Snakes have been a part of the San Diego Zoo’s animal collection since its inception. By 1922, a fine reptile house, which doubled as the Zoo’s entrance, exhibited 46 snake species, including pythons, 11 rattlesnake species, vipers, and boa constrictors. An aisle ran from the front to the rear of the building. On each side of the aisle, a large, oblong, concrete pool was built, with one providing a home for the water snakes.
Our first snakes were gathered from the Zoo grounds itself. As construction of the fledgling zoo continued, workmen found so many snakes that the Zoo was able to trade them with other zoos! Our most famous snake resident in those early years was Diablo, a 200-pound (90 kilogram) python brought from India in 1924. This impressive animal refused any food item offered him, so large sausages were forced down his throat with a meat grinder while six men held him. Word of this feeding strategy drew so many onlookers that soon the Zoo posted feeding times for Diablo and used them as fund-raising events! Our Zoo’s founder, Harry Wegeforth, M.D., wrote “All during this snake’s life, it never once ate of its own volition, yet it lived longer and more healthily than snakes who ate normally.”
In 1936, a new Reptile House opened, and it continues to delight and awe visitors today. A stroll around its perimeter allows you to safely view an amazing collection of pythons, cobras, boas, rattlesnakes, king cobras, and rinkhals, which are true spitting cobras that also “play dead.” Because you’re on the outside looking in, you’re not bothered by the heat and humidity required to maintain some of our snakes. Each enclosure is designed to look like the resident’s natural home. Youngsters proudly point out to their parents which snakes are venomous–with the help of a red dot on the appropriate signs! Some corners of the House feature the giants of the snake world: anacondas and pythons.
There are other areas of the Zoo where snakes can be seen, too. Our Elephant Odyssey is home to a variety of rattlesnakes that are native to the San Diego County region, including the largest rattler in our area, the red diamond rattlesnake. Lost Forest features snakes native to rain forest areas. We have the beautiful and rarely seen Mang Mountain vipers, which can be seen in the Zoo’s Panda Trek as they share habitat with the popular bamboo bears. A few of our snakes make appearances in animal presentations, giving guests an opportunity to touch these unique creatures.
Our new Reptile Walk in Discovery Outpost, across from the Galápagos tortoise habitat, opened in July 2012. One building features native reptiles and include Baja California rat snakes, California kingsnakes, red-sided and San Francisco garter snakes, and rosy boas.
With snakes so widely distributed around the world, habitat loss and hunting for food or trade in snakeskins can have an impact on their survival. Yet when you consider how quickly rodents and rabbits reproduce, we owe a big thanks to snakes for helping control these populations. Scientists have been researching ways snake venom can be used in human medicine.
It is estimated that 30 percent of South American snakes and lizards are endemic to the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. One of these species is the golden lancehead snake, which inhabits Brazil’s Queimada Grande Island, nicknamed Snake Island. The golden lancehead is at critical risk due to collection of snakes for the illegal animal trade and natural disasters such as wildfire.
In 2011, a studbook was created by a San Diego Zoo Global collaborator in Brazil to help manage the captive population of these snakes, and we hope to start another colony at the Animal Reproduction Laboratory at the University Cruzeiro do Sul in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In addition, six first-generation zoo-bred snakes may one day form the nucleus of a third assurance colony at the San Diego Zoo. We believe that increasing research and educational outreach among the island’s people will decrease illegal activities there. A better understanding of population dynamics and factors affecting this species will help us establish more direct actions for golden lancehead conservation.
Diverse in size and color, with an important role in the web of life, snakes should be appreciated for their beauty and respected as fellow dwellers on this planet. Please leave them be.