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Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 21, 2017

Tracks and Tales: Snakes

By Pam Holz

During the entire interview, he stared at me, almost as if daring me to make a mistake.  I tried hard not to glance his way, but he was curled up behind the interviewers, in my natural line of sight.  Later, after accepting the position, he would continue to stare, tracking my movements as I walked past him.  
I knew it wasn’t fair of me, to imagine malicious intent on his behalf.  But his six foot length made my five-foot-two frame feel tiny and every time he moved, I could see the strength in his muscles.  I interacted with him as little as possible.  
It didn’t help that my sole association with boas dated back to childhood and the song, “Oh, No, I’m Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor.”  In the song, the snake starts at the toe and moves upward.  I suppose our music teacher thought it was a good way to review body parts, but it sure didn’t make anyone feel friendly about snakes.  
My impressions of our oversized nature center resident, admittedly, resulted from an overactive imagination.  Of course the snake stared; he had no eyelids.  Of course he watched me; my footsteps on the renovated barn floor no doubt rattled his enclosure.  From his perspective, he probably wanted to make sure I was no predator.  
As my more recent experience with snakes would demonstrate, these animals lack enough intelligence for intent.  It’s hard to say snakes are mean animals after watching them allow themselves to get chewed on by their mouse dinner.  You can’t get more pacifistic than letting your food eat you.  However, in the interest of accuracy, I feel I need to add that if the boa had any interest in me for lunch, he would not have started at the toe, like in the song.  Snakes usually eat their prey head first.  Food goes down the throat smoother and, just in case it isn’t dead, it isn’t able to put up as much fuss that way.  
When I began doing snake programs in Washington County, I chose to use smaller snakes that I could hold, instead of the other way around.  The one disadvantage was that smaller snakes tend to move more and quicker.  Pythons and other constrictors, especially at adult size, tend to be more relaxed in their movements.  
Part of this amount of activity is dependent upon diet.  Larger snakes may be able to eat larger prey, but the digestion process saps energy for elsewhere, including movement.  In the wild, a large meal may sustain a python for months, but, in return, the excess weight and digestion time makes the snake more vulnerable to predators.  Smaller meals might be safer, but mean more hunting time.  
Currently, I am once again faced with an over-sized snake at my nature center.  Fortunately, this time, it includes only the skeleton, or rather a wooden version thereof.  I can walk through the insides of the snake without fear of being eaten and learn about how the innards of snakes are similar to stretched out versions of our own insides.  
This traveling exhibit – Snakes, Rattles, and Holes – is on loan to us till June 1 by the Dallas County Conservation Board, who purchased it from Purdue University.  It features some wonderful information, a diorama, hands on displays, and several ways to explore and investigate snakes.  
The exhibit is open to the public during the scheduled open hours of the center or by appointment.  Groups are welcome to contact me (wccbnaturalist@iowatelecom.net) if you would like a program in conjunction with a tour.  I can’t imagine a safer and more fun way to explore the topic of snakes.