Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from big snakes and little bunnies

The East Bay Vivarium is one of the biggest reptile stores in the nation, with one of the most diverse collections of reptiles. It's a good place to go look at snakes and lizards and tarantulas and various other types of unusual pets.
It's like heaven for 10 year old boys (or anybody of any age, really) who are into snakes and lizards and tarantulas and turtles and skinks and monitor lizards and big huge boas and pythons.
Smug iguana.
Argus Monitor. Already pretty large, it'd get larger.
Oddly, I felt no need to touch the glass, with that huge python so active there.
He was about 20 feet long. He got fed a large bunny a few minutes later.
Another monitor lizard. He's the size of a large dog.
We went up to Berkeley yesterday to go there and look at tarantulas, since Riley is currently obsessed with the notion of keeping a tarantula. I have said no, not at this time, but he is researching care and species madly and so we went to research tarantulas in more depth. Somehow I seem incapable of discouraging research and learning about critters or just about anything, so it seemed like a good compromise, as long as I didn't cave and let him get another pet.
Advice on how to keep a tarantula. Females can live 12 years or more, apparently.
Turns out we got there right at feeding time, and the various dudes who work there were busy feeding the snakes, both big and small. So we got to see multiple snakes actually catching and eating their prey, which is really a pretty unusual sight to get to see, unless you are a snake owner yourself or frequent places like the East Bay Vivarium.
Time to navigate away now if you are at all squidgy about seeing a snake eating a bunny. We watched the entire process.

Bunnies of varying sizes were put into the enclosures of the biggest pythons, and the python you see here was active and hungry; this entire sequence took about half an hour total. I've edited out a lot of photos, and the quality of my photos here is not great, but I'd never seen how a snake could actually eat a prey animal so much larger than its own head, so I took pictures. The boys and I were joined by a crew of other boys and a few other parents; the guys working there were busy with feeding other snakes and were fairly unimpressed, having seen it many times before. They tried to defuse any shock exhibited by onlookers by remaining calm and casual and busy, as I'm sure they have to deal with people's reactions regularly. They enforced some quiet and an attitude of respect, which I really appreciated, since it set the expectation for everyone that this was a part of life in this place and needed to happen and was not a reason for loud voices and semi-panic, as some of the other parents present seemed to think.
 I was a bit worried that this whole process would be rather traumatic for the boys, but I decided to let them watch, since it's part of life and part of how these animals eat and live. The bunnies who were put in with the big pythons were all quiet and not panicked throughout, oddly.

 The actual capture was quite fast and the bunny let out one small cry which quickly stopped; the python wrapped its body around the bunny more quickly than I could react with my camera, and then just held it immobile, squeezing slowly, for several minutes. The bunny was alive after the actual capture, but didn't struggle; it kicked once, then died quietly and it was hard to tell when he actually stopped breathing; there was no single traumatic moment and the boys didn't seem to notice when it actually happened, though I could tell after a few minutes.
The snake seemed to know when the bunny had died; it released the rabbit and then moved around and seemed to be seeking out the position of the rabbit in order to find its head; once it had that figured out, it then methodically began to swallow the rabbit, head first. The eating part took about 20 minutes or so, and the snake worked at it steadily until the bunny was all inside.

We were told by one of the men working there that the snake's lower jaw isn't fused and can separate at both the center of the front of the jaw as well as releasing from the actual skull so that the snake's gullet can open very wide, as you can see. 

After finishing swallowing, the snake seemed to need a bit of time to simply hold still with his mouth open, as if he was exhausted. Perhaps he was reassembling his jaw and moving the bunny's body further down inside. I admit I was surprised at how quickly the snake moved the bunny's body down into the mid part of his own body. 

We were told the snakes get fed every week or so, which was more often than I had realized; the whole feeding process was much faster than I had realized, though it would still be a very long time for a snake to be vulnerable in the wild.

None of the kids freaked out, though one mother, realizing belatedly what was happening, was so repulsed and shocked she then dragged her very reluctant children out of the store with loud words about cruelty and inappropriateness and how some other parents were negligent, allowing their children to be traumatized by watching such things. None of the kids seemed traumatized to me, more just fascinated, and they had empathy for the bunnies, but the bunnies' own calmness seemed to have an oddly soothing effect on the kids. The kids were puzzled by why the bunnies didn't seem to panic or be afraid, and they discussed it amongst themselves a bit before running around to the other snakes to see how they were doing. They seemed to just accept the way the animals handled everything, the way kids do sometimes.

All of the kids present in the store formed a cohesive gang as soon as the feedings started. They would split up, running back and forth, reporting to each other on the progress of various snakes' feedings; they didn't stay long at any single feeding, but they were all certainly aware of what was happening. I was almost as fascinated watching the kids' behavior as I was watching the snakes; they almost instantly worked together and acted as a team as though they had known each other for a long time, and it was obvious that they felt the need to cooperate and stick together no matter what the adults did. It was something to see. No shyness, no social jockeying, more of an instinctive clumping together in a tight-knit group. It reminded me of bands of monkeys in trees watching a big predator in action from a safe distance- wary, alert, very interested and a bit afraid, but fascinated. And ready to help each other out no matter what happened.
Blue-tongued skink.
Eventually we looked more at tarantulas; Riley was sorely tempted by a little spiderling tarantula in exactly the species he was researching, for only $5. It would have needed to be fed pin-head crickets or tiny fruit flies, and the thought of adding the task of tracking those down every week and feeding the spiderling helped me keep my resolve; I held firm and we did not go home with a spiderling tarantula. We eventually managed to make our way out into the sunlight, and Casey spotted a tiny baby gecko that had gotten loose and was clinging to the wall outside.
With the baby gecko rescued and turned back in to the store guys, we talked in the car on the way home from Berkeley about geckos and tarantulas and how cheap a spiderling was and how you could make friends really easily sometimes and how calm the bunnies were and detachable jaw hinges and eating other animals, and death.  And how sometimes, it's not a scary thing but just rather matter-of-fact and a part of living.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your post and pics! Being a snake owner myself (four cornsnakes, two ball pythons), I'm very happy to live so close to EBV.

    My vote for the creepiest creatures there: the African bullfrogs. They're like Jabba the Hut.

    After the snakes, I suspect I'll either get a tarantula or a bearded dragon.