William Sargent sees it, that’s an unfair assessment, which he’s changing one snake-hater at a time.

Discussing the educational Snake Day he’s hosting in DB on June 4, William admits that the potential danger in snakes plays a large part in the perceptions we all have. And their association with other man-eaters – ‘dinosaurs’ like sharks and crocodiles – doesn’t help. But get to know snakes, like William has over the course of his life, most of it on Lantau, and they become just another animal, albeit a cool one.

“When you see a snake in the wild, in its natural habitat, it’s a fascinating and beautiful creature,” he says.

A life-long passion

Now 40, William relocated to Hong Kong at the ripe old age of one (“I moved here for tax purposes,” he quips) with his British father, a civil engineer, and Swiss mother. As a kid growing up on Lantau (mum and brother still live in Chi Ma Wan), getting outdoors was encouraged, and animals, including snakes, were just a part of life. Given that, how did he come to fixate on snakes and not, say, monkeys?

“I get asked that quite a lot,” says William with a grin, looking very much like a refugee from a Guy Ritchie movie but less angry and quicker with a laugh. “If you look at this objectively, why is it someone will go crazy for puppies, for horses, for pigs, but they hate snakes?” he asks. With the exception of rats (which he likens to wingless pigeons), William says he likes all wildlife pretty much, and he attributes this to the fact that he grew up surrounded by animals.

“My brother used to catch snakes with his mates and bring them home,” he says. “As a 10-year-old that’s dangerous and exciting.” He’ll still cop to the adrenalin rush that goes with it, as part of the charm of snakes.

When William’s not slinking around looking for snakes (or rescuing them from felons, more on that in a bit), he works as an event planner, which he segued into after a career in publishing. Though organising more and more corporate hikes these days – for 220 Bank of America staff, or Prudential Asia-Pacific’s 160 – William serves as director for MoonTrekker, the 73-kilometre overnight hike that has raised money for children’s charities in the past, and currently for The Nature Conservancy.

Less gruelling is TrailWagger, an 8-kilometre jaunt from Mui Wo, that William organised on April 16 in support of Animals Asia. This year, the event’s first, about 100 humans and over 100 dogs took part in the hike that ended in Discovery Bay with a barbeque.

“TrailWagger was really, really fun,” William says. “It was so nice to be part of an event with such a friendly and enthusiastic group. Some participants ran but for most it was a leisurely hike. The dogs were really well behaved, and I was really touched by the positive feedback.” What was on the barbeque? “Hot dogs.”

But back to the snakes. William married long-time girlfriend and teacher Karen in late March, and when asked, recounts their second date nearly five years ago. After a lovely dinner/ drinks/ movie kind of start, their second outing saw William taking Karen on a snake hunt. At night. He thought it was completely normal though her friends were boggled. “That’s how they knew she was into me,” he recalls. She’s used to it now and occasionally wrangles a snake for neighbours when he’s not around.

Which brings up the felons. William also works with the Hong Kong Police, capturing snakes when they wander into schools, homes and, yes, prisons, like the 10-foot python that got stuck in a drain at Tong Fuk Correctional Institute a while back.

And yes, pythons are indigenous to Hong Kong, one of 50 types that are. To put that in perspective, the Amazon region – one of the most ecologically diverse spots on the planet – is home to 150 species. As William, a self-described Hong Kong snake snob says, “That’s pretty impressive”.

DB Snake Day

At Snake Day – the June 4 talk William is holding on all things snakey at Hemingway’s, DB – there will be live snakes and, thankfully, a working bar. Friends encouraged the self-taught aficionado to start sharing the knowledge back in 2014 and he’s since held about a dozen such talks. “I limit the number of engagements I do, as it’s a hobby after all,” he says. “I am always motivated to do more by seeing the change in people’s attitude.”

William starts with the basics: education and understanding. “The mind draws pictures that are not necessarily good. It’s like being scared to fly. If you don’t know what the sounds are, you’re going to crap yourself. Sit down with a pilot and [they] explain it and you’re fine. It’s the same with snakes,” he explains. “Once you understand them you’ll be a lot more comfortable. I’m not just saying that; I’ve seen it. I’ve done talks with people who have phobias of snakes. I’m not suggesting it cures everything but it definitely goes a long way to making it easier.

“Snakes are so understudied and misunderstood, and there’s so much myth around them you only need to know a little bit and that puts you ahead of most people,” William adds. As for the location, is it really a good idea to bring ‘serpentes’ to a bar where attendees can get a drink? “Yeah,” William says, “it’s recommended.”

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