Clever Pun About Snakes Goes Here

I generally like’s articles, but this piece today from David Fleshler really falls short of the mark. It’s full of scary quotes, terrifying comparisons, and still finds time to be completely wrong about the issue at hand.

In “What a bunch of snakes,” Fleshler makes the following assertions for your consideration:

  • The snake lobby uses the same tactics and rhetoric as the gun lobby.
  • The snake lobby pretends it is representing a really important industry.
  • Fatalities and injuries from dangerous snakes are “soaring.”
  • Even though cats are currently decimating bird and wildlife populations everywhere in the United States and dogs kill and harm far more people than snakes do, they are “our friends. They need us. Pythons don’t.”

The snake lobby uses the same tactics and rhetoric as the gun lobby.

Since Slate’s readers tend to skew leftward (hell, which is why I read it), it’s important to keep in mind that this is a scare tactic to short-circuit the reader’s rational thinking. How is the reptile lobby like the gun lobby? Well, Fleshler tells us that “like the gun lobby, which the reptile industry resembles in its rhetoric, the snake dealers quickly learned to play the Washington game.”

And the gun lobby is, of course, evil. Ergo, the reptile lobby is evil, too. If they weren’t evil, they wouldn’t be like the gun lobby.

The problem is that every lobby group does the same thing. They petition legislators. They cajole and fund raise and threaten and beg and plead and buy their way into getting their agendas passed. They protest and demonstrate and shout and do whatever it takes to get their particular issue heard. The gun lobby does this. The environmental lobby does this. The LGBT lobby does this.

The problem isn’t the rhetoric or the tactics used, because everyone does it and I guarantee if there’s a political issue you care about, there’s likely a lobby out there using those same tactics and rhetoric as all the lobbies you hate. It’s the way things are in Washington and everyone’s doing it.

The gun lobby isn’t evil because of how they’re doing things. They’re evil to liberals because a): they’re winning and b): winning means people continue to get shot in staggering numbers. The gun lobby is the bogeyman in the room because dollars = speech and so they have more dollars and more speech than everyone else opposing them.

The snake lobby pretends it is representing a really important industry.

Some snakes go for a lot of money and so banning them would cause the industry around them a big economic loss. Also, for some reason, it’s important to note that “Anyone concerned about the trade deficit will be glad to know that according to Issa’s report “the U.S. is a global leader in the reptile industry.”

Fleshler isn’t saying that being a global leader in the reptile industry isn’t causing trade deficits, but he also isn’t not saying it either, wink wink.

Fatalities and injuries from dangerous snakes are “soaring.”

There are no official statistics on injuries or deaths from snakes in the United States. But a commonly accepted figure states that 12 people have been killed by constricting snakes since 1990—most of them snake owners or their children. The Humane Society says the number of snake incidents—injuries, attempted constrictions—has soared in the past 10 years, with more than 60 in 2012.

I am here writing this in the Year of Our Lord 2015. Since 1990 (which was, if we do the math . . . 25 years ago), we have lost twelve souls to the terrible coils of constricting snakes. TWELVE LIVES.

And while the loss of any human life is always regrettable, here are a few things more dangerous than large constricting snakes and kill more people:

  1. Dogs: 364 since 2001.
  2. Collapsing sand holes: 16 since 1990.
  3. Guns (factoring only accidental discharges, which excludes suicides and homicides): 851 in 2011.

In fact, in 2014, Slate posted an article discussing in great detail whether snakes were more dangerous than guns. It’s worth a read. (tl;dr version: they’re not). The vast majority of snake-related injuries in the United States are due to wild snakes. Of those caused by kept snakes, most are inflicted by venomous snakes, which many keepers, including myself, steer clear of. Constrictors, even large constrictors, account for a very small percentage of the injury statistics. Which isn’t to say that large constrictors aren’t dangerous—they are powerfully strong animals—but so are rottweilers, German shepherd dogs, and other large breeds.

And despite the use of the scary word “soared,” 60 injuries in 2012 seems rather modest, especially since that’s including any injury, not just those that then led to a fatality.

The problem with the “scary snakes are dangerous” rhetoric is that so many people are afraid of snakes, so it’s easy to fixate on a single gruesome story when it does happen. But in terms of actual danger, more people are killed or harmed by falling out of bed or end up crushed to death under vending machines. And if we want to talk about an injury rate that really is soaring, how about the 350,000 people sent to emergency rooms from dog bite injuries each year?

Ultimately, the problem with the “there should be restrictions on dangerous reptiles” has most to do with the fact that very few people seem willing to draw distinctions between venomous snakes and constrictors of any size. Fleshler’s article is all over the place in this regard. Is he pushing for venomous breed restrictions? Does he want bans on a single large constrictor breed, like the Burmese python? He singles out the boa constrictor as one breed that was dropped from the ban, but fails to talk about the numerous different kinds of boa constrictors there are in all different shapes and sizes.

And this is the part that gets snake keepers up in arms (heh). Proposed restrictions often have this kind of weaselly language written in, and thus a bill introduced to restrict, say, the large and potentially dangerous Burmese python can also restrict the small and innocuous Ball Python, which is tiny in comparison and thoroughly harmless.

Dogs and cats have been bred over millennia to be our friends. Pythons have not, as several surprised snake owners realized in their final moments. Dogs need us. Pythons don’t.

I’m sure the people who were killed by dogs were also surprised to realize that dogs bred to be their friends turned out to be strong, power animals capable of inflicting injury. For me, this quote is the worst of the entire article and indicative that Fleshler’s argument is basically rot. It’s anthropomorphism of the worst sort.

To breezily gloss over the fact that cats, both feral and pet, are causing far more ecological destruction is overwhelming naive and indicative of bias. Pointing out that cats have been bred to be our friends is also basically wrong, and this is from the perspective of a cat fan, but cats domesticated themselves. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that actually owns a cat; as the saying goes, dogs have owners, but cats have staff.

It’s true that reptiles aren’t social animals and they don’t form bonds the way pack-oriented mammals like dogs do. On the other hand, why does that matter? There is a tremendous amount of joy to be had in caring for reptiles of all kinds, if they happen to be the type of animal that most inspires and amazes you. My pets bring me joy every time I look at them or handle them. The fact that they don’t sit by the door wagging their tails waiting for me should not reduce my status to that of a second-class citizen.

Various Thoughts

Usually, when I sit down to write a blog post, I have a particular topic or theme I want to discuss. This topic or theme then provides structure for my various musings and/or ramblings. On occasion, though, I find myself with lots of thoughts floating around in my head but without any larger theme to tie them together and you end up with a post like this: bullet points that are related to one another only in that I’m thinking about them at all.

  • I’m a week into my online class for my MLS degree. I’ve never taken an online class before and right away, I’ve noticed it is incredibly easy to blow off/procrastinate on my work. I’ve realized I need to structure a dedicated amount of hours into my day that are “class time” or else I’m never going to get anything done. I’ll let you know if this is successful.
  • I took a motorcycle ride up Mt. Lemmon on Sunday, even though I knew it was going to be insanely crowded with Labor Day weekend campers and picnickers. Is that how you spell that word? Picnickers? It doesn’t look right to me, but spell check is adamant, so I guess we’ll go with that. As far as the Mt. Lemmon ride was concerned, I knew it was going to be crowded but I was still amazed at just how crowded it was. Every single picnic and camping area was full. Several of them were so full that people had parked on the side of the road to have their picnics. It made me very glad that I was just going to ride up to the top of the mountain and then ride back down. Didn’t even have to look for a parking space.
  • I realized I still haven’t put away my suitcase from my trip to New York, even though it’s been almost a month. I’ve unpacked all my stuff, of course, it’s just that my suitcase is still sitting in the corner of my room. Is there a time limit on when it’s been out for too long? If so, I think I’ve already passed it.
  • I can’t believe it’s already September.
  • There hasn’t been any news about last month’s horrible python attack in Canada. I’ve been keeping an eye out for news, but there hasn’t been anything. There was one report that caused me to raise my eyebrows, however:

    A reptile store owner under investigation for criminal negligence in the deaths of two boys after a large python escaped its enclosure had blood on his hands and shorts when police arrived at the scene in Campbellton, N.B., according to newly released court documents. Jean-Claude Savoie was distressed and pacing outside Reptile Ocean on Aug. 5, when he said four-year-old Noah Barthe and his six-year-old brother Connor were dead, police state in the documents

    Bold emphasis is mine. Wait, why didn’t this make the news anywhere else? Two kids are dead and there’s a guy with blood on his hands and shorts? That doesn’t raise any concerns? It doesn’t get mentioned again in the article, nor could I corroborate it with any other sources. Whose blood was this? Where did this blood come from? Either this particular reporter made this detail up or it’s been ignored because blood on a suspect’s hands isn’t nearly as sensational as a killer snake. Sigh.

Well, enough rambling for one evening, I think. I have things to do and I’m sure you do as well. And on an unrelated note, thanks for taking the time to read my strange little blog.

On Pythons

Regular readers know that I’m a “snake person.” I’ve kept snakes for the majority of my life. I love Maize and Morrigan, my two pet snakes, as much as any dog or cat owner loves their fuzzy companions (although I’m decidedly more realistic about how Maize and Morrigan feel about me, which is to say, they don’t feel anything for me).

I have to talk about this fatal python attack that’s making the news rounds. It’s weird to me that this horrible thing happened in Canada at almost exactly the same time I’m in Canada myself. Just one of those weird things, I guess.

First, I want to say that regardless of how or why it happened, this is a horrible thing to have happened. I feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for the families of those boys and I realize that no level of rationalization or understanding can help heal those wounds. I feel terrible for those poor boys, as well. Constriction is one of the most horrible deaths imaginable, in my opinion. It’s one of the reasons I never feed my snakes live prey. It doesn’t matter that constriction is a constrictor’s natural means of killing. It’s a bad way for anything to go, even something as small as a mouse.

After all, it’s not like the snakes care. They don’t bother to constrict when they don’t need to do so. Arguing that I’m denying these predators the chance to hunt is just anthropomorphic projecting. Snakes don’t feel concepts such as “the thrill of the hunt.” Keep that thought in mind as we work through this.

Regardless, I’m sorry for the family, I’m sorry for the community, and I’m sorry for those boys. It’s a tragedy. No bones about it.

Now, with that said . . .

I’m going to put on my Cynical hat for the rest of this post. Ye be warned, matey. If you’re squeamish, you may wish to stop reading at this point.

I have a very difficult time believing this story as it has been presented to us. Let’s look at the basic sequence of events:

  1. The snake escaped from its enclosure into a vent.
  2. It followed the vent and ended up in the boys’ room.
  3. It proceeded to attack and constrict the two boys while they slept without anybody waking up.

Point one isn’t particularly surprising; snakes are really, really good at escaping. The fact that the owner of the python didn’t have the proper precautions to prevent an escape may or may not be criminal negligence (I don’t have the legal background to say). However, this is something that snakes do whenever they get a chance. All snakes do this.

Point two isn’t surprising, either. The first thing a snake is going to do after escaping is slither towards terrain it considers favorable. Vents are enclosed spaces, which makes snakes feel secure. The vent was probably fairly warm, which also would have drawn the snake to it.A snake going into a vent is likely scary, but not indicative of a hostile snake. This, too, is normal behavior.

Point three is where the examples of normal behavior fall apart. Snakes only attack for two reasons: to kill prey or to defend themselves. That’s it. Snakes don’t kill “for the fun of it” or “just because.” Every snake bites for one of these two reasons. The snake might incorrectly interpret a benign situation as threatening, of course. Mistakes are certainly possible. Usually, however, a snake mistakes a person as a threat when the person is doing something to make the snake feel threatened, either intentionally or unintentionally.

It’s hard to believe that two sleeping boys would make a snake feel threatened, so it makes it seem unlikely that “defense” was the reason that prompted the attack. That leaves the second option: “killing prey.” Getting food. It’s horrible to think about a snake consuming a human being, but there are a few recorded instances where it has happened.

It’s hard to believe that a snake, even a large one, would interpret a human as food. The only thing that makes this more likely is if the snake was starving, in which case it would become a much more opportunistic predator. Unless the owner was incredibly horrible at feeding this snake, however, starvation seems unlikely. Most captive snakes are fed too often rather than not often enough. Seriously, unless you’ve kept a snake, you will have a hard time wrapping your mind around how infrequently they can eat. Sometimes, my python has gone a month between meals for no reason more than “because she didn’t feel like eating.”

So, the python has arrived in the room and it’s either starving (and thus opportunistic) or the boys themselves have done something to make themselves appear as food to the snake. If the owner kept live prey for this python, it’s likely that he had several rabbits or other large rodents on hand. Maybe the boys played with the rabbits and enough scent rubbed off on them. It’s possible.

When a constrictor attempts to kill prey, it has to strike. It leads with a quick bite that secures a grip on the prey and allows the snake to use its powerful body to lift the prey enough to begin wrapping its coils around the victim.

These snakes have very sharp teeth to aid in securing their grip. These sharp teeth produce very painful bites.

I can’t imagine a situation that would have resulted in both boys being killed. If the snake struck and constricted one boy, the screams would have surely woken up the other boy. More likely, they would have woken up everybody in the building. Bites from a large python hurt.

The snake would have had to struck and constricted the first boy, killed him without making a sound, and then repeated the same process on the second boy, again without making a sound. This seems unlikely.

If the snake hadn’t bitten, I’m not sure how it could have gotten its coils around both boys to begin constricting them. It would have literally had to slither under them both to get coils beneath their sleeping bodies, again without waking them. It’s hard to imagine the pressure of a heavy snake on one’s body wouldn’t wake at least one boy which would lead to screaming. Even I would wake up screaming if I found a python in my bed, and I love pythons.

Also unlikely is the gruesome but accurate puzzle of why the snake didn’t consume the first boy before killing the second? A snake almost always engages in the feeding process immediately after completing a kill; the only thing that would cause them to abandon a kill without eating is if another predator posed a threat.

It’s actually incredibly difficult for snakes to consume humans, even children. Our bipedal bodies give us a very unique silhouette in the animal kingdom and our broad shoulders make it impossible for a snake to swallow a human past the head (of course, the human will still be dead in this scenario, so that’s a small comfort). Children are more vulnerable, of course, but still unlikely to suffer this fate.

This situation just doesn’t add up. Why would the snake seek out these boys instead of ignoring them? Why would it attack both of them? Why didn’t it try to eat? Why didn’t anybody hear the scream that would have resulted from a painful python bite?

I’m not saying it’s impossible. Clearly, it’s not, as there are two boys whose lives have been taken from them.

I am, however, saying that Occam’s Razor doesn’t support such a series of improbabilities necessary for this story to happen in the way it has been presented. I am saying that the explanation that a python went out of its way to murder two boys seems very unlikely to me.

Certainly, it seems more unlikely than a scenario in which something else strangled two children and then blamed it on a convenient scapegoat. Consider this:

In the past 100 years, Mr. Marais said experts had traced only three cases of human strangulation deaths by pythons in all of Africa. “It’s an incredibly rare event,” he said from Pretoria, South Africa. It would be even more unusual for two people to be killed in the same incident, he said.

Again, it’s not impossible, but these events are, in my opinion, incredibly improbable.

I imagine that when more details emerge, we’ll hopefully learn the truth. I assume that asphyxiation via snake leaves very different marks on a body compared to more mundane forms of strangulation. I guess we’ll see.

Regardless of how it happened, the snake is dead, too, and I’m sure this will provoke more violence and hatred against an order of reptiles that has suffered far more at our hands than we have to their fangs or coils. Snakes will be blamed for being “dangerous,” even though far more people are killed by dogs every year.

But that won’t matter. It never does. Because in the end, to many people snakes are scary and it’s all to easy to blame something that seems scary.

The Snake Keeper Chronicles

Given that ophidiophobia is the most commonly reported phobia in the United States, it’s unlikely that you’ve ever looked into the husbandry practices necessary to care for python regius, known by its more common names the royal python and the ball python. If you had, you would come across various warnings and reports that these snakes are “picky eaters” who are known for “refusing to eat for weeks at a time for seemingly no reason.” It’s generally considered not worth getting worked up about unless your python regius is going on six months without eating. That is a long time!

My ball python, Morrigan, is the second snake I’ve ever owned. My first snake was (and still is!) a corn snake named Maize. I named him thusly because I was about eleven years old when I acquired him and when you’re eleven years old you think that naming a corn snake Maize is the height of sophistication and wit. You may also be doing the mental arithmetic regarding how old I was when I acquired Maize and how old I am now. That is correct: Maize the corn snake is fifteen years old. It is entirely possible that he will live for another five more years: the given age range is fifteen to twenty years.

Sufficient to say, snakes live for a very, very long time. This is why there are only two kinds of snake owners: those who will only ever have one or two snakes in their entire life and those who end up owning about a thousand snakes and have a dedicated “snake room” filled with their pets.

While corn snakes live up to twenty years, ball pythons are supposed to live for about twenty years but have sometimes lived as long as forty years! I could very well be taking care of the snake pet until I am sixty. The mind boggles!

Corn snakes have a reputation for being easy to care for and this is accurate. Feeding Maize takes very little effort. Thaw the mouse, give the thawed mouse to the snake. He eats it. Repeat weekly. It doesn’t matter to a corn snake if the mouse is cold. It’s a goddamn mouse and he’s a goddamn snake and he knows how to conduct this business.

Morrigan, though.

Unlike a corn snake, a ball python cares very deeply how warm the mouse is. In fact, if the mouse is not the precise level of warm, she will ignore it. If it’s too warm, she will ignore it. If it’s the wrong time of the day, she’ll ignore it. If she just doesn’t feel like it, she’ll ignore it. If I did my laundry in the next room four hours earlier, she’ll ignore it. You get the idea.

Feeding a ball python is a careful process that requires patience. However, the feeling that you get when she does eat is very, very rewarding. Today, I tried a new method of thawing her mouse slowly in cool water first and then running it under hot water from the tap. This was a little more hydro-intensive than I would like but it did the trick perfectly. Not only did she eat, she snapped at the mouse almost as soon as I gave it to her. This is a far cry from the bored way she tends to poke at the mouse for up to an hour before eating it. I don’t even mind the fact that she almost got one of my fingers, even though I was being very careful to avoid that exact event.

If I had to sum it all up, I would describe my experience thus: the frustration of feeding a picky ball python is surpassed only by the relief and happiness when she finally does eat.