West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

After-hours at the serpentarium

Here is my latest advice for Keeping Life Interesting: hang out with herpetologists. If nothing else, they’ll give you the kind of vicarious thrills that botany, sadly, rather seldom provides. This week, for instance, I saw Franklin get bitten by a two-meter anaconda (don’t worry, he’s fine).

Those of you with a background in biogeography may be scratching your heads. Yes, anacondas are native to South America. (And yes, like Ben Affleck, they did co-star with J Lo in a horrendous movie or two. That is irrelevant.) Well, the only anaconda I’ve seen in Costa Rica—the only anaconda I’ve seen anywhere, actually—lives in a room-sized cage at the back of the Serpentario in La Virgen de Sarapiquí.

Late Sunday afternoon, Franklin invited a few researchers to come and see his charges at the serpentarium, where he works as a consultant a few days a month. It was the tail end of a rainy weekend; I was up for anything.

We wandered through the maze-like aisles of bored and imperious pit vipers, nervous little vine snakes, and great looping coils of boas, all behind glass in box-like cages. I have no great love for slithering things, but I must admit they can be gorgeous. My favorites are the eyelash vipers, petite and deadly snakes that often coil up on heliconia bracts and ambush hummingbirds. They get their name from the row of elongated scales above their eyes, which really do bear an uncanny resemblance to false eyelashes. The vipers come in many colors: mottled brown, licheny green, and a bright golden morph, called oropel, that’s only found in Costa Rica. (The first time I saw one in the field, I thought, that’s weird; who left a coil of yellow lobster warp in the jungle? That’s what you get for growing up in Maine, I guess.)

The main attractions at the serpentarium are kept in the back, in cages just slightly larger than a typical college dorm room. At one end, there were two gigantic Burmese pythons, asleep in coils the size and shape of beanbag chairs. The cage in the middle held a snake with an even closer resemblance to furniture, or at least with a closer resemblance to furniture than to anything herpetological. It was an albino Burmese python, mottled white and yellow, and grotesquely obese: about three meters long and nearly as thick as my waist. The head, bigger than my outstretched hand, seemed a comical afterthought.

“Mire, está despierta,” Franklin said. She’s awake. “Ella es amable; podemos tomar fotos.” She’s friendly; we can take pictures.

He stepped up and unlocked the cage. It was never my intention to make friends with an 80-kilogram python, but to my surprise, as she nuzzled up against me and blinked her red eyes, I found myself thinking she was kind of sweet. (Johel hasn’t downloaded the photos yet. Stay posted.)

In the cage next door was a different sort of beast. A streamlined bolt of sinuous muscle, dark gray-green, lurked beneath the water of its pool with only its nostrils showing. Its little eyes, set far forward on the muzzle, regarded us with reptilian loathing and composure.

“Ella es un poco más mordedora,” Franklin said conversationally. “Mejor que no entren.” She’s a biter; better not come in.

He unlocked the door and took one step toward the pool. The snake lurched up out of the water with astonishing speed, lunging forward at least a meter and a half to sink a tooth into Franklin’s leg just below the knee. Then she sank beneath the water again.

The other researchers and I stared at each other, open-mouthed: did that really just happen? Franklin let himself out of the cage, calmly, and went to ask the director of the serpentarium for some alcohol to clean out the wound.

“It was just a warning bite,” he explained to us when he returned. “When they really want to bite something, they hang on with all their teeth and gnaw.” He told a few stories about anaconda-hunting in the Amazon for a serpentarium where he used to work, walking around barefoot in a swamp until you felt the snake slither past underwater, then grabbing it and hoping you were close enough to the head to keep it from biting you.

“Este es mi mundo,” he said. This is my world. Fascinating as it is, I have to say I’m glad it’s not mine.


At 4:08 PM, Blogger Disco Mermaids said...

Hi Susan,

Love your blogsite! I'm a children's book writer, and found it through Cheryl Klein's site. I'm also a recovering world-traveler, rainforest-dweller, machete-hacker. But reading your site makes me nostalgic for the good old days when I lived in a hut, bathed in cenotes and wondered what people needed electricity for anyway.

Other than the attacking anacondas, your work sounds wonderful! Keep up the great journal entries, so we in suburbia can live vicariously through you.


At 9:19 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Thanks, Eve!

I'm glad you're enjoying my site. Best of luck with the jungles of suburbia, and say hi to Cheryl for me.



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