A snake catcher is an individual who catches and removes poisonous snakes from homes, offices, and fields in areas where deadly snakes are common. The snake catcher is an ancient profession of societies throughout Asia- particularly the tropical regions of South and Southeast Asia- but are also found throughout the world, or at least everywhere that there's snakes (Antarctica and Ireland need not apply). Snake catchers have been part of life ever since organized cultivation and settled living began, filling a unique niche in town and village life.
While they are most commonly associated with rural village
life, snake catchers continue to be employed on farms, in cities, and on college campuses (and you thought squirrels were bad) in India
and elsewhere. In small villages, a snake catcher may just be whichever farmer is best at the job (and most fearless). In urban
areas, some individuals are employed as full-time snake catchers- sort of an ultra-specialized animal control
contractor. In many cases, snake
catching is a family affair, with the craft being passed down a family line (usually father to son).
In some areas, snake catching has developed into a local specialty. The inhabitants of a particular village may be known for their snake catching prowess- which often also includes a working knowledge of what herbs and local compounds can be used to combat the effects of snake venom. Snake catchers are always familiar, in a practical sort of way, with the types and habits of the local snakes in their region. They can recognize which snakes are dangerous, and how they need to be approached.
While most snake catching is done just to remove the threat of someone accidentally stomping on a dangerous creature and getting bit, some snake catchers catch with larger purposes in mind. The village of Le Mat in Vietnam is known for serving cooked, wild caught snake as a delicacy. Several local families are employed as snake catchers to ensure that visitors and tourists from nearby Hanoi will be able to partake of an eleven course meal, all made from snake. Even more strangely, in India poisonous snakes have sometimes been used as a sort of home security system. Leave home in the morning, and the local snake catcher will show up and release a live cobra or two in your house, to deter anyone from poking around your favorite hidey-holes while you're at work. In the afternoon, the snake catcher returns and captures the snake or snakes before you arrive home for supper. Hope he gets them all.
I was actually reminded of this subject by Roninspoon's remark about Buddhists not handling snakes to prove their faith in the write-up 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him'. In a few small villages in Burma/Myanmar live the lucky folks who get to prove to be the exception to the rule. While some snake catchers kill their catch, or sell it to butchers, some simply carry their snakes deeper into the jungles, and release them. In particular, an organized sect of snake catchers in Burma refuses to kill their prisoners after catching them because of their belief in Buddhist principles of non-violence and reincarnation. Cynics might also note that a snake you kill is a snake you will never again be paid for removing.
Whatever their motivations, the snake catchers are notable for their ultra-low fatality rate, despite the fact that they regularly catch some of the most toxic snakes in the world with their bare hands. And it isn't that they don't get bit; most members of the group sport a good dozen or so fang marks from their scaly friends. The snake catchers of this particular sect believe that their faith, moral purity, and most importantly their protective tattoos, often in the form of Buddhist symbols or prayers, will preserve them from the effects of the snake venom they so often come in contact with.
Now protective tattoos are nothing new in Buddhism. Monks and others in Southeast Asia have been creating them for years. But the tattoos of the Burmese snake catchers have a secret- or rather, a secret ingredient.
Powdered snake venom.
You see, when a Burmese snake catcher catches a snake, he often 'milks' it, extracting its venom and then reducing it to a powder. This powdered venom is then mixed with the ink of the protective tattoos, which are renewed at least every year during religious rights in which all the catchers participate.
By including the snake venom in their constantly renewed tattoos, the snake catchers of this Burmese sect are developing immunity to these toxins by slowly, as the number and size of the tattoos is increased, increasing the dose of the venom to which they are exposed. A newly apprenticed snake catcher might receive only a single tattoo; a man who has been at it for ten or more years will have them covering his arms and torso. The hunters even recognize that they need the venom of a specific snake in order to gain immunity; when asked by a visiting herpetologist if they could handle snakes from the U.S. or other locations without danger, they correctly noted that they could- but only if they could incorporate the new species' venom into their protective tattoos first.
So some Buddhists do handle snakes as a sign of their religious convictions. They're just a little more clever about it.