The snake exhibit had my skin slithering
Part one: a day at the museum
Daylight filters in through the skylights, and the sound of splashing water mingles with the shrieks of laughing children. Sunday afternoon at the Snakes Alive! Exhibit in the Wilbur D. May Center sounds like a jungle.
How did I end up here? I don’t have kids, and I’m really, really afraid of snakes. So far, though, I’m keeping my cool. It’s hard to get too worked up over little snakes curled up in the corners of little glass terrariums. Plus, the droves of children don’t seem frightened, so I’ve got to save face. Nevertheless, I find I’ll have to increase the shutter speed on my camera to compensate for the slight tremor in my hands.
The main exhibit space seems like a really great place to bring younger children. The displays are interactive but simple enough for even toddlers to engage. There’s a 25-foot-long model of a snake that functions like a jungle gym for crawling over and through. It seems to be the biggest hit with the kids.
In another room, the advertised “suspension bridge over a pit filled with live rattlesnakes” is a bit of a letdown for all but the youngest kids who’ve yet to figure out that all but two of the Plexiglass covered snakes on either side of the bridge aren’t real. The docent patiently reminds the children not to run, and parents dutifully instruct them not to tap on the glass. I wonder at the Egyptian motif in this room full of rattlesnakes—natives of the Americas.
The sparsity and vagueness of interpretive text, in places, leaves something to be desired. But not so in the next room where I’ve found a wild-haired mannequin in a suit. He’s covered in snakes. There’s accompanying text this time. Ah, “fundamentalist Christians,” that makes sense, I think. The text reads that these religious groups “handle venomous serpents in a religious frenzy, believing their faith in God will protect them from harm.” The guy who started the movement in 1909 died of a rattlesnake bite in 1950. Four decades of zealously handling venomous snakes—that’s a pretty good run.
I feel like I’ve learned a few things here today. I know that people the world over eat snakes—from reticulated pythons in China to rattlesnakes here in the States. I’d rather not have heard about the cooking methods; I believe all animals deserve a humane death, and some of the recipes don’t fit the bill. What else? I’ve learned that the hognose snake (if a snake were going to be cute, it’d be this one) uses its nose to burrow in the ground in search of toads. And I’ve learned that kingsnakes are immune to the venom of the snakes they eat, including rattlesnakes, copperheads, and coral snakes. I walk back through the museum, softly humming “Crawling King Snake.”Part two: a walk on the wild side
As I make my way back into the first exhibit room, I see two young children—a boy and girl—each with a live snake. They're between me and the front door. For a moment, I stand eyeing the emergency exit. But I find I'm strangely fascinated. They handle the snakes with such ease, gently helping littler children to hold them. I start snapping photos, not aware that I'm moving closer.
As the two kids walk back through the exhibit, I realize that I’m following them to the room where the docent at the front desk told me the Great Basin Herpetological Society is keeping the 14-foot Burmese python this weekend. I hadn’t planned on visiting this section of the exhibit. I never specifically agreed to handle live snakes when I volunteered for this story. I hadn’t even known the herpetological society would be here. I don’t recall it being mentioned anywhere on the website. I want to get the names of the two snake-handling kids for my story. It’ll be quick, and then I’ll leave. This room is full of people with snakes coiled around their arms, their torsos, their necks. I’m sure I seem sketchy, verging on unstable as I ask around for the kids’ parents. Eventually, I locate their grandfather—Jim Beaver, vice president of the Great Basin Herpetological Society. They’re here with him and their mother, Jennifer Beaver. The children are Ben and Kylie.
The Beavers are a friendly family. I’m fascinated to just talk with them about the collection of pets they keep at home. In addition to three boa constrictors, they have two bearded dragons, a bunch of leopard geckos, and a Russian tortoise. They also have two Pomeranians, which they keep away from the snakes.
Would I like to hold one of the snakes? This from little Ben, who offers the gopher snake, Sebastian. Looking down at the kid’s earnest expression, I can’t help but believe that he means it when he says Sebastian is friendly. I’ll give it a go.
As the snake proceeds to wend its way behind my neck and through my hair, I tremble and hold my breath. The family members take turns gently reminding me to breathe. When the snake is no longer slithering across my skin, I feel a strange sense of elation and a warmness toward the little creature, but these feelings are accompanied by low-level dizziness and the telltale stinging eyes that proceed tears.
I say thanks for letting me hold Sebastian, even though I was frightened. I’m relieved to hear that scaredy cats like me inspired members of the Great Basin Herpetological Society to be at the museum. The Beavers and their herpetological society friends are on a hearts-and-minds mission.
I hang around and get introduced to Lightning, the corn snake, Terra, a ball python, and a California kingsnake named Puppy. The Beavers hope herpetological societies around the country will change minds and end things like the Rattlesnake Roundup in Texas, during which hundreds, sometimes thousands, of snakes are killed.
Snakes are an important part of the ecosystem. The eldest Beaver says that, with large numbers of Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes dying due to habitat loss and hunting, the Eastern U.S. is seeing an unsettling resurgence of Lyme disease. The disease is conveyed to humans through ticks, about 2,000 of which can be eaten by a single Eastern diamondback over the course of a year.
It’s time to go. But there’s one more thing I want to do. There are two bigger snakes I’ve had my eyes for the last hour or so. They’re boa constrictors, and their names are Adamo and Rey. I’ve watched them move across the shoulders and torsos of three of the herpetological society’s members. Now, I want to hold them. I’m still scared, but it’s a good kind of scared this time. I smile and look into the camera as Jim Beaver takes a shot to commemorate my afternoon spent with him and his family—the human and reptile ones.
The Great Basin Herpetological Society will be present at Snakes Alive! every other weekend through the end of the exhibit on April 10.