July 24, 2024
Snakes meet up with friends on World Snake Day at San Antonio Zoo

The plush anaconda wrapped around 5-year-old Liam Paulson’s neck Sunday at the San Antonio Zoo couldn’t hold a scale to Scarlett, an 8½-foot-long red-tailed boa constrictor that coiled around animal care specialist Hillary Miller like a beefy feather boa minus the feathers.

“Oh man, she’s alive!” Liam shouted as he stepped closer to Miller and the mighty boa inside the zoo’s Africa Live! exhibit. Then after his first hands-on experience with a real live snake, he added, “I actually touched its skin. It was squishy, but it was cool!”

Scarlett and her cold-blooded cohorts got an extra warm reception Sunday as part of World Snake Day, an initiative to increase snake awareness and conservation and to shake the stigma the slithery serpents get in pop culture and the public eye.

Animal care specialist Hillary Miller holds Scarlett, a red-tailed boa constrictor, for zoo patrons to see on World Snake Day at the San Antonio Zoo. Scarlett is about 8½-feet long and 30 pounds.

Animal care specialist Hillary Miller holds Scarlett, a red-tailed boa constrictor, for zoo patrons to see on World Snake Day at the San Antonio Zoo. Scarlett is about 8½-feet long and 30 pounds.

Sam Owens/Staff photographer

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“Snakes definitely get a bad rap not being as cute and cuddly as a lot of the mammals,” said Liz Johanek, zoo animal ambassador and volunteer teams manager, who emphasized the point with a pair of black king snake earrings.

The zoo hosted various snake-related activities Sunday, such as making a coiled snake out of a paper plate and showcasing laminated viper scales. But the most interactive and invigorating experience by far was getting some face-to-forked-tongue time with Scarlett and other zoo snakes.

Hillary Miller, center, holds Scarlett, a red-tailed boa constrictor, for zoo patrons to see on World Snake Day Sunday afternoon at the San Antonio Zoo. World Snake Day was started to raise awareness about the more than 3,000 different species found all around the world and to dispel fear of serpents through education.

Hillary Miller, center, holds Scarlett, a red-tailed boa constrictor, for zoo patrons to see on World Snake Day Sunday afternoon at the San Antonio Zoo. World Snake Day was started to raise awareness about the more than 3,000 different species found all around the world and to dispel fear of serpents through education.

Sam Owens/Staff photographer

Johanek said this year marked the zoo’s first publicized World Snake Day event. It’s unclear who first hatched the holiday or when, though the July 16 celebration dates back to at least 2018. 

The nonprofit Advocates for Snake Preservation or ASP notes on its website, snakes.ngo/wsd, that snakes face many common wildlife issues, including climate change, disease and habitat loss. But the biggest barrier to snake preservation is the public’s prevailing negative attitudes and misconceptions about snakes as sinister or demonized, a perception that’s been around for centuries, from the Bible to Harry Potter.

Herpetologists stress that most snakes are harmless and will attack only if startled or injured. Of the more than 3,000 snake species in the world, only around 600 are venomous and only a third of those could cause severe harm or kill a human being.

Jill Garcia, from left, and her 2-year-old Romee pet Loki, a black pine snake, as they learn about snakes from Animal Ambassadors Em Copeland and Emily Nations, not pictured, on World Snake Day Sunday morning at the San Antonio Zoo. World Snake Day was started to raise awareness about the more than 3,000 different species found all around the world and to dispel fear of serpents through education.

Jill Garcia, from left, and her 2-year-old Romee pet Loki, a black pine snake, as they learn about snakes from Animal Ambassadors Em Copeland and Emily Nations, not pictured, on World Snake Day Sunday morning at the San Antonio Zoo. World Snake Day was started to raise awareness about the more than 3,000 different species found all around the world and to dispel fear of serpents through education.

Sam Owens/Staff photographer

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“Which is why our message is just leave them alone,” Johanek said. “Because honestly they are more afraid of you than we are of them.”

No wonder fellow 5-year-old Ben Holdar felt right at home when he touched Loki, a 5-foot-long black pine snake, earlier in the day at the zoo during an outdoor presentation.

Animal Ambassador Em Copeland holds Loki, a black pine snake, as they educate zoo patrons about World Snake Day on Sunday morning at the San Antonio Zoo.

Animal Ambassador Em Copeland holds Loki, a black pine snake, as they educate zoo patrons about World Snake Day on Sunday morning at the San Antonio Zoo.

Sam Owens/Staff photographer

Snakes are literally part of the Holdar family. Ben’s father Bill Holdar is a third grade teacher who runs a herpetology club at BASIS San Antonio North Central. Meanwhile at home, the Holdars have nine snakes, including four ball pythons, one corn snake, one eastern fox snake and soon one red-tailed boa constrictor like the one wrapped around Miller.

“Snakes are my favorite kind of animal,” Ben said, showing his own snake love with a navy blue T-shirt featuring the image of a snake wearing sunglasses.

Bill Holdar noted his herpetology club students often come filled with wonder about snakes, even if their parents are scared to death of them. That’s called ophidiophobia, by the way. The more that people are exposed to snakes, the less they will fear them, he said.

“Fear of snakes as a child is a learned behavior,” he said.

And there’s nothing like a little educational time with a snake to learn its charms.