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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Copperheads in the Gorilla Area at the North Carolina Zoo

A Snake or a Toy

It was a nice, calm morning on Tuesday, not too crowded, but a bunch of us were at the glass, appreciating the gorillas. Everyone but Acacia hung out for hours and hours right there at the covered overlook. The boys were having a grand time playing in the big black buckets, climbing in,  climbing out, tussling a little, but being very gentle. Usually they show a lot of teeth when they tussle, but Tuesday, they were just being good pals.  Suddenly, one of the kid visitors exclaims Hey, there's a snake! And sure enough there was, slithering right through the straw you see surrounding the bucket. This was just a little snake, a slender snake. From my distance, it looked pretty much like a garter snake or something. No big deal, it just did not seem like much of a problem.
Apollo, left, and Bomassa, playing before they notice the copperhead

The boys were fascinated; they peered down at that reptile from just a few inches away. Something new, something unusual, something moving around, seems like a good toy, after all, something to have some fun with.  So friendly Apollo hovered over the snake and sat on it!  I lost sight, but when Apollo got up, I couldn't see it any more. One of the keepers was right there observing all this. She did not see a yellow tip on the tail. That's one of the identifying marks of a young copperhead snake. So without that mark, she was not overly worried. But the head........the head was not a good shape. A harmless snake has a round snout, whereas any viper has a much broader head. This head seemed a little broad. So there was reason to be worried!

N'kosi came around the wall and took charge. I am not sure who first alerted him. It's possible one of the ladies--probably Olympia-- made a vocalization we could not hear. The adults were taking the situation seriously. With no panic or screaming, Olympia picked up Apollo and carted him a good fifteen feet away and sat facing the area where the snake was obviously still lying. Jamani stayed behind the bucket with Bomassa. Acacia had been off in the rear of the area and there she stayed, being very pregnant.  The majestic N'Kosi had quite a reaction!  He stared down that snake,  while not getting too close. And then he went away. But did he turn and go? Not on your life. Our N'kosi kept his eye on that snake the entire time, and slowly  backed away. None of us could  see the snake anymore......but N'Kosi kept going back over there to check out that snake. And each time, he must have still been seeing it, because he would carefully back away once again.  
Above, Apollo and Bomassa play, unaware of the danger.  Silverback N'kosi comes around the wall to check things out. Olympia, who may have alerted N'kosi to the presence of the copperhead,  grabs Apollo and takes him a safe distance away where they can watch the snake from a distance

The keeper mentioned that if the moms had seen this snake first, they would have immediately carted off those babies. But no, it was the babies who first noticed. So Apollo and Bomassa, who know nothing of the fangs and the poisonous tongues of snakes, were very much in danger. Why? Because it did turn out to be a copperhead, and because they did not have enough life experience to stay away.

Uwharrie Mountains Home to Copperheads

So that brings us to a question.......what does a zoo do to control the possibility of an encounter with a poisonous snake? At some zoos, there would be little chance of this. But the North Carolina Zoo, in the Uwharrie Mountains, happens to be the native habitat to numerous copperheads. There's no way of keeping native snakes out of the exhibits.  The animals simply have to learn. Olympia and Jamani and N'kosi clearly learned the snake lesson somewhere along the way, perhaps by an encounter with a snake bite from a harmless snake, or perhaps by observation. The boys are going to have to learn not to mess with snakes. Hopefully they can absorb this lesson vicariously,  and won't have to suffer a snake bite.  A bite from a harmless snake would be enough to ruin the day of one of our little sweeties, but a bite from a venomous snake could easily end in tragedy. Copperhead venom is not as potent as that of other snakes, but a dose of copperhead poison could kill when injected into a small gorilla baby body of only some fifteen pounds.
N'kosi watches that snake!

Proficient Reaction of Zoo Personnel Keeps the Baby Gorillas Safe

This time, since the keeper was on hand to observe this near disaster, she checked for that snake after most of us thought it had simply slithered away.  It hadn't.  She was not sure of the variety, but went to seek identification from one of the zoo's reptile experts. Before making the call, she had asked one of the volunteers to keep a close watch so the location of the snake would be known.  The snake expert arrived and confirmed the identification. That was definitely a copperhead! Next, the keeper went back to call those animals out of the area. She just called their names, and off they went, to safety. She checked Apollo carefully and found no evidence of any bite, thank goodness. Meanwhile, in went the snake expert, to place the copperhead in a bucket and relocate him to a different part of the park, far away from the animals. And that's the happy ending: due to the vigilance and expertise of the personnel at the North Carolina Zoo, the threat was removed immediately. But not before Apollo sat on a poisonous snake and lived to tell the tale.