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.

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.

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.

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.

A dainty little reptile

Bita the hognoseI’ve never been afraid of snakes (though terrified of spiders), but until I got certified to do animal encounters at the Mn Zoo, I never realized that I actually LIKE legless reptiles. Last week my fellow volunteer Sue and I were assigned to demo a Western hognose snake named Bita, seen here in Sue’s capable hands. Found in western Minnesota and throughout the central Plains states, the hognose is a complicated creature: Its slightly upturned nose, which helps the snake burrow into prairie soil, conceals a pair of fangs for puncturing toads — even species of toad that are poisonous to other animals. Bita, we learned, has her own personality: While I’ve had a hognose rest its little head in the hollow between thumb and forefinger during a demo, Bita is not that hognose. She hissed vigorously inside the pillowcase that encloses her while she’s carried to her demo cart near the entrance to the Minnesota Trail. She also hissed at any abrupt movement nearby, but like any good demo animal, she let children and adults touch her scaly back and her amazingly smooth underside during her 15 minutes on public display. Less than two feet long, she is delicate, light and surprisingly soft to the touch. Sue and I joked about her potentially intimidating name, but as zoo staff assured us, Bita is harmless behind her posturing hiss. Unless you’re a toad, of course.