The Zoo. Like You’ll Never Get To See It.

March 26, 2009

A little while back I got my second dose of backstage treatment at the Houston zoo. My friend Ryan is a reptile handler there; celebrity blogger give up and I were given all access laminates and a luxury tour of the reptile facilities.
What you may not know about the zoo is that they have a great deal of animals “on reserve.” That means that there are animals that are not on display in the public areas; they have them ready to go if an animal on display dies, or if a new display is opened, plus some animals in the back are bred and given to other zoos. The picture above is a back hallway in the reptile house; pretty much everything that resembles a container in this picture contains an animal, and in this case snakes, the tall stack of plastic bins on the left is three containers wide and has a rattlesnake in each one. I have very mixed emotions about the zoo, and the animals in captivity there, but there’s a few things that make me very happy and hopeful about the reptile house at the Houston zoo: there is a particular species of frog that is extinct in the wild, but has been bred in very successful numbers at there. Also, Ryan is very involved in the conservation of the extremely rare Barton Springs salamander both in the wild and in captivity. I digress.

Ryan’s tour of the facility was pretty exciting. He’s really amped on amphibians, but the section he was given as a rookie has a strong contingency of rattlesnakes. He was opening habitats and showing us animals, each one with a tidbit of fascinating information. “Does anybody ever get bit?” asked celebrity artist/blogger give up, concerned as Ryan had opened several habitats for us. “Yeah man, the guy whose job I got. He got bit by a rattlesnake. You should see his scar, too,” answered Ryan indicating a wavy line from the center of his palm to his bicep. He told us that the guy’s arm swelled up so bad that the hospital had to cut it open otherwise it would burst. Either way it ends up looking something like this really GROSS shit. As Ryan removed the lid of some habitat he said “Here’s the snake that bit that guy.” I wanted to know if it was the same kind of snake or what, he told me that it was “this exact snake” just as he lifted the hide box. His casual demeanor throughout all of this wasn’t really a surprise, but it kind of was. He did tell us that you just have to assume that all of the snakes and lizards are going to attack you otherwise you’ll have your guard down– venomous and non-venomous alike.

Here Ryan showed us one particular rattlesnake that is usually pretty fired up.

His rattle was really loud and creepy.

When we entered this one room Ryan issued a warning, and it was the first one after having been there for almost two hours. “Okay, seriously, don’t touch anything in here, because everything is venomous.” I took it very seriously. When I was still about five feet away from this guy he struck at the glass. It was so fast, and his rattle was so loud that it gave me quite a start; I totally flinched. This snake is a bushmaster. Their bodies are really thick, their heads are very big, and they are exceptionally scary.
After having been startled by this snake I got a close look at it. Celebrity artist/blogger give up took this picture. He, Ryan, and I were all standing right in front of its habitat as Ryan told us a little about it. The bushmaster was really fired up, and rattling very loudly, and as I stepped back I noticed something. “Is that supposed to be there?” I asked.

“No it’s not,” Ryan said. I tried to be calm about getting away from it, but I probably spazzed out. I had just learned that you have to assume any of these snakes will attack you. PLUS, I was assured that everything in this room was venomous. My face was right next to that lock when the previous picture was taken.
Here’s Ryan transporting the snake into a habitat (opened) with a female of the same species inside. Once Ryan had the snake in a locked habitat, we all took a deep breath. “He wouldn’t have fucked you up too bad if he gotcha,” Ryan assured me. But, when celebrity artist/blogger give up said “just get him with your hand, look how still he is,” Ryan said “that’s not the kind of thing you wanna do with your bare hand,” while he searched for a snake stick. There was a snake stick every five feet or so in the back areas of the reptile house, but not when there’s fugitive venomous snake.

Later on Ryan remarked that the fugitive snake may not have been noticed until the following evening, by which time it would have made its way into the ceiling. If you are ever at the zoo and the reptile exhibit is “temporarily closed” that may be the reason.

I thought that would have surely been the cap for excitement, but then we saw this:

Big deal, a snapping turtle. Right? Wrong. This guy is over a hundred years old and over 160 lbs. He had to be taken out of the pond because he kept eating ducks.

Here’s a little perspective:

And it didn’t stop there. We even got some special time with some special unphotographed birds.

My fascination with these snake bite alarm boxes all over the reptile house has grown a little bit more. Just thinking about Ryan’s predecessor being bitten, and having to push that button. And thinking about how there is nothing that can be done if one of the black mambas bites you; you’re done, within five minutes. On the other side of the fence from the zoo is one of the best medical centers in the world, but if that snake bites you there’s no point in pressing that button, because nobody has an antivenin for it. You may as well just have a seat.

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