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Monday, April 18, 2011

S-s-s-snakes Stir Smiles at Earthplace Center

S-s-s-snakes Stir Smiles at Earthplace Center
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – They call him “The Snake Guy” and he knows his slithery subjects stern to snout. They were the stars Saturday afternoon April 16 of a special nature center presentation.

Said snake expert was Andy Todd and the facility in this case was the Earthplace Nature Discovery Center, 10 Woodside Lane, where Todd, an animal care technician, introduced four of his own personal snakes to a gathering of about 40 people. The program was a relatively new offering, designed to address a noted public interest in the reptiles.

“I’ve worked with snakes much of my life,” said Todd. “They are a misunderstood and unfairly feared animal. For me, snakes were always the Holy Grail when exploring. Frogs and salamanders were good fun, but snakes were the coolest. Over the past three to four years, my interest has really grown, particularly with my work here at the Center.”

The majority of attendees, like five-year-old Sarah Cleary of Redding, were snake fans. “I love snakes,” she said. “They’re my favorite animal. I would love to own one.”

Max Minella, 8, of Westport, who was eyeballing a snake book prior to Todd’s presentation, echoed Cleary. “I love snakes,” he said. “They’re scaly and creepy. Spiders are my first favorite animals, snakes are my second.”

Though it was not intended, Todd heightened the suspense by cautioning the group to be still, keep their distance and use hand sanitizer before they touched the snakes. “The scent from another pet on your hands may make the snake think your hand or arm is something to eat,” he said.

Todd’s first guest was Murray, a five-and-a-half foot long Dumeril’s boa constrictor. The creature hailed from Madagascar. Todd used Murray to talk about certain snake features. “Scales are important for snakes as they help protect them and grip trees,” he said. “Snakes can’t wink or blink, as they have no eyelids. They have special scales to protect their eyes that keep dirt out. It’s tough to tell when a snake is sleeping as they don’t move around a lot.”

Todd also spoke about Murray’s coloring. “He’s an excellent example of camouflage,” Todd said. “In dried leaves or dirt, he blends in really well. He’s an ambush predator and will lie down and wait for his prey to come to him. He will sense vibration, leap for his prey, constrict it and then swallow. Around me though, Murray’s a puppy dog. He’s never bitten me.”

Guest number two was Crusty the ball python. Todd had rescued the snake, which hadn’t been cared for and was sick. Todd explained that snakes that come from places like Africa must be kept in humid, warm conditions, to keep their skin from drying up and prevent respiratory conditions. “Crusty was almost dead, had mouth rot and was covered in layer after layer of old skin,” he said. “She could barely breathe. I rehabbed her, took her to the vet and, after a couple of months, got most of the skin off. But she lost an eye and tip of her tail due to neglect.”

Todd said ball pythons can live for 40 years and if you decide to take them on as a pet, you really have to make a life contract to care for them.

When Todd pulled his third guest from a storage container, there was a collective gasp. Ariel, a reticulated python from southeast Asia, was all of 10 feet long and has the potential to grow to be 30 feet long. Weighing in at 30 pounds, Ariel eats rabbits. “She has special jaws,” Todd said, “which open up really wide. She ‘walks’ her jaws over her prey when she’s eating it.”

Ariel was very mobile, and coiled and moved all around Todd. For the most part, Ariel’s movement elicited giggles from the children gathered, though one child, 10-year-old Willow Woods, from Westport, asked with some concern, “Are you scared when the snake goes around your neck?”

Todd replied, “I never let it happen. Ariel is very strong. Snakes are not used to being handled. They get nervous, feel like they’re going to fall and clench up. They are deceptively powerful. Ten thousand muscles, one big tube of muscle.”

The final guest was Daisy, a common boa constrictor, who weighed in at a scale-tilting 52 pounds and length of nine-and-a-half feet. Todd got the Columbian-bred reptile from a previous owner in Chicago. Todd used Daisy to point out other snake features to the group. “Snakes smell with their tongue,” he said. They bring particles into their mouth and analyze them. Daisy eats a five pound rabbit every three to four weeks.”

You can bet that fact raised a little fur, especially from the resident bunnies in the next room.

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