Meet the 60-year-old woman from Kochi who rescues snakes to put them back in the wild
Google “snake rescuer Kochi” and Vidya Raju’s name pops up first. She has rescued more than a thousand snakes so far and is helping preserve wildlife.
Vidya Raju’s neighbourhood is quite used to the sight of her taking off at any time of the day and night after a call. Her impromptu adventures, however, are unusual in nature. The 60-year-old is notified whenever a snake is seen somewhere in Kochi (or Ernakulam district) and has to be rescued.
After verifying the call and informing officials at the Forest Department, she sets off on her mission, to rescue the snake and hand it over to be let out into the wild, in its natural habitat.
Vidya is a wildlife rescuer, which means she is passionate about rescuing any form of wildlife in distress. But she is known more as a snake rescuer, having rescued more than a thousand snakes “and counting,” as she tells me over an interesting conversation at her modest Pannampilly Nagar home in Kochi.
After her husband retired as Commodore from the Indian Navy, the family decided to stay on in Kochi for a few more years as Vidya continues her work as a volunteer with the Cochin Natural History Society (CNHS). For the past three years, she has been working with groups studying the migratory pattern of birds during the summer and wet seasons by travelling throughout Kerala.
“After the work for the bird atlas is over, we will decide where to move,” says Vidya, adding that the snake rescue calls, however, are in full swing.
Vidya is from Bihar but her father’s Central government job ensured that they moved to different states. After getting married to a Navy officer, the move continued and so did Vidya’s teaching stints at various Navy schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas throughout the country.
How it all began
But where did this passion for rescuing snakes come from?
Vidya recalls, “Around 2002-03, we were stationed in Goa. I was already a volunteer with the World Wildlife Fund. Volunteers used to take us bird watching. One particular volunteer used to constantly talk to us about reptiles. I told him to call me the next time he rescued a snake. I held the snake in my hand and was not frightened at all,” she says.
Snakes intrigued her and she began reading extensively on the subject and how to identify venomous and non-venomous ones. “Soon, I started rescuing snakes encroaching into the area we lived in, and handed them over to the Forest Department. Likewise, I was also interested in all forms of wildlife and also started studying the patterns of birds,” Vidya adds.
Interestingly, her efforts at rescuing snakes came into great use during the floods in Kerala in 2018. Many people in the city sighted snakes in their houses and sometimes she was getting two to three calls in a day.
“I have rescued the most number of snakes after the floods. Now, when I get a call, I verify whether it’s genuine by asking them to send me a photograph of the snake. If it’s inside the house, I tell them not to disturb it and wait for me,” she says.
What to do when you spot a snake
Vidya says the first instinct on sighting a snake is fear and therefore the first reaction is to kill it. “I advise people to take precautions in the case of any snake, whether venomous or non-venomous. I go there, use a stick or hook to rescue it, and secure it in a bag. Earlier I used to use my hands but I think minimum human touch is recommended, because one does not know how aggressive the snake is,” she explains.
According to Vidya, from the snake’s perspective, it’s scared to be out of its natural habitat. If a snake is outside the house, especially in a farm, and is non-venomous, I ask people to leave it be, as it can control the rodent population.
For the love of wildlife welfare
Vidya is also against the practice of chaining elephants, which is a common occurrence in the State’s many temples. “I tried fighting for their rights but there’s always religion associated with it, so couldn’t continue much further,” she says.
Once, Vidya received a call that two large eagles were on display at a hotel in Fort Kochi. When she rushed there, she found they were kites with their wings clipped off. She handed over the case to the Forest Department for action.
That wildlife is as important as human beings in the ecosystem is something we must be always aware of, says Vidya. For this, she gives awareness presentations and talks in various schools and colleges in the city.
In Kataribagh, the Naval Colony in the city, Vidya takes school children out on bird-watching walks. “I ask them to hear the chirping of birds, listening carefully to the different sounds. One can be amazed to the see the variety of birds in the city itself. Once, we even rescued an owl, nursed it, and waited for night to set it free. I think it’s up to us to teach our children how important wildlife is.”
She has also helped develop a 100-herb ‘Herbal Garden’ at the Indian Naval Academy (INA), Ezhimala, and coordinated the compilation efforts for a book on the uses of these herbs in 2011 for. Vice Admiral Anurag G Thapliyal, the then Commandant of INA, had given her a letter of appreciation for her work.
Once bitten forever hooked
Google “snake rescuer Kochi” and Vidya’s name comes up first. “With recognition, comes responsibility. Now when I get a call after midnight, I mostly insist that I be picked up if it’s a genuine case.”
Vidya has also been bitten a few times though they were non-venomous snakes. “Once, I took the live snake with me to the hospital to show them it was non-venomous. But to be on the safe side, they kept me under observation at the ICU.”
After her volunteering stint with CHNS is over, the family may move to either Hyderabad or Visakhapatnam. “Kochi holds a very special place in my heart, but I am 60 now, and don’t know how long my reflexes will hold. But I hope to continue with my work.”
She has lost count of the number of wildlife groups she is part of. “All I want to do is contribute my bit to society, in whatever way I can. And this is the way I know best,” she adds.
(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)