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July 29, 2007
Snakes Alive! Sunday, July 29, 2007

By SHAWN HOPKINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Hundreds of people came face to face with some of the most maligned, misunderstood and feared creatures on the planet Saturday at the Virginia Museum of Natural History - more than 75 slithering snakes.

But instead of grimaces of fear and shrieks of terror, there were smiles of delight and oohs and ahhs as young and old were able to touch snakes, turtles and other reptiles and also amphibians, see such exotic animals as a king cobra up close and learn about how the animals fit into the natural world.

"It was awesome," said Claire Vaughn, 10, of Martinsville, the daughter of Dawn Vaughn. Claire had just held a non-venomous corn snake in the museum's great hall, where a line of reptile based exhibits ran along the walls.

"It was kind of slick and a little bit bumpy," said Elizabeth Lazaro, 10, of Martinsville, the daughter of Debbie Lazaro. Elizabeth was there with Claire and also held the snake.

Claire's brother, 4-year-old Matthew Vaughn, said everything was "pretty cool" except when he heard a rattlesnake rattle. That, he said, was a little scary.

Ryan Barber, VNMH director of marketing and external affairs, said about 1,200 people attended the Reptile Day event, making it the museum's best attended family festival yet. He said people seem to either love or hate the snakes, but even those who are unnerved by them want to see them out of curiosity.

And some of the people who hate the belly-crawling reptiles might have had their minds changed by the educators present at the event. Several gave information on displays in the great hall and five lecturers talked about snakes and other reptiles in a lecture hall.

Snakes should not be considered a threat to man, Mark Kilby of the Luray Zoo, said in his presentation in the Walker Lecture Hall. His display of some of the most venomous snakes in the world drew a standing-room-only crowd.

"I don't want them to be our enemy," he said, but to live side by side with people who recognize both the dangers of venomous snakes and the need to leave them alone.

"They're beneficial animals that actually are here to help human beings," he said.

In fact, they do people a tremendous favor by keeping down the population of rodents that spread diseases to people. And if nothing else, if not for the snake in the Bible, people would all be naked right now, Kilby joked.

In his energetic, often humorous lecture, Kilby displayed and talked about several snakes he described as "icons the venomous snake world."?

Kilby showed a gaboon viber, a Mexican west coast rattlesnake, a cobra and a much larger king cobra, all of which coiled relatively calmly on a table in the lecture hall while Kilby handled and moved them around without any special protection or tools.

"They really don't want to bite," Kilby said, adding that snakes are shy and unaggressive.

Kilby said he has not been bitten by a poisonous snake in his 41 years of handling them, although he was bitten by the first non-venomous snake he tried to catch because he approached it too aggressively.

He said in his career of working with animals, he has been injured badly enough to be hospitalized six times, five from dog attacks and once from a horse.

Kilby talked about the snakes as he displayed them. The cobra, he said, spreads its hood and rears up as far as four feet high to try and scare elephants and tigers. It also has distinctive markings on the back of its hood intended to scare mongoose into thinking the snake has eyes on the back of its head. Cobra are otherwise all but defenseless against quick, small predators, which are immune to its venom.

"Oh no, you've got an eye in the back of your head. Just like my mom," Kilby joked that the snake wants the mongoose to think.

Although all of the snakes drew oohs and ahs, the king cobra was the star of the show. It had been confiscated from a man who kept it illegally as a pet, Kilby said.

Though it has powerful venom, the king cobra kills its victims mostly be asphyxiation, Kilby said. And its victims mostly are other snakes, which is why its called a king cobra.

"You bite me, I'm feeding you to her," Kilby joked that he tells his other snakes.

He wrapped up his presentation by answering several questions, mostly from the children in the audience who wanted to know about snakes' speed, potential size and deadliness, and where most people get bit. Kilby said most people get bitten from their thumbs up to their elbow in attempts to catch or kill snakes.

Jake Abell, 12, son of Jerry and Kim Abell of Collinsville, was impressed by Kilby's presentation, saying he felt snakes "should be preserved for all time."?

"You should appreciate snakes for what they do," he said, instead of trying to kill them.

Josh Doss, 8, son of Brad and Tammy Doss of Collinsville, said he "learned not to mess with snakes. You should leave them alone."

Museum Executive Director Tim Gette said it was encouraging to see the turnout at Saturday's event, especially the number of people from the Carolinas and the Roanoke area. It shows the museum can be a major attraction for Martinsville and Henry County, he said.