The seven-foot black cobra streaked through the narrow space left by the slightly raised lid as Charles (Charlie) Miller tried to refill its water bowl.
The cobra slithered around the jumble of boxes filled with snakes and white rats, paused momentarily under a long box then darted through a hole in the lattice design of the concrete porch wall. It then whipped through the grass stubble heading for a clump of dense bush.
The rotund Miller jumped over the porch in pursuit, snared it by the tail and yanked it out of the bushes. Angry now, the cobra tried to strike Miller who jerked the snake like a whip to keep its head down.
"That's the second time he's done that," said a red-faced and huffing Miller as the cobra gradually settled down. "He's a real fast one."
For 26 of his 30 years and through 30 poisonous snake bites -- five of them nearly fatal -- Charlie Miller, known around Monrovia as "Charlie the snake man," has been fascinated by snakes and other reptiles. Here in the tropical West African country of Liberia, Miller, who grew up in Smithtown, N.Y., is able to indulge himself with a household menagerie of snakes, turtles, large black scorpions and two front-yard pens of 10 crocodiles.
Miller is also intrigued by Liberia's many traditional snake societies whose members reputedly have special occult powers, specialize in treating snake bites and use snakes to entertain people. But they also play sinister social roles, said Miller.
A person's spirit can "leave his body and enter the body of a snake," claimed Miller, a Yale University graduate. "I believe that it can happen and that some of them transform themselves into snakes and send snakes after people. It is a [punitive] social control mechanism."
Every Sunday at 3 p.m., Miller gives a free snake show at his house on the outskirts of Monrovia. Miller said he hopes to build up enough interest on the part of the Liberian government that they will finance construction of a reptilian zoo.
At the moment, Miller makes a steady income by shipping dried snake venom from his 25-odd poisonous snakes to laboratories in West Germany, France and the United States. "There is a lot of research going on around the use of snake venom" in the treatment of blood diseases, lowering hypertension and as a painkiller for cancer patients, according to Miller. He also collects and sells old African art pieces, itself a lucrative pastime.
One wonders, however, whether the venom research and the African art sales are just covers for Miller's eccentric pleasure at being around snakes -- his living room is full of them -- and not wanting people to look at him askance. "Yeah, I guess you could say that," Miller stoically answered. He also raises white ants to feed his snakes.
"I believe my fate is tied up with snakes," he added. "I'm also very comfortable here in Liberia, more so than in the States, which I find boring."
Snakes have been unjustly persecuted in Western societies, added Miller indignantly, a circumstance he believes grew out of the Bible story about the relationship among Adam and Eve and a snake in the Garden of Eden.
"The West Africans are unlike Westerners and have tremendous respect for snakes, and so do I," said Miller.
Miller was born in New York City but moved to Smithtown when he was a young child. He recalls seeing his first snake at age 4 one Sunday morning in the back yard while enroute to church. When he returned later, Miller said, he was greatly disappointed that the snake had disappeared.
At the end of his junior year in high school, at 17, Miller won a summer internship at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, he said, for a paper he did on the behavior patterns of a Pakistan lizard.
That summer at the institute was the first time Miller handled poisonous snakes.
"I worked on venom extraction and it was a great experience for me," he said.
While studying the behavior of lower primates in Cameroon before getting his degree in anthropology from Yale in 1974, Miller said he joined the secret Abasinjom witch-hunting society, well-known in West Africa, and rose to the top level of fourth-rank initiates on the basis of ritual tests. The test include numerous razor cuts on the body, followed by herbal medicine rubbed into the cuts and hallucinogenic eyedrops made from a particular tree's bark.
"I flunked the cuts test the first time because I vomited at the sight of my blood," recalled Miller.
A Cameroonian, Sylvester Acha, taught Miller how to handle poisonous snakes without fear, he said.
Through constant contact and blanking out his mind to the danger, Miller said he learned form Acha how to move differently when handling poisonous snakes "without jerky, sudden movements of a frightened person."
Snake handlers "pick up snakes at the center of their bodies so they don't feel threatened," he continued. In 1977, Miller came to Liberia to set up his snake venom business and pursue an additional interest in ethnozoology, which is the study of the relationship of humans to animals in connection with this country's snake societies.
"Each of Liberia's [16 major] ethnic groups," said Miller, "has its own snake society."
Each of the societies is divided into sections. One section of the Gio people's snake society, called the Bakona, "punishes people for violations of social taboos, such as adultery," said Miller. "I believe they can send snakes to bite people, and actually do."