Washington Evening Journal

Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 26, 2018

Tracks and Tales: Babies with attitudes

By Pam Holz

“Aww,” my daughter and I declared, spotting a little monkey in a corner of the enclosure at the zoo.
“Awwww,” we agreed when it started to yawn.
“Aww…ohh…..eeeek,” we finished when that adorable little monkey yawned as wide as it could, giving us full view of 3 to 4 inch fangs.  Couldn’t those things slash an artery?  We moved on.  Quickly.
Someone once told me that cuteness was nature’s way of protecting babies.  I mean, who would want to harm something that looked like you should cuddle with it?  Apparently, nature felt in this case it needed a backup plan.  
Cute, though, is in the eye of the beholder.  We have some new babies at the conservation center and visitor reactions has ranged from “aww” to “yuck.”  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your viewpoint), cuddling with them is not currently an option.  Nature planned for these babies well.  
The first set, and the ones that invoke the most positive reactions, are the turtle hatchlings.  The previous turtles had outgrown their tank so staff decided to switch them out with young from this year.  Quarter-sized painted and softshell turtles now swim in the tank in the Lab.  
Although turtles have shells to protect themselves from predators, the small size of the hatchlings make it fairly easy for them to become prey.  Once in a pond or river, they will spend most of their young life hiding.  Sometimes they feel they need an extra advantage before making the long journey from nest site to water.  In that case, they may remain in the nest over winter and hibernate there.  Food is not a problem as hatchlings initially survive off leftover yolk they absorb through their shell.  
To protect them from germs and little hands that don’t understand how delicate hatchling turtle shells are, we don’t have the baby turtles handled or petted.  Even as they grow, they tend to try to squirm away when being picked up.  Therefore, later on, only trained staff will be allowed to hold them.  
Speaking of things that squirm, our next set of babies excel at that skill.  Currently, the center is also hosting two baby fox snakes.  In November, one of the snakes with its siblings will head to a naturalist conference.  From there, the young snakes will be distributed across the state to assist with other nature education programs.  Only one will remain in Washington.  
The baby snakes were a surprise bonus.  During last summer, DNR fisheries biologist Chad Dolan brought in wild-caught reptiles and amphibians for a public program.  At that time, we had already known Deb, our late Baird’s rat snake, was not going to last much longer.  The original plan was for Chad to find a native snake to eventually replace Deb (having two educational snakes had proven to work better than just one).  Chad had found a fox snake but her initial demeanor wasn’t friendly enough for a snake that would be handled by hundreds of kids.  When she mellowed a bit, we debated keeping her and during that time she laid fifteen eggs.  
The situation then looked much more positive.  Training a snake to be accustomed to being handled had a higher success rate the younger the snake was.  When half the eggs hatched successfully, we decided to give other nature centers the same opportunity.  
Little did we know that apparently hatching makes snakes crabby.  Nature must have chosen a different route than cute or cuddly here.  Since they are so small, a bite would hardly be felt.  The defense, at least against large animals, must be the attitude.  Act fierce and you’ll be left alone.  
Now that we have handled the baby snakes regularly, they have discarded their attitude problem.  In addition, we’re keeping mama over winter as it’s too late for her to find a spot for hibernation.  Even though snakes, like other reptiles, give no parental care, it’s still neat to see mama and junior near each other (in separate cages, of course).  
Although unplanned, the new snakes serve well as an appetizer to the traveling snake exhibit we will be hosting beginning in January.  That display will definitely be worth exploring, even for those who say “yuck” upon seeing snakes.