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ALMA HAHN: ‘Leaving zoo reptile house; it makes my skin crawl’

April 4, 2011

Did you follow the adventure of the young Egyptian cobra that apparently slithered out of her confines at the Bronx Zoo? As I write this column, CNN is reporting that she has decided to make her reappearance.
Until a few minutes ago (on Thursday), she had not been seen since Friday, March 25. Zoo officials kept assuring the public that everything was OK; she would come out from wherever she was hiding when she got hungry. No word yet on where she spent her “vacation.”
She was probably exploring the pipes and air ducts in the reptile house. Somehow, if I worked at the zoo, I would find that a rather unsettling response; however, all’s well that ends well.
While she was incommunicado, some prankster set up a Twitter account in the name of “BronxZoosCobra.”
The anonymous user posts a number of really funny tweets supposedly from the tiny (3-ounce) reptile. Whoever was writing the posts first checked the official Bronx Zoo’s Twitter account and then composed the snake’s version. For example, one Tweet said “Leaving Wall Street. These guys make my skin crawl.”
Zoo officials hoped to entice her out by providing the perfect environment for snakes. They kept the lights down low, the temperature at a comfortable level and they provided some nice tasty mice.
They did not dwell on the dangers from such a snake if someone did cross paths with her, but it was an Egyptian cobra like the one the zoo lost that Cleopatra used to kill herself when spurned by Mark Antony.
Most of us think that all zoos are relatively safe places where people can go and take children and observe wildlife in a natural setting, and usually they are, but there are often accidents, sometimes involving dangerous animals.
I remember only a couple of weeks before I left for Washington, D.C., to study at the Smithsonian in 1983 that a 16-year-old Mexican immigrant hid out in the zoo until the zoo closed. Biding his time until darkness fell, he broke out the glass that covered the gaboon viper display and stuffed the two inhabitants of the cage into a plastic garbage bag, slung it over his shoulder, and ran out of the zoo.
He caught a bus headed for the downtown area. When he reached his destination, he prepared to depart the bus. The driver, trying to be friendly, asked him what he had that was so heavy in that bag. (Gaboon vipers are really large creatures.)
Surprisingly honest, the boy told him he had some “bad” snakes. It is a good thing he did because the boy had only gone a few steps when one of the snakes, annoyed at being jostled around, sank its fangs through the sack and into his back. He dropped in his tracks, writhing in pain and soon lost consciousness.
The bus driver was able to alert rescue personnel, who got him to a hospital. He survived, but was in severe pain for a long time. I do not recall the details.
The reptile house was closed to visitors while the special glass was replaced in the front of the cage. I was in the reptile house on a couple of occasions and saw it.
The boy lived but spent a long time in the hospital only to face a mountain of legal problems when he recovered. The snakes also suffered. In the confusion, they bit each other, causing them serious problems.
The St. Louis Zoo had an interesting break-in in their reptile house. Whoever did it left a snake. When zoo personnel opened the snake house early one winter Sunday in 1986, they found a strange boa constrictor in the corner. The 4-foot long snake was apparently ill.
“We believe the boa was the pet of someone who brought it here and left it here on purpose in the hope that we would find it and take care of it,” said the zoo’s general curator.
When I was in college, I worked for the biology department. I typed tests, graded and recorded test papers, answered the phone, or simply kept the office open while the instructors were in class.
The head of the department had a pair of rattlesnakes in a cage. He sometimes used them in class, but they mostly were a curiosity.
He loved to keep the cage on my desk. When I would type, the noise of the typewriter annoyed the snakes and they would curl up and rattle their rattlers. It unnerved me considerably. I only worked there one semester.

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.
beajhahn@sbcglobal.net

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