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Honour for snake man with a passion for turtles

HIS mother may have been the Cleopatra of Snakes and his father the original snake man of La Perouse, but the last of the snake men, John Cann, admits his real passion was for turtles.

''Turtles were my main interest,'' he said. ''They're terribly on the decrease and nobody knows why. They're dying in every major river system in Australia and Papua New Guinea.''

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The snakeman of La Perouse

The story of the Cann family and the Snakeman of La Perouse. Produced and directed by Afterglow Productions.

For 90 years Mr Cann's family ran the snake show every Sunday in the pit at La Perouse, an area once alive with snakes - tigers, browns and blacks. His father George, a showman and curator of reptiles at Taronga Zoo, started the show in 1919 and helped start the first anti-venom program with the late Eric Worrell of the Australian Reptile Park.

Now the Canns's contribution to La Perouse and our knowledge of snakes has been recognised side by side with the suburb's French namesake in a permanent exhibition at the La Perouse Museum (Botany Bay National Park).

Some people may have thought the Cann show a bit of vaudeville, a sideshow owing more to the tradition of Bearded Ladies, the Tallest Man in the World and, drumroll please, Two-Headed Men.

Yet many of the early snake handlers were called professors. These self-taught herpetologists pioneered the study of reptiles, collected species and tested anti-venoms and theories (very often with fatal results).


John Cann is a professor in that tradition.

He's written five books on snakes and turtles, uncovered 10 to 12 new turtle species, travelled Australia and the world to lecture on snakes and reptiles, and advised the zoo and the reptile park. Until he was 60, Mr Cann worked full time job as a rigger while raising a large family.

He sees the snake-show legacy as a major contribution to our understanding of snakes, but during the show he often broke the law to show visitors how dangerous snakes could be.

''We used to break the law all the time. We always had lively snakes. People want to see them bite or strike,'' Mr Cann said of the visitors who came to his show. Often he would let four snakes out at once, despite the law allowing only one snake on display at any time.

When the snakes got used to him handling them, Mr Cann would let them go, then head down the back of La Perouse for fresh, lively snakes instead of using snakes kept in captivity as required by law.

''If people see quiet snakes, they can get the wrong impression. Kids may think they can pick them up.'' The downside to handling such lively snakes was that, when he slowed down, they didn't.

''My reflexes weren't too good,'' Mr Cann said of the months before he retired two years ago.

He admits to leaving one too many doors open on the cages where he kept the poisonous snakes at home.

He had been bitten five times, once by a tiger snake, which caused complications that caused the loss of a kidney this year. He had also developed an allergy to snakes, and the next bite would have been fatal.

His children did not want to take over the show. ''My sons weren't interested in reptiles, which made me a bit sad and a bit glad,'' he said.

Retiring was a relief, freeing him to go outback in search of turtles: ''As soon as I gave it away, I was away to Western Australia.''

He's now 1200 pages into volumes one and two of a family history, including his own sporting ventures (he represented Australia in the decathlon in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and he played Rugby League for NSW).

Sadly for us, it's a limited release: family only.

His memoirs will also be available in the National Library and in the Maroubra library.