Outtakes and Vagabonds: One python, two pythons, three

Last year, the Times had a tale about a lady python who weighs 215 pounds.

The story of her capture was kind of like a thriller, punctuated by a strong sense of humor among the biologists who tracked and grabbed her. Especially, the guy who was punched in the face by her tail.

Which reminded me. Have I ever revealed my two encounters with large pythons? No? Well…

On a warm day in the late 1960s, here was I on the subway heading to the Bronx Zoo. It was midday and the car not full, yet the other passengers had left me noticeably isolated, most likely because on my lap was a small wooden crate the size and shape of an attaché case, with a notice in large red letters: “LIVE REPTILE.”

In the crate was a black Arizona king snake named Basil who was looking forward to a new life in the zoo’s snake house. At least I presumed so; my previous conversation with Basil occurred when he was molting, ergo distracted from meaningful communications.

I don’t feel like describing why Basil had entered my life, along with his partner, Boris (bigger than Basil). Suffice it to say, I had ordered the duo from a reptile ranch in the southwest for the purposes of film production. They had performed admirably. Then Boris escaped, never to be seen again. Basil molted.

I’d learned some things about snakes during their brief star turns. Arizona King snakes are cannibalistic so we had to build two separate pens for Boris and Basil. They are constrictors; when I picked up one of them behind his head, he whipped himself around my arm and hugged, a shiny, textured, thick black bracelet. It was sort of affectionate. Really. Until he opened a slit somewhere on his lower body and shat. I saw this as a snake sense of humor.

Anyhow, Boris was gone and I did not envision maintaining Basil as a long-term pet. A photographer friend, a naturalist, suggested calling the Bronx Zoo. Which I did. I explained to a friendly zoo lady my situation and my snake. She took down the particulars, asked me to hold on for a moment and when she returned, said some of the warmest words I’d ever heard: “The Bronx Zoo will be happy to accept your donation of one Arizona king snake.”

I felt as if Basil had been nominated for an Oscar.

So that’s what Basil and I were doing on the train that day. I followed the zoo lady’s instructions to the snake house — but not the visitors’ entrance; I went to the back door so to speak, where I met a delightful teenager, Ian, who was doing a high school internship at the zoo and was excited to take me around.

First, Ian took Basil out of his small crate, opened a large plastic trash bin and pretty unceremoniously dumped Basil into it. My donation would have to be quarantined for a short time until his good health was determined.

Then Ian asked me if I’d like a tour of the place. Oh yes. So we went into the backstage facilities which ran behind the glassed-in reptile residences zoo visitors see when visiting the World of Reptiles.

Off a long central hallway were a series of brightly lit hospital-like rooms which catered to the reptiles. Ian took me into one with stacked up cages containing live chickens and small rodents, reptile meals ready to be served. There were some large refrigerators which Ian opened to show me antidotes to snake bites. Each was labeled and color-coded to match the colors on a wall chart which pictured and named each venomous animal, just in case you happened to have been bitten by, say, the King Cobra but weren’t yet a Ph.D. in biology. You’d look up the cobra on the chart, get the color of the antidote, open the fridge, pick the right bottle and shoot up with an available syringe. No panicky screaming needed.

Had Ian ever been snake-bitten?

“No,” he said, laughing, “But I came close once.” One of his jobs was to clean the actual snake houses. He was supposed to enter the enclosures carrying a large and thick clear plastic shield — he showed me one of them; except for being see-through plastic, it looked like a knight’s piece of armor.

One day, though, he went into the cobra’s enclosure without the shield because what he had to do was quick and easy. The cobra was coiled up at the opposite end of the space. Ian turned his back on the snake for a second or two, heard a sound, turned to look at the snake, which had uncoiled enough so that his head was around a foot off the ground, as if he was inspecting Ian’s work.

“I’ll be out of your way in a second,” Ian told the snake, turned back to pick up the broom or whatever device he was using, and turned again to the snake…which was now fully uncoiled up to six feet high, his hood extended, ready to strike.

Ian got the fuck out. Unharmed.

My mouth was hanging open. Then Ian took me to the cobra’s digs, slid open a partition to expose a small window from which we could see the cobra. Coiled. Even coiled he was gigantic.

As we entered another room stacked with cages, a great noise went up, as if someone had turned on an industrial strength fan. The cages contained rattlesnakes and the noise was their choral greeting to us. Another room contained highly venomous snakes like the black mamba which Ian named as the most dangerous snake in the world.

My favorite room was filled with writhing baby pythons, the last family birth produced by the zoo’s giant python. Fifty-seven babies, I believe. They were sweet. The zoo’s herpetologists took the babies to local public schools.

Ian told me it was nearly impossible to detect the gender of snakes. What herpetologists did was to put a couple of snakes together and see if one of them got pregnant. So the zoo did have a verified male python; where else would those babies have come from? I mean, I know that much about biology.

Now you’re wondering about mama, known to be the largest python in captivity. Ian opened one of those windows into her residence. I looked in. I saw a length of snake. The diameter of her body was unimpressive to me, maybe a foot or so. “She doesn’t look so big,” I said to Ian.

“Where are you looking?” he said dubiously. He peered into the window. Then he closed the window and we walked further along the corridor for about twelve feet. He opened another window. I looked in and saw her head, attached to a body now maybe two feet in diameter. She was so gigantic (27 feet long, if I remember), she took up two residences.

“Oh!” I said.

What a wonderful day that was! I’ve often thought about Ian and trusted he got a Ph.D. in herpetology and worked at the Bronx Zoo until he retired.



This entry was posted in Animal news, The Facts of Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.