Meet the fox snake

It’s been awhile since I’ve been newly certified to demo a zoo animal, so it was a nice surprise Thursday to come in for my volunteer shift, pick up my schedule and find a fox snake fact sheet and quiz attached. Snakes are my favorite and primary critter to demonstrate, and this new (to me) variety joins the bullsnake, milk snake, cornsnake and Western hognose as one of the Minnesota Zoo snakes I’ve had the good fortune to hold, discuss and write about over the years. Once we’d studied our fact sheets and passed our quizzes, fellow volunteer Carol and I went behind the scenes for a test run with this new (to us) reptile.

Minnesota Zoo fox snakeThese guys have the blotches and coloration of a milksnake, share the southern Minnesota habitat of the bullsnake (both like to hang out near the Twin Cities area’s three major rivers) and boast a silky skin texture that reminds me of the hognose. Like most of the snakes we present to the zoo-going public, they kill mice and other small rodents by constriction (and ingest a weekly thawed mouse at the zoo). And their name? Supposedly they can emit a “musky fox-like odor” if handled too aggressively — a Zoomobile staffer described it as a milder form of skunk — though we happily did not experience this in our first encounter. With any luck, I won’t experience it in the later ones, either.

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Admiring Monet

Any zoo demo is a fun zoo demo, but of the half-dozen animals I demonstrate routinely, I have my favorites and less-favorites, as do all volunteers. Snakes are the best in my book; salamanders are, well, a lot less active and interactive (and can’t be touched because as amphibians, they absorb substances too easily through their skin). The painted turtle usually falls somewhere in between, but last week he had a stellar outing with a handful of kids who somehow knew how to bond with him.

painted turtle with kidsThis is Monet, a male painted turtle. We don’t always let him run loose on this cart, but my fellow volunteer Darlene (who’s attached to that hand) put the sides up, and although the zoo was once again swarming with school groups, most of the kids were behaving well enough and agreeing not to touch him. We’ve demo’d Monet many times before, but I don’t remember this level of mutual fascination between him and his audience.

painted turtle, boy's headPainted turtles are common in Minnesota lakes, and my husband says he often swam with them as a boy at his extended family’s summer cabin. My favorite facts to share with kids: the males (like Monet) have smaller bodies but longer claws and tails than the females; they live in wet places and sunbathe on logs to rid themselves of leeches and absorb vitamin D through their shells; their average lifespan is 25 years; the warmer the place where they lay their eggs, the more females will develop and hatch. And of course painted turtles have that pretty orange underside, almost worthy of the painter himself.

I don’t do demos every week, so I was glad to do one on my last day at the zoo before a monthlong hiatus. I won’t be volunteering or blogging for the rest of May, as I finish up a part-time grad-school program, but I’ll be back with a vengeance in June. By then, the zoo will have a summer Africa exhibit (giraffes again, at last!) and another temporary dinosaur exhibit. I can hardly wait to check it all out.

Hedgehogs, snakes & gender

Last week, I demo’d an African hedgehog; this week, a bullsnake. These hands-on encounters last no more than 15 minutes, to avoid stressing the animal. Not every creature gets touched, and not every creature reacts when you touch it. This varies not just from species to species, but also from individual to individual. The three African hedgehogs I’ve handled vary widely in sensitivity: Tulip, a girl, starts pooping after the first five minutes; Aspen, also female, is more mellow but curls up into a ball of spikes when lifted — a standard protective measure for the species. Then there’s this character:

We were told he’s male, though he doesn’t have a name yet. Both my demo partner and I picked him up last week and got this wonderfully nonchalant yoga-pose response. Everyone wants to touch a fuzzy-looking hedgehog when they see it, but the one time my bare finger grazed one by accident, I bled a little. Don’t confuse it with a baby porcupine, though! These guys are native to Africa and southern Europe, where they hibernate at temperatures below 45F. What we know as Groundhog Day started in Europe as Hedgehog Day. I don’t know if Nameless is less sensitive because he’s male; my sample size here is too small, and I dislike gender stereotypes in any species. But last week’s demo revelation led me in a similar direction: William, always the calmer of our two bullsnakes, has turned out to be Willa.

The revelation, according to Zoomobile staffer Chris, came a couple of weeks ago when “William,” now 4 years old and nearly 5 feet long, laid 20 eggs. S/he had always been labeled “gender unknown” — for that matter, so is Draco, our more wiggly and challenging bullsnake. Draco, like Willa, could still join the ranks of regendered reptiles in my world, including fellow volunteer Darlene’s male box turtle, Sally, and Roger the alligator  — the real-life female that got loose in Minnesota and found a zoo home this week, not the animated movie character from “Madagascar.” In the meantime, I’ll keep trying not to anthropomorphize the animals. It’s hard to say whether I’ll succeed at this, of course.

Out of the box

I’m on vacation at home this week, which allowed me to spend six full hours at the zoo today and write about it tonight, while it’s all still fresh in my mind. Many things distinguished the day: the glorious pre-autumn weather, the intelligent curiosity of children, the box turtle that tried to untie my shoelace and nibbled my sock …

I try to keep blurry photos off this blog unless they’re arty or surprising or proof of rare, fleeting events. The last two exemptions apply here. Before the first of my two animal demos, I strolled into the room where a hedgehog was waiting and saw a turtle on the floor. Two young female interns were supervising it. Within two minutes, all three of us had had a close shoe-related encounter with the reptile. One intern playfully scooted away from it, but despite its name, “Pokey” also picked up the pace in pursuit of her foot. Eager for a photo op, I offered mine instead.

I’ve demo’d painted turtles, which are common near Minnesota lakes, but not the common or Eastern box turtle, which comes no closer than southern Wisconsin. They’re four to eight inches long, with domed shells. (I wear a size 7 sneaker, if that helps put Pokey in perspective.) In the wild, they have a taste for mushrooms, including some that are poisonous to people. When I described my experience over lunch an hour later, a veteran volunteer said the turtle might be mistaking shoelaces for worms.

I can’t wait to describe my encounter to Darlene, a fellow volunteer who got a box turtle as a pet for her daughter — about 30 years ago. The daughter has been an adult for two decades, but Sally the turtle (eventually discovered to be male) still resides in what sounds like bucolic indoor/outdoor comfort at Darlene’s place. Box turtles generally live at least 50 years, sometimes 100, and Wikipedia says they don’t mix well with larger pets or very small children — two things to consider before acquiring one.

Two weeks later, I saw Pokey being demo’d in his public arena — a clear plastic box on the Minnesota Lodge desk. Not only could I get a blur-free photo under these circumstances, but I could figure out his gender — even if a notecard hadn’t proclaimed it, I could see he had red eyes, a masculine box turtle’s calling card.

The turtle-shoe Thursday was packed with potential blog entries: a smart kid’s curiosity, the semi-destructive tendencies of grizzly bears, the gracefulness of goitered gazelles on the Northern Trail. And, of course, temporary reptilian footwear.

Snakes on the brain

In the weeks since the Bronx Zoo’s cobra escaped, started tweeting and was finally restored to her enclosure, my preoccupation with reptiles has spiked a bit. I spent some quality couch time Sunday with the zoo’s fact sheet on snakes, meditating on their coolness (a jaw that unhinges while held together by ligaments!) and trying to pick a favorite out of the four types of serpents I’ve demo’d at the zoo. I’ve written here about my close encounters with Sylvia the milksnake and Bita the Western hognose, and I’ve alluded more briefly to William, the zoo’s increasingly huge but consistently tranquil bullsnake. But more often in the past few months, including last week, I’ve been scheduled to demo Cornelius the cornsnake.


In the wild, all Cornelius’ relatives live on the East Coast. Also known as red rat snakes or red racers, cornsnakes have ruddy-orange backs, with a more golden Indian-corn pattern on their bellies. Half the size of a full-grown bullsnake, they’re a midsized and manageable 2 to 4 feet long. At the zoo, they eat a single mouse (frozen, then thawed) each week. Like other constrictors (see how tightly Cornelius twines round this volunteer’s wrist), they have ways of pretending they’re venomous to scare off predators: When threatened or upset, a cornsnakes will vibrate the end of its tail as if to imply, “Watch out, I’m a rattlesnake.” But it’s all for show.

If my fondness for snakes seems in any way peculiar, consider this photo of William the bullsnake gazing up at my fellow volunteer Bob. I had an especially soft spot for William in my early snake-wielding days, when he was still cornsnake-sized and notably docile. Back then the zoo’s other young bullsnake, Draco, could most charitably be described as extra-wiggly. The bullsnake is the largest snake in Minnesota at 4 to 8 feet long, and now that both William and Draco have reached adulthood, they’re quite a bit heavier to hold but equally mellow. Bullsnakes are named for their hiss, which allegedly sounds like a bull snorting, but I’ve never seen these guys get that agitated — not even Draco at his most wiggly.

Creepy, crawly and stinky

Outdoors, Thursday was unexpectedly sunny, lovely and calm after an early-spring blast of snow and sleet; I strolled the Northern Trail for half an hour, camera in hand, with an eye to updating my blog banner. Indoors, my day got a little more down and dirty: I did a roach-and-millipede demo, then saw and sniffed the voodoo lily. This cousin of the corpse flower has been attracting tons of local publicity since it was planted Tuesday in the Tropics trail.


A hilarious guide to the smelly plant was posted in the volunteer lounge, including a frank definition of “Amorphophallus” (its Latin name) for any volunteer who needed help translating that. When fully unfurled, the flower’s rotting-flesh aroma is said to permeate a five-foot radius; at this early stage, I had to stand within a foot of it, downwind, to catch the scent. Crowds milled around the proud purple spire, across the aisle from the Komodo dragon (which like the voodoo lily itself can be found in Indonesia). A single fly buzzed around the expanding bud, as if browsing a garbage pit.

By then, I was already somewhat desensitized to ick, thanks to my earlier bug demo. I rarely get assigned to present the giant African millipede and the Madagascar hissing cockroach to zoo guests, and I always have to gather my courage a bit beforehand. Last time, I had a male demo partner who was happy to hold the millipede.

This time, fellow volunteer Belva and I had a large terra-cotta planter-saucer to contain the crawly critters, although the millipede kept trying to escape, and I had to keep nudging it back within bounds with a tentative finger.

Surprisingly, most of the many kids who stopped by were willing, even eager, to touch the millipede (the roach was a bit too skittish). For some reason, the zoo’s docile, nonvenomous snakes seem to scare people more. And these bugs are fun to talk about. They live on the floor of the African rainforest, nibbling away at the decaying plant matter that might otherwise pile up to unmanageable heights. Of the 3,500 roach species, the hissing cockroach (not “kissing,” as one girl initially misheard it), is one of the few with wings. Millipedes (about 8,000 species worldwide, 800 in the U.S.) give me the excuse to use an awesome word, “diplosegment,” and explain the unusual way they grow: Each segment has two legs per side (centipedes have one), and the total number of legs depends on the millipede’s length, or how many segments it has grown. Unlike centipedes, these guys don’t move fast, and Belva likened this one to a “railroad train” chugging along. The more you know about such a creature, the more fascinating it becomes, and the less power the “ick” factor holds.

A child-friendly serpent

The milksnake has never been my favorite reptile to demo, mainly because its name is its only unique talking point, and a fairly senseless one at that. (When cows weren’t giving much milk, some farmers blamed milksnakes, which were hanging around to eat the mice that were hanging around to eat the grain. As if a snake could milk a cow.) Yet this week’s animal encounter with Sylvia became an unexpected delight, thanks to the hordes of small children who found her delightful. I don’t know who declared this Thursday “cute kid day at the Mn Zoo,” but home-schooling families seemed to be out in force, despite an impending sleet-storm. The typical home-schooling family at the zoo includes three or four alert, polite, inquisitive children ranging in age from 3 to 12, and on Thursday they were all stopping in the Minnesota Lodge to check out Sylvia, an Eastern U.S. snake whose range overlaps the Twin Cities. (Milksnakes are nocturnal, so don’t expect to spot one easily in the “wild.”) I’d dismissed Sylvia and her breed as uninteresting, but her lack of defense mechanisms (hissing, cobra-like neck-flaring, rattlesnake-like tail-quivering) made her less scary to kids than the Western hognose or bullsnake, which rely on such tricks to fake out predators. Her small head and smooth, soft body also helped. She slid languidly through my hands, occasionally tucking her head up my long sleeve for warmth. A probably 7-year-old girl spent about 10 minutes admiring Sylvia, exclaiming “She’s so cute!” and, a little later: “She doesn’t have any fur!” A younger boy, initially fearful, grew increasingly absorbed in Sylvia, and when the time came to put her back in her pillowcase, he was still standing there, wordlessly grinning at her. In 20 minutes, 45 guests stopped by to look at Sylvia — a number more typical of the booming summer months at the zoo. I won’t underestimate this snake again.

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