Funny cat videos may be more of an internet sensation, but herptiles can offer just as much humor and charm as the feline set.
Once a year, I like to take a column off from the usual education, rants and opinions I am so full of and take a breather to tell amusing stories about creatures and their people. This year, I’d like to focus on the animals themselves. Outsiders find it hard to believe, but reptiles, amphibians and even arachnids can be cute, charming and occasionally downright hilarious.
Hide and Seek
Funny tarantulas? Sure.
I once did a television shoot that involved placing 30 live pink-toed tarantulas on a gentleman’s head while he was in a translucent box. Now, of all the tarantulas, pink toes are the cutest. First of all, they walk with a gait not unlike that of a tiny pony. Secondly, they really do have pink toes. Thirdly, whereas most tarantulas would consider the presence of other tarantulas to be a call to battle, pinks are socially gracious little things and will happily hang out together.
The shoot went well. I had carefully introduced the spiders to the box and his face, and they pranced about such that even the actor came around about them. I had carefully unpacked the 30 spiders from their individual carriers; now I was just as carefully corralling them up. Twenty-seven, 28, 29…I was missing a spider!
A very diligent search of the set yielded nothing. A second search was equally unsuccessful. I reiterated to the crew how harmless the spider was and told them the minute they spotted her to let me know and I would be right over. I was mortified. I had never lost an animal at a shoot before, and my reputation and the spider’s health were both on the line.
The next day, shortly after we opened, in walked the actor from the shoot. The spider was in a jar in his hand. He had gone home the night before, eaten dinner, watched TV and gone to take a shower. As he took off his shirt, he noticed that he was not alone.
My tarantula had crawled down his collar and clung to the inside of his shirt for many hours before he finally noticed her. What a good little girl!
We keep our hundreds of baby, juvenile and adult snakes in shoebox racks in the back rooms. The staff and I take stints caring for various racks, and over time you not only get to know the personalities of various species but even that of individuals on the rack. One of my racks was populated by multiple species of Asian rat snakes, including several radiated rat snakes. Radiateds are known for having a jumpy temperament, as well as being testy feeders. So every time I worked that rack, I took some time to catch my breath and steady my hand before dealing with them.
My work table was in front of the rack and on it were the tools of the trade: forceps for feeding, cleaning cloths, a bucket of fresh water, a bin of thawed out pre-frozen mice, a dump bucket for dirty shavings and my trusty jumbo iced tea, extra lemon. I gingerly pulled forward and opened the first radiated’s cage; he nervously jerked around the cage and grabbed the mouse I introduced while giving me a look that was equal parts suspicion, hunger, anger and more suspicion.
Radiated No. 2, same deal. And so forth with No. 3 and No. 4. No. 5 made the others look like Buddhist monks; he was not only testy, he was often a bona fide jerk. As I tentatively opened his lid, he burst forth, and with equal speed, I jumped back. But then, a fantastic thing happened.
His nose hit my iced tea, and much to my surprise…he started to drink!
I was laughing uproariously as this snake bellied up to the iced tea bar. The snake slaked his thirst and, on his own, returned to his box and calmly awaited his mouse. I fed him, and it dawned on me. This is not the snake you want to see all juiced up on caffeine.
I didn’t dare open that box again for several days.
If you house animals properly, they generally really do like their homes, as demonstrated by my eight-foot-long false water cobra named Wilma. Water cobras are not true cobras—they are a South American snake that happens to look like a cobra. They will hood up like a cobra when nervous, and they are somewhat venomous. They are not dangerously venomous, and they are rear fanged, meaning they would have to chew on you for some time to deliver any toxins. I deem them to be fairly safe, and Wilma is a true charmer.
I had taken her out to the main floor of the store to give a customer an idea of what to expect his baby to be like as an adult. After a few minutes during which Wilma charmed the gentleman, his wife and their kids, I walked her back to the back room where she lives. It’s about a 50 second walk from the floor to her cage. At about the 10-second mark, something made Wilma nervous, and she coiled from around my shoulders to around my neck. And tightened up.
Now, I wasn’t a bit nervous. She was still loose in my arms, and water cobras aren’t even constrictors, so I didn’t imagine she would have much of a grip.
I was wrong. Fifteen seconds into the walk, she had tightened her coils to the extent that I could feel the pumping of my heartbeat. By 25 seconds in, I felt like I might be in trouble. You know how professional wrestlers have a move called the sleeper hold that’s supposed to knock an opponent out? Just wrestling hoopla, right?
I am here to tell you that hoopla is real. By the time I reached Wilma’s cage, I was seconds away from blacking out. But the moment she saw home, Wilma loosened up and slid gracefully inside.
What a relief.
Take the Wheel
The star of my traveling reptile show is an enormous black-throated monitor named Elmo. He is seven feet of muscle and love, a total sweetie.
When I am on the road, the animals stay in coolers in the back. Elmo’s is one of those extra-large drink coolers. He fits comfortably inside and generally just takes a nap. Between shows I will typically eat my lunch at some strip mall restaurant that affords a view of my van, just in case. On this particular occasion, I found a little Chinese joint with parking directly in front and a table facing the window, giving me the best possible view of my van.
As I ate my wonton soup, I was surprised but not shocked to see Elmo burst out of his cooler. Here’s what did shock me: with a seeming purpose and plan, he made his way from the back of the van directly to the driver’s seat, at which he sat, hands on the wheel (10 and two o’clock), and calmly looked around at the passersby.
The passersby were not so calm. They stopped each other, nervously pointed at Elmo, and, not knowing what to do, walked on with obvious consternation. They had quite the story to tell! This went on for nearly 20 minutes, and I have to say, was by far the most entertaining lunch I have ever had.
I hope your animals engender similar stories for you. We are blessed to be in a business that can bring us so much fun.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.