Affection for Killer Snakes: The Great Pythons
Choice of pet can reflect misguided vanity.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Are owners more mindless than their pets?
The Reptile Brain Takes No Prisoners.
I was interested (again) to read of a “tame” 12-foot Burmese Python which broke out of its pen and killed a two-year-old child in Florida this week by strangling her.
The snake’s owner found this tableau and stabbed the snake, but he was too late and as the python slithered-off he found the little girl was not breathing.
Burmese pythons have become quite a nuisance in Florida in the wild since (it is thought) the problem began when several escaped from a pet shop in 1993, and happily made a home in the huge Everglades swamps, an area as big as Wales. There was a report of one last month that had constricted an alligator and eaten it. The bony saurian caused the snake to “burst.” It must have been a pretty sight when discovered, the ultimate “his eyes were bigger than his stomach”
The Burmese Python is one of the world’s largest snakes and the longest found in India, growing to around 18 feet. This is easily exceeded by another Asian python, the Reticulated Python, which has been reported in excess of 28 feet. It has been estimated that any constricting snake of more than eight feet long can easily overpower and kill a child, perhaps even swallowing a very small baby. Snakes of twelve feet and more can do the same with an adult human. Luckily, they don’t make a habit of it, although close to a dozen attacks by large pythons in the wild have resulted in kids or adults being strangled and/or eaten. And they are only the ones you hear about. Rural people in Asia and Africa are more phlegmatic over these kinds of disasters and the nation’s media is a long way away.
Incidentally, a python or boa-constrictor really doesn’t aim to strangle its victims (prey). It normally seeks to suffocate them by preventing breathing until the prey expires. A fact not mentioned so often by champions of keeping these really quite dangerous reptiles is that they can also bite, leaving wounds that can require stitches. This is common when they mistake the hand of the owner for the small mammal being offered as dinner. (Unless this is a crafty way of giving the jailer a nip!)
The 64,000 dollar question regarding pet snakes and other reptiles kept as such, is “Does he feel any affection or love towards me?”
To answer that we need to take a look at the so-called, “Reptile, or R-Complex, Brain.” As you see in the diagram, this is a simple affair and is the basis of our own brains, consisting of the brain stem, the bump on the end of the spinal chord and the cerebellum. This mainly controls instinctive behaviour and thinking. This basic brain structure, part of our own brains, evolved more than 100 million years ago, and with reptiles it stopped right there. Their brains date back more than 200 million years and cover only fundamental needs of survival, physical maintenance and defence, hoarding, dominance and mating.
This means snakes, etc., not only do not feel love and affection, as we understand it, they have no part of their brains to deal with or manufacture these emotions. What you may interpret at times as being affection is merely your snake showing he doesn’t fear you and may be physically comfortable with your presence, or finds himself relaxed with the warmth of your hands as you handle him. The probable reason there are not more attacks on owners by large pythons or boas is they realize the human is the dominant party. (but not so with small kids!). And, after all, he cleans up the poo and brings a nice juicy rat for lunch ever few days. But if you put him in the woods he is just as likely to head for the hills without a backward glance, much less a feeling of loss. And don’t bother calling him, snakes are basically deaf.
Florida and other parts of the world have laws governing ownership of these powerful predators. The problem is snakes like the Burmese Python grow very quickly, at which point people suddenly realize the balance of power has swung in the favour of the snake, after it picks up poor old gran and bangs her against the wall a couple of times while trying to wrap a couple of muscular coils around her chest (which they do very fast, incidently). As finding a home is then tough, people often take a drive into the boonies and release cute little 18-foot George, who starts consuming Florida’s endangered species (even alligators are protected).
Based on their characters, propensity to cause harm, and in the interest of the creatures themselves, I am not an advocate of keeping pythons, venomous snakes, spiders, centipedes and scorpions in captivity. It can’t be much of a life for any wild creature to be cooped up in a pen or suffocating aquarium all its life. Why do people do it when loving and lovable dogs are desperately looking for adoption? Do they think it gives them cachet to pull the python out at parties, or have enthralled guest watch it suffocate a screaming guinea pig?
I think the answer lies with the parents of the child killed by their “mindless” pet Burmese Python in Florida. Wouldn’t they like to turn the clock back and have bought a Mini-Schnauzer?