Maboni Mmatli | 18 August 2017
While at the National Science Week 2017 at the Nelson Mandela University, we were able to get in touch with a young female scientist by the name Mampho Phadima (MP). Mampho is a reptile handler and bird handler at Bay world. We were able to interview her. Below is her interview with Maboni Mmatli (MM) of Sci4Ubuntu.
MM: Hello Mampho. Explain to me how your average day starts?
MP: Hello Maboni, an average day starts off with feeding the hedgehogs and checking up on all our animals to make sure everyone is still alive. On feeding day it's a little bit busier because we also clean all the enclosures [enclosures are the homes of these animals].
MM: What is a reptile handler? And specifically, what do you do in this place?
MP; Well the name says it all. A reptile handler is basically someone who handles reptiles. Really my job is to take care of the animals. Make sure they are doing well and are taken care off. I also facilitate interaction between some of our snakes and the public.
MM: What kind of animals do you take care of? And how do you take care of them?
MP: We have snakes, tortoises, lizards and geckos. Oh and we have tarantulas as well. Taking care of these animals includes making sure their enclosures are clean and that they (enclosures) are warm enough. I also feed and make sure that the animals are healthy and that any sick animals are seen by the vet [veterinarian].
MM: Do you deal with venomous reptiles?
MP: So the policy at work is that anyone who handles venomous snakes does a snake handling course beforehand, and when you work with a venomous snake, there must be at least one other person in the room with you. We don't 'free handle' venomous snakes, we use tongs and hooksticks.
MM: You know, people in construction worry about a tool falling on them, stepping on a sharp tool, etc. that's part of their occupational hazard. As a reptile handler, what are yours? What do you worry about while at work?
MP: For anyone who works with animals, the biggest occupational hazard is being 'attacked' by the animal. So as a reptile handler, being bitten by a snake or any of the other animals is what you have to look out for. Personally, I think my biggest worry is being bitten by a venomous snake.
MM: Have you ever experienced any of these hazards? Tell us the story.
MP: I have been bitten by snakes on several occasions. But the most memorable bite was my first bite. I think for anyone who works with snakes being bitten by one is almost like a rite of passage. My first snake bite was from a Burmese python called Usaza. I'd been handling rats because it was feeding day and I forgot to wash my hands, so they smelled like rats! I tried picking Usaza up to put him back in his enclosure and I guess he thought I was feeding him and he bit my wrist. I screamed and because of the shape of their teeth I couldn't pull him off without getting hurt so I had to wait for him to let go. After he let go I put him back in his enclosure and went to find the first aid kit. Moral of the story, always wash your hands after handling rodents
MM: Do you enjoy what you do? What's fascinating (to you) about it?
MP: I definitely enjoy what I do. If you told me a year ago that I'd be working with snakes I wouldn't have believed you. I think the most fascinating aspect of my job is teaching people about the animals that I work with. Seeing someone who is terrified of snakes conquer their fear and touch a snake is surprisingly gratifying.
MM: Which words do you have for someone who might potentially read this and develop a keen interests in what you do and would like to pursue it? Which subjects should one take as school, which course at tertiary level, and what personal skills and attributes do you think one should have?
MP: As with any career, do your research and make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Maths, physical sciences and life sciences are good subjects to take at school because they open you up to a lot of options. Personally I studied zoology at tertiary level but other courses such as nature conservation would work. As far as personal attributes I think a passion for animals is vital and patience... Lots of patience. Animals can't talk and don't always do what you want so you need to be really patient with them.
MM: What is the importance or significance of keeping reptile? How does it tie in with the objectives and/or mission of your institution?
MP: One of the missons of my institution is to disseminate knowledge in a way that stimulates a better understanding of our impact on the environment, the keeping of reptilian specimen helps us educate the public on different species and which ones are dangerous. This helps reduce the number of harmless species (especially snakes) that are blindly killed due to a lack of knowledge. We cater for a large number of visitors, some of whom have never seen a snake or a lizard and it's through the the personal experience they have with the animals we keep that they get an experience that may influence the decisions they make with regard to their impact on the environment.
MM: Thank you so much for allowing us to interview you. As closing remarks, what would you like to say to young school learners (especially young black girls) who want to pursue (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) but are doubtful?
MP: I think it's very important to choose a career in something that you are passionate about. Passion is what keeps you going when money no longer motivates you. Sometimes as we evolve and grow as females our passion may change and that's okay. I mean in primary school I wanted to be a doctor and I can’t count how many times I changed my mind on which career path I wanted to follow in high school. Also I think as black females there's a lot of pressure from home to study and get a high paying job and provide for your parents and siblings and this can sometimes lead you to make decisions that aren't true to who you are and what you want and just think that this is should be aware of so that 10 or 20 years down the line you don't look in the mirror and wonder how you got there.