Snake George has been forced to close. I didn't know until just now, when I opened yesterday's on-line Cyprus Mail.
For as long as I've lived here – thirteen years – one of our favourite visits has been out to the snake park at Agios Giorgos. We haven't been for a while: the drive now takes an hour, and the children are bigger. But knowing he was out there: a fun, educational excursion, close to good picnic spots, near nice beaches – was a kind of security blanket, an answer to the Sunday morning 'What shall we do today?' as well as a bulwark against the creeping environmental disaster that is happening in Pegia/Akamas.
George (Hans-Jorg Wiedl) originally came to Cyprus with the Austrian Battalion of the United Nations Interim Force in Cyprus during the 1970's. He liked the place – liked the people, liked the nature. When his stint in the army finished, he came back here and married. Horrified by the way that the local population misunderstood and persecuted snakes, he decided to act. On land leased near Pegia Village, he established his Snake Park in 1996, digging deep into his own pockets to build pits and pens, sheltered viewing platforms and a display area. With a mission to educate Cypriots – particularly young ones – as to snakes' environmental role, he travelled to open days and exhibitions with a static display and a couple of black snakes that he would pass around. I have some lovely pictures (not digital, unfortunately) of my children and others handling his reptiles and listening, rapt, as he spoke of his charges.
George wrote a colourful, beautifully illustrated book that was published in English/Greek and English/Turkish. It's sold island wide and even abroad. He produced an educational poster that hangs in schools, governmental offices, shops – I got ours when I met him in the Moufflon Bookshop about six years ago when he was delivering them. He thrust one into my hand: “Here, take this. It's bent at the corner a little, but that's ok...” It hung on our wall for years until too many moves battered it too often and we retired it. I don't suppose I can find another one, now.
But his lease ran out – three years ago. And although his landlord generously granted a three-year extension, the land is now due for development.
George can't find another spot for his park. In a recent interview with the Cyprus Mail he said “For the last three years, I’ve been trying to find a suitable piece of land, but all I get are empty promises. First it was the land opposite the park, then in Peyia, Tala and Yeroskipou. Promises are made, and then at the last moment, nothing happens.” Land was available near the monastery of Agios Neophytos, and it appeared that the park was saved. Then the muchtar showed up with a petition from 1500 villagers saying that they didn't want the park there – they were afraid that the snakes might escape.
Well, the hundred and fifty snakes that were in the park in Agios Giorgos – rescue snakes, and snakes collected from peoples' gardens (who is there to call now, when you come home and find a viper stretched across your threshold or comatose beside the pool?) – have been released into the wild. “It broke my heart,” George told the Mail. “But conditions were right and the weather was warm. I just hope they have a chance to survive.” George only kept his small collection of hibernating grass snakes – a species believed extinct for forty years until he proved that a few still existed and began a breeding programme to re-establish them.
The owner of a boatyard in Polis has donated one thousand square metres to George for display and exhibitions – but no live reptiles – so the future is not entirely black, and George, now 65, has vowed to continue looking for a place for his park. Perhaps the government or the EU will step in with funding: George is well-known island-wide, and his park appears in many European guide books. As well as an environmental asset, it was a popular tourist attraction.
In the meantime, I, like many parents, am left with memories. Of eight-year-old Sophia's face as a black snake, tongue flicking, curled around her neck and down her arm. Of children pointing, thrilled, craning for a better look at a coin snake on his branch. Of Zenon, from his perch on my back, accidentally flicking my glasses down into a pit where vipers were closing in on a couple of terrified rats: “Will the snakes eat your glasses now, Mummy?” (George, muttering about how vipers should not be disturbed when they're feeding, climbed down a ladder, waded among the snakes – Cyprus' only poisonous variety – and retrieved them for me).
Fight on George. We'll help if we can. I can't help thinking of the lines from Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi: 'Don't it always seem to go/ You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone'. We can't afford to lose you...