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July 26, 2009
Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, July 26, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Snakes are not slimy, visitors at the Virginia Museum of Natural History's third annual Reptile Day festival on Saturday learned.

"It's very scaly," said Travis Wood, 10, the son of Bert and Patricia Wood, as he touched a snake. But "it feels really neat."

Wood touched both a green snake that was about the size of a pencil in diameter, as well as a rat snake that was about the size of a garden hose. Neither snake is poisonous.

"It kind of tickles" when a snake crawls on you, Paul Sattler of the Virginia Herpetological Society said as he held the green snake.

He said that particular snake was an adult, but he acknowledged that some green snakes get much larger in diameter.

Wood said he would like to have a snake as a pet.

"But my mom's scared to death of them," he said, so forget that idea.

The museum holds Reptile Day to help people see up close many of the cold-blooded creatures found in Virginia and North Carolina, including snakes and other reptiles.

However, museum staff said they also wanted to show people that snakes usually are not dangerous, and they play a critical role in the environment.

For example, a sign on an aquarium housing a kingsnake noted that they hunt and eat poisonous snakes.

Mark Kilby, operator of the Luray Zoo, has participated in Reptile Day each year. He said snakes usually are docile, not overly aggressive like many people believe, and people are realizing that more and more.

"A lot of people are losing their instant fear" of snakes, Kilby said. He said he thinks that is due largely to the popularity of television programs showing reptiles and other wildlife in a positive manner "instead of exploiting their defensive characteristics for shock" purposes.

People should become familiar with snakes so they can identify ones they come into contact with, said Joanna Wauhop, co-owner of ZooPro, a Virginia Beach-based firm that does animal education programs.

When people see a snake in their yard, they should try to identify it and decide if it is poisonous. Then, they should call an animal control officer or another professional animal handler to remove it, according to Wauhop.

"If it's not venomous," she said, "the best thing is to keep it in your yard" because, like the nonpoisonous kingsnake, some snakes kill poisonous ones and other creatures more dangerous than they are.

Among other reptiles on display were turtles, tortoises, frogs, lizards and small alligators.

Alligators are not found in the wild in Southside. But if a person comes into contact with an alligator in its habitat, such as along the coast, Wauhop said the person should "go far away" from it as quickly as possible and call animal control officials.

People definitely should be wary of alligators, she said. Alligators that are 3 to 4 feet long or more "can take off a finger or inflict some serious damage" to a person.

Kilby said, though, that alligators generally are afraid of people and usually will not attack someone they see.

They "extremely rarely bite people," he said. He noted statistics that show there have been only 20 to 30 fatal alligator bites nationwide in the past century, compared to about 500 fatal dog bites in the past 30 years.

Alligators "don't see us as a food source," he added. But when people feed them, alligators will "expect handouts" and lose their fear of people.

Some birds and spiders also were on display at Reptile Day since some of the participating wildlife organizations also handle them. Noting that some birds eat snakes, Carolyn Seay, the museum's special events manager, said having birds alongside the snakes shows "the entire food chain" in nature.

Reptile Day also featured family-oriented crafts and games, plus stories read by museum staff and volunteers.

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