Why It’s So Hard to Make a Living as a Snake Charmer Nowadays

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New regulations, government bureaucracy, political connections and changing cultural tastes can affect any career path — and that includes that of a traditional snake charmer in India.

Computer chips are everywhere these days — even, bizarrely enough, under the skin of cobras.

The Los Angeles Times recently covered the plight of the traditional Indian snake charmer, including the fact that charmers must now be licensed to own the animals and put on shows. Computer chips are also being slipped under snake skins to establish legal ownership of the animals and to help prevent theft and smuggling, which have been huge problems in the past.

As of 2007, India has stepped up efforts to enforce laws mandating that all snake charmers be licensed. Those who are caught putting on a snake show, or just in ownership of a wild animal, can face up to seven years in prison if not licensed.

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Over the past few years, snake charmers have mounted protests against strict regulations. In 2010, 15,000 charmers roamed the streets of Kolkata, snakes in tow, to demonstrate their anger. One legendary charmer recently dumped a couple dozen snakes in a government office, reportedly as a response to a bureaucrat’s demand for a bribe.

While a select few snake charmers now have licenses and are making decent livings, the vast majority of those who have been involved in the snake-charming arts are experiencing tough times. One former charmer, 30 years old and without work other than occasionally playing drums at parties, tells the Los Angeles Times:

“We lost our last snake three years ago,” he says. “We’re seen as outdated. It’s hard to keep a family going.”

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Most snake charmers don’t exactly have skills that would transfer easily to another line of work. A union formed in 2009 estimated that 800,000 snake charmers were out of work because of government regulations, and that because generations after generations of families have grown up knowing little else besides snake charming, there wasn’t much hope for shifting professions. According to the Telegraph:

“Having lived with the reptiles since childhood, the snake-charmers know only one vocation, that is handling snakes and holding public shows, but strong measures adopted by police and forest department for the last decade or so have put them in a difficult situation,” said [the] union’s leader, Raktim Das.

Discussion is in the works for programs in which charmers could be retrained to capture snakes in people’s homes, or perhaps to work on snake farms focused on developing antivenin.

Snake charming may be a dying industry, but the website MyMajors.com, which bills itself as a Web-based tool to help American college students decide on majors and pursue a career, actually has a listing for “snake charmer.” According to the site, snake charmers can expect to “evaluate animals to determine their temperaments, abilities, or aptitude for training” and “talk to or interact with animals to familiarize them to human voices or contact” while on the job.

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It’s unclear, however, what major one should pursue in order to actually become a snake charmer. Interestingly enough, choosing a dance or performing-arts major could do the trick, though that’s if you want to be a different kind of snake charmer — the Snake Charmers, you see, is the name of the dance squad that cheers on the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, an NBA D League team in Texas.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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