This is what happened to me last week: together with my two small kids, I set off from the village of Brgat to Dubrovnik. Some 50 meters from our house, I saw a rather big snake in the middle of the road. I couldn’t have been mistaken: it was one of the local vipers, i.e. a venomous specie, and although it wasn’t moving, it was pretty clear that the snake was alive. However: it was calm, confident and in a way, it was beautiful, portraying perfection of nature. I stepped out of the car and within a secure distance, I tried to throw little stones at the snake so it bloody moves from the road and doesn’t get run over. While the viper refused to move, another car – one of our neighbours from the village – queued behind me. “What shall we do?” I shouted at him.
“This!” he shouted back and then, overtaking me in manner you can only see in the Balkans, he ran over the snake’s tail, obviously not killing it: it was just enough to cause pain to the animal which was now half stapled to the asphalt, struggling for life inside a ripped bloodied skin.
My kids screamed in horror. “Mom, the snake is hurt!”
The neighbour didn’t drive off. He observed the scene through the rear mirror, satisfied.
“Asshole!” I yelled, despite years of meticulous strategy and effort I invested into my good relations with the village. “You feel better now?”
“It’s the horned viper, stupid!” he yelled back.
“What does it matter? You f*cking go back now and end his suffering!”
Annoyed, the neighbour drove back and forth over the snake until it turned into a motionless stripe of bloody meat. Then, tyres squeaking, he took off.
Kids sobbed. I felt horrible. The snake was dead, as was my illusion that I could ever integrate here.
In the next days, I shared the story with about thirty random local people and asked them, what would they do: all of them answered the same – of course they would run over the snake! Wait, they actually did run over it the other day, yes, completely intentionally, and that is nothing – there was a neighbour, who once saw some peculiar kind of snake at his balcony, so he chased him into a hole in the façade and he sealed the hole with cement. You know, it’s bloody dangerous! It jumps at you to attack! It is totally coldblooded! Vicious! There was a case of a viper getting into somebody’s open trunk of a car! An airplane – there was even a movie about that!
Compared to all the stories and warnings about vipers in Dalmatia, Snakes on a Plane was a comedy. And I had to conclude, that being a snake in Dalmatia was often a very tragic fate.
Practically speaking, there are a few things to keep in mind about vipers in Dalmatia:
1) It’s your choice and right to panic, but feel free to tick off vipers from your “scared of” list (you can always keep drunk drivers and Donald Trump).
2) There are only two venomous species: the common viper and the horned viper (locally called a “poskok” or “crnokrug”), both easily distinguishable by a zig-zag dark pattern on their backs. They are both relatively common in Dalmatia, however, both are protected by domestic and international law, so intentional killing or torturing is strictly prohibited.
3) Neither of the vipers will attack unless physically irritated, stepped on or feeling considerably endangered. Common sense is required when hiking or walking in rural areas of Dalmatia (solid boots, long pants, making noise as you walk to warn snakes about your presence).
4) In the summer months, when the vipers’ natural habitat becomes very dry, they do get closer to populated areas and there have been rare cases of a snake entering a garden or a balcony in search of water. Also, horned viper sometimes rests on the lower branches of trees, so particularly when hiking, be careful when walking underneath the trees (consider alternative paths if possible).
5) If bit by a viper, seek medical assistance as soon as possible. If not treated, a bite by an adult horned viper can be fatal.
6) Vipers’ natural enemies are cats, mongooses (widely spread on Peljesac and Mljet) and glass snakes.
7) Vipers themselves feed mostly on mice, rats and other pests, hence keeping the numbers of small mammals within limits (particularly local farmers should keep this in mind next time before they decide to smash a viper with a hoe).
Blanka Pavlovic a.k.a. the Adriatic Bride is a Czech writer. She studied law (Prague) and creative writing (Oxford). As a lawyer, she specialized in international human rights law, first working for the European Court of Human Rights, then for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. She wrote five books, among them Total Balkans, The Handbook of the Adriatic Bride or The Return of the Adriatic Bride. She now lives with her family between Dubrovnik and Donji Brgat. More information and English translations of her work are available through www.blankacechova.com