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No strikes made at Texas Zoo Viper Day event

By Gheni_Platenburg
June 23, 2012 at 1:23 a.m.

Paige Marr, 9, watches as snake handler Eric Timaeus holds a coral snake a few inches away from her face at the Texas Zoo. Coral snakes are venemous and dangerous to humans, unlike the milk snake, which they strongly resemble.

slithering FACTS

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Scientific Name: Crotalus atrox

Description: Rattlesnakes are species of poisonous snakes generally called "pit vipers." The Western Diamondback can exceed 7 feet in length, and is the king of our 20 species of Southwestern desert rattlers.

The color of this striking snake ranges from brown to gray to pinkish, depending on the shade of its habitat. Its back is lined with dark diamond-shaped blotches outlined by lighter-colored scales.

This species has long, tubular fangs, which are characteristic of venomous snakes. Its tail is circled by several alternating black and white bands, like the pattern of a raccoon's tail. The snake has a "rattle" on the end of the tail that it uses as a warning sign.

Range/ Habitat: The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake ranges from central and western Texas, through southern New Mexico and Arizona, and into southern California. It also extends into central Mexico. This species is not found in Washington state.

The snake occupies diverse habitats from sea level to 7,000 feet, ranging from desert flats to rocky hillsides, grassy plains, forested areas, river bottoms and coastal prairies.

Diet: The Western Diamondback eats small mammals such as chipmunks, prairie dogs, gophers, ground squirrels, rabbits, mice and rats. The snake will also eat birds within reach.

In a matter of seconds, rattlesnakes can leave a fatal bite by injecting venom into its prey. Sometimes the teeth break off and remain inside the prey. The fangs are replaced 2 to 4 times annually by reserve teeth.

Rattlesnakes swallow their prey whole, then digest as the food passes though the body. On average, rattlesnakes in the wild eat only once every 2 to 3 weeks.

Reproduction: The rattlesnake reaches sexual maturity at 3 years. Mating occurs in the spring following emergence from hibernation. The gestation period lasts for 167 days. The birthing process may last for 3 to 5 hours and produce 10 to 20 young.

This species is ovoviviparous; the young pierce their thin egg membranes immediately before birth and are born live. The young only stay with the mother for a couple of hours, or for a day at the most. Then they scatter in search for food and refuge. (Animal Diversity Web)

Behavior: The Western Diamondback often hunts at night. It ambushes victims along trails or attacks them in their burrows. Sometimes they strike and swallow an animal which weighs more than the snake.

The Western Diamondback will coil, rattle fearsomely, and stand its ground when threatened. It bites hundreds of people a year, which is more than any other venomous snake in the United States.

Rattles are a series of interlocking segments that bounce against each other to emit the rattling sound. They are hollow and made of keratin just like fingernails.

Common predators of Western Diamondbacks include hawks, bald eagles, roadrunners and wild turkeys.

Rattlesnakes can survive for several months without eating. A recent study showed that snakes can lower their metabolic rates by up to 70 percent, allowing them to survive prolonged periods without food while growing longer nonetheless.

Source: naturemappingfoundation.org

To learn more

For more information on Animal Planet's "Rattlesnake Republic," click here to visit their website.

Jaiden Baker was all smiles as he talked about the cool snakes he saw during the Texas Zoo's Viper Day on Saturday.

Baker, along with his mother and younger brother, all caught the morning snake presentation given by featured guest snake experts Rick and Eric Timaeus, of Animal Planet's "Rattlesnake Republic."

"They were great," said the talkative, curly-haired 6-year-old. "Snakes are cool because they look cool. They have rattlers, are dangerous, and have venom and sharp teeth."

Baker was just one of many who came to check out a seven-hour educational event and fundraiser featuring 15 venomous snakes and about 40 others with less harmful bites.

The zoo sought to raise money to go toward general operating expenses.

By mid-afternoon, the zoo had already received about 500 guests, with the total number of visitors expected to reach close to 1,000 by day's end, said Texas Zoo program director Amanda Rocha.

The high attendance numbers were not surprising to Rocha despite the venomous reaction by a large number of people in the days leading up to the event.

They were upset about the "Republic" stars presence.

A reality show, "Rattlesnake Republic," follows the lives and adventures of four teams of determined rattlesnake wranglers in Texas.

The show wrapped up its first season in April.

Father and son team, Eric and Rick, were invited by zoo officials to speak to event attendees about snake education, safety and awareness and conservation.

The father, Eric, is from Castroville, while his son Eric now lives in Victoria and has a full-time job at Caterpillar.

"The community knew we were going to do something worthwhile and educational," said Rocha. "We knew exactly what (The Timaeus') message was, and it was OK."

The Texas Zoo's Facebook page received about 111 comments from people against the Timaeus' visit, claiming the stars promote hunting and killing rattlesnakes for game and money.

The vast majority of those in opposition were from out of state, with only about five from the Crossroads, said Rocha.

"Texas Zoo, did you even do your homework before inviting these guys to your zoo?" Conroe biology teacher Orry Martin wrote on the zoo's post about the event. "It truly breaks my heart that your zoo supports a group of people who condone and assist in treating animals with humiliation, disrespect, torture, and a slow, painful death."

Bob Herndon, a purported wildlife inspector with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, expressed similar thoughts.

"What an embarrassment, that any zoo would let themselves be linked to guys like this," Herndon wrote. "This harkens back to the 'bad old' roadside zoo days when entertainment and money trumped the welfare of the animals."

Local animal activist Cindy Schneider also voiced her disapproval.

"I'm surprised the zoo is bringing Rick and Eric to Victoria. I don't think they are into conservation, which the zoo needs to be promoting, not the wanton killing of rattlesnakes," wrote Schneider.

During their protest-free presentation, the Timaeus' showed guests several snakes, including a Coral snake, a milk snake and two Western Diamondback rattlesnakes.

"You're not a snake catcher if you've been bit," Eric said jokingly to the crowd.

Show attendees learned lots of facts about snakes including how there are nine species of rattlesnakes in Texas; rattlesnakes rattle out of nervousness and as a defense mechanism; and there is anti-venom available for almost every snake.

The men also reassured the crowd about their intentions toward the snakes.

"See how we're handling them. We're not mean to them," said Eric. "We're not up here on stage advocating to hunt snakes or to kill snakes. We believe they are a benefit to us, but in some cases, they can be harmful."

Eric, a retired Army veteran who has been handling snakes for the past 50 years, said he and his son came to support the zoo.

"We're not here about a rattlesnake roundup. This is a conservation program brought in by the zoo to talk about snakes. At times, snakes will be killed, but we really do want to minimize that," Eric said.

The Timaeus' provide a number of snake presentations, but it is a hobby, not a business, Eric contended.

Two other snake handling groups - Devine Reptile Rescue and Texas Snakes and More - also set up booths for people in the Animal Kingdom Building to show zoo visitors animals.

Guests had positive things to say about the day's activities.

"We live in Texas where there are snakes," said Anne Kouba. "We need to be aware of how to act and react for our safety."

Her grandson was pleased, too.

"It was awesome," said Cade Kouba, 10. "The snakes were freaky, but cool."

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