Ash McInnes is snake obsessed.
From a young age, he would seek out the slithery critters in the red desert terrain surrounding Broken Hill in the New South Wales Far West.
“I remember being five or six years old and I managed to find a snake out bush,” he says.
“I took it home and that was where it all started.”
At one stage, Mr McInnes had a lot of snakes — too many if you asked him.
“I started out like everyone does, keeping pythons,” he says.
“I realised there was cooler stuff to keep, like lace monitors, and elapids [a family of venomous snakes] like red-bellied blacks and death adders, so it was just a natural progression.”
Now, Mr McInnes has about 15 snakes in his care spanning more than a dozen different species.
Known around town as the Broken Hill Snake Catcher and with a business of the same name, Mr McInnes is the man to call if a snake needs rescuing or relocating.
While it’s no secret snakes are one of the most feared animals on the plant, this outback ophiophilist wants to change that.
A desire to protect and understand
Mr McInnes has handled some of the wildest and most dangerous creatures on the planet and says they get a bad rap.
“They are, to a certain extent, low maintenance. They’re not like a dog — you don’t have to give them attention every day, but they’re interesting as well.”
With a growing audience TikTok audience of more than 10,000 followers, Mr McInnes is beginning to convince a whole new generation on the merits of snakes.
Among one of his biggest arguments in favour of snakes is that death from bites are rare in Australia — two people die per year on average.
Between 2000 and 2013, more people died from bees, wasps, ants and ticks than from a run-in with a snake.
The art of relocating snakes
Dry, arid heat paired with an array of dilapidated buildings in the Broken Hill area means snakes are often found everywhere from gardens and backyards in the suburbs to isolated outback stations.
“If we get a call out and it’s a problem snake in an area with dogs or cats we’ll relocate it,” Mr McInnes says.
The Far West is home to an unexpectedly large variety of snake species, some of which are highly endangered.
“We get king browns, eastern browns, a few species of western browns, blind snakes, curl snakes, mallee black-headed snakes, Stimson’s pythons,” Mr McInnes says.
“Some of them are quite small and aren’t even dangerous in any way, shape or form.
“Only recently my mate found a rare species of Australian coral snake and it’s the third one ever spotted in the Far West.
‘Massive decline’ in numbers
Over more than 20 years Mr McInnes has noticed snake numbers dwindling.
“I’ve been doing snake catching my entire adult life and there’s been a massive decline in snake numbers,” he says.
“Back in the early 2000s we’d get five to 10 calls a week during summer.
“Now we’re lucky to get one call a week.
“The drought is a big factor, and the fact that these animals are going to populated areas where there’s still food sources and they’re getting killed by negligent people — that’s what’s really hurt the numbers.”
An early onset of rain at the start of summer, followed by intense heatwaves meant the snake catchers were initially inundated with calls, but that trend hasn’t lasted.
Education is the key
Capturing wild snakes to keep as pets is a growing problem in Broken Hill, Mr McInnes says.
He wants more Australians to be educated on the essential role snakes play in a desert’s ecosystem.
Bearded dragons and the local Stimson’s python are the most commonly targeted species, something Mr McInnes is concerned about, particularly as the population of Stimson’s pythons remains small.
Snakes and other reptiles make up a significant proportion of Australia’s bio-diversity and play a crucial role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem.
All Australian animals, including snakes, are protected under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 and cannot be killed or taken from the wild.
Message of tolerance
Mr McInnes and and a group of fellow reptile enthusiasts in Broken Hill are in the process of starting the Silver City Amphibian and Reptile Society (SCARS) which aims to teach and connect people keeping reptiles.
It’s hoped an added benefit of an active reptile society will be that locals and station owners start to think twice before harming snakes, Mr McInnes says.
“Back when we used to run SCARS unofficially in the early 2000s we used to have station owners come into town for our meetings so they could get hands-on with snakes that weren’t dangerous,” he says.
“We are 100 per cent open to anyone getting in touch and saying, ‘Hey, can you show me how to safely be around snakes?’ or, ‘Can you show me how to safely move snakes without hurting them?’
“That’s our whole job.”
While snake advocacy and education is not part of his paid gig, Mr McInnes has made it a large part of his life.
“Our job isn’t just specifically to go to a house, pick up a snake and get rid of it,” he sayd.
“Our job includes educating the public about snakes and helping people understand why snakes need to be here.”