The Secrets and Splendor of Squamata

People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer. ― Andrew Smith

snake eye

My heart is so happy right now.   My social media news feed has been overtaken with posts about snakes!  These post are not snake-hating posts; they’re posts from snake savvy people who absolutely adore these magnificent, valuable, and misunderstood species.  They’re posting about snakes today because it’s World Snake Day!

Snakes (like most reptiles) are one of the most misunderstood and least researched animals in the world.  Before you decided to disengage from this article, please give me just a few minutes of your time.   It’ll be worth it.  And one thing is for sure:  You’ll learn something new!  And, if you are lucky enough, you might see snakes in a new light by the time you are done reading this.


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In my watershed/wetlands class my students found a juvenile Queen snake (Regina septemvittata) 🐍 We said hello then released her back into the water.

If you have been following this blog, you know that I usually discuss companion animal topics, but I have a secret: Reptiles are my passion.  When I see a snake, toad, frog, turtle, or lizard my entire being lights up with glee.  While others are screaming and running away, I am trying to figure out how I can get closer to the animal without freaking him/her out!  I know that might seem crazy to many, but if you have been in my shoes you would feel this way, too.

I have worked with snakes for nearly 20 years.  I was indifferent to them prior to this, but things change after 20 years of educating and research.  After working with exotic and domestic snakes, venomous and nonvenomous, boas and pythons, constrictors and prey chasers, common and critically endangered, captive and wild, I saw every species of snake in a new light.  Each snake taught me something new and captured my imagination.

I would like to share some of this with you.

During my career with snakes one of the most amazing things I was able to coordinate and witness still warms my heart. Youth and adults (many who were once afraid of snakes) learned to love and respect them.  Then, if that wasn’t amazing enough, I watched these youth and adults share their love and appreciation of snakes with strangers.

These mini miracles happened at The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Me and my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk
Hanging with my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk

In a very special area of the Audubon Zoo, called Discovery Walk, we focused on educating the public with facts not fear. And since most people are scared of anything that slithers, snakes were the perfect teachers. Some snakes were common snakes you could find in your backyard, and some were critically endangered.   Our collection of public education snakes were animal ambassadors. They were the voice (and face) for snakes all over the world.

My volunteers and interns learned how to care for each snake in our collection, they learned each snake’s temperament, and learned how to safely handle the snakes. They learned how to transport snakes on outreach programs, how to recognize when the snake was stressed, and when the snake was having a really good time!

Yes, you read that right; snakes can have good times!  In fact, snakes are very sensitive to our emotions, our moods, how we are feeling one day to the next, and our scents.  Some of our snakes even had a favorite handler!

Snakes are not the mindless creatures that many believe them to be.  In a word, they are spectacular.

Below is a slideshow of images that capture fun-filled education and appreciation of the species of snakes in our ambassador program.
(Note: You can see the images & captions better from your computer, not on your mobile device).

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“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”― Marie Curie

There are so many ridiculous myths out there about snakes.  And honestly, fear is at the heart of these misconceptions. The initial reaction when someone finds a snake is to kill it.  People do this because they are afraid.  So I am going to share a few snake facts with you today, in honor of World Snake Day, to help people to not be so afraid.

Let’s Remove Fear and replace it with Facts!

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Anaconda researchers in the field with a live specimen – Notice the snake is NOT trying to eat the humans (another myth perpetuated in the movies).

Snake Stats:

  • “Squamata” means scaled reptiles.
  • Squamata is the largest order of reptiles, comprising all lizards and snakes.
  • Worldwide, there are about 3,000 species of snakes.
  • Snakes are on almost all continents except Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, and New Zealand.
  • At least 50 % of Americans are afraid of snakes.

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    Snakes have a beautiful skeleton
  • A true fear of snakes is known as ophidiophobia
  • Only about 15% of snakes worldwide can do actual harm to humans.
  • Only about 1/4 of all snakes are venomous.
  • There are hundreds of snake species in the U.S. but about 90% of them are non-venomous. Only 10% have venom!
  • Snakes are not “poisonous”.  Snake can be venomous.  Poison and venom differ in the method of delivery.  Poison is ingested orally or absorbed; venom, is injected. There are no “poisonous” snakes.
  • The venom gland is a modified salivary gland, and is located just behind and below the snake’s eye. The size of the venom gland depends on the size of the snake.
  • Venom is a protein. In fact, it is a very precious resource to snakes. This protein exists to subdue their prey (not to inject into humans!) Snakes do not want to waste this precious resource on us.
  • This is why over half of the snake bites that people receive from native venomous snakes are “dry bites”, meaning no venom is injected into the person.
  • Venom delivery is voluntary — snakes squeeze their venom glands with muscles to deliver venom. All venomous snakes could deliver dry bites.
  • Some snakes, like the Coral snake deliver venom to their prey (other snakes) by chewing on the snake. They use teeth in the back of their mouth to deliver the venom.  Coral snakes are extremely reclusive and are not aggressive towards anything except their prey!  In fact, no deaths from coral snake bites have been reported in the U.S. since 1967.
  • You are 9 times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.snakebite_death_stats
  • A snake will bite a person (and other perceived threats) as an absolute last resort. They depend on camouflage and retreat as their preferred method of avoiding threats. When someone is bitten by snake, it is always the persons fault.  Always. And many times it could have been avoided.  I have worked with hundreds of snake species over the years, but have only been bitten 3 times.  Every single time it was my fault.
  • Snakes try to avoid human contact. Wild snake bite incidents occur when humans inadvertently step on or otherwise disturb the peaceful creatures.
  • Snakes (and other reptiles) allow more energy to remain in the food chain compared to mammals and birds. Snakes can convert 10 times more of their food to actual biomass (instead of losing it through metabolism).
  • Snakes’ presence is important for healthy ecosystems as they are predators as well as prey for other species.
  • One of the most vital roles that snakes hold is their position in the food chain. As voracious predators, snakes provide an indispensable contribution to human survival. If snakes were to disappear, we would be besieged with vermin, pestilence, plague and crop destruction within a matter of months.
  • Snakes are important to our medical advancements: Medicines for heart disease and diabetes were derived from snake venom. And new treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, and pain management are currently being developed using proteins and peptides in venom toxins.
  • Copperhead venom has cancer-fighting abilities and is being tested to treat breast cancer and other forms of cancer: The vemon has a protein that inhibits the growth of tumors and growth of blood vessels into tumors without damaging healthy tissues.
  • The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) estimates that about 28% of snakes are threatened.
  • 1 in 4 snake species are threatened worldwide.
  • 12 snake species are listed as Threatened (9 species) or Endangered (3 species) in the U.S.
  • Sea snakes are now critically endangered due to over fishing and habitat loss.
  • 1.5 – 2.5 million snakes are killed for the skin trade yearly.  Even with their skins removed, they can live on in agony for days and days before dying. ~ Eden Bio-Creations, LLC © 2015
  • Conservationists believe that habitat destruction and climate change are to blame for snakes’ declining numbers.
Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors.  Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps - parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after she had an incomplete shed
Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors. Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps – parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after he shed incompletely

Snakes are not the malevolent creatures portrayed in the Bible. Over time, they have become convenient victims of superstition, bad movies and the anthropomorphic misassumption that animals can be evil. It is entirely possible that if Satan had appeared to Adam and Eve as a squirrel, humans today would try to justify an irrational fear of squirrels.

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Snakes Need Compassion and Conservation.

Snakes deserve much credit for the invaluable role they play within ecosystems, including the ones in our backyards!  Focusing on facts –not fear, can help raise awareness and support to better understand these misunderstood species.  Jul 15, World Snake Day, is a opportunity to see these animals in a new light, and to gain respect for them.   Let’s remove our fears and illusions about snakes.  Let’s help our fellow travelers of this Earth gain recognition as a spectacular species.

An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day
An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day

If you want to join the conversation, please share and use the hashtag ‪#‎WorldSnakeDay and ‪#‎CelebrateSnakes365!  And Thankssssssssssss for helping to ssssssssave snake speciesssssssss!

Related Recommended Reading

world snake day education kids

This is dedicated to every snake I have ever met.  Thank you for teaching me what I did not know.  Thank you for showing me that you are to nothing fear, but a species to be understood and respected. Thank you for showing me that within each species, each one is an individual; each having his or her own personality, preferences, and abilities.  May your beauty and gifts be seen by all men one day.  May we loose all fear of you and see you with eyes of love.

And thank you, to all of my volunteers, interns, and colleagues. You all were the greatest, most powerful voices for the voiceless.  You affected thousands of people’s lives. You were the compassionate educators. You literally saved species.  This is dedicated to you as well. All my love.

Carnival Goes to the Dogs!

Barkus Buddies

It’s carnival time!   The parades are rolling, the king cake is being consumed, people are celebrating, and the carnival krewes are in full swing! (A “krewe” is the term for a Mardi Gras organization.)

This is the time of year that I miss New Orleans most.  The elaborate floats, endless parades, Cajun cuisine, and festive folks gathering together in costume, and celebrating such a unique, rich culture is always feast for the senses.  This is one of the reasons that I loved living in Louisiana and New Orleans for nearly twenty years.


Every year, one Mardi Gras parade stands out above the rest.  It is one of my favorite parades, and one of the most famous parades during carnival season.  In this parade, the krewe’s royalty take slobbering and wet kisses to a whole new level, and sniffing a derrière is a completely acceptable form of greeting a stranger.  This parade is unlike no other because the king and queen are canines.

This all canine krewe – except for a few felines, and a miniature horse or two – makes up The Mystic Krewe of Barkus.  This year (2014) Barkus rolled through the French Quarter with the theme DOGZILLA – Barkus Licks the Crescent City.

The 2014 Barkus poster: Dogzilla | Barkus Licks the Crescent City
The 2014 Barkus poster: Dogzilla | Barkus Licks the Crescent City

Barkus is a play on words and a reference to the Krewe of Bacchus, an extravagant parade named after the Roman god of wine that rolls a week later.  The Annual parade has had 21 themes since its  birth in 1992, including The Wizard of Paws, Jurassic Bark, and Tails from the Crypt, to name just a few. Membership in the Barkus parade krewe is open to all canines – regardless of their past.

The Krewe of Barkus Route through the French Quarter
The Krewe of Barkus Route through the French Quarter

Each year during Mardi Gras season, on a Sunday afternoon two weeks before Fat Tuesday, canines in costume sniff their way through the streets of the French Quarter, dragging their humans -often dressed in matching costumes- behind them.  The human entourage tosses beads to the family friendly crowds that line the streets along the route and of course dog biscuits to canine bystanders.  Every year the parade begins at Armstrong Park where costumed the canines strut and sniff their way down the traditional 15-block route through the Vieux Carré.  The parade stops at the VIP Reviewing Stand at Good Friends Bar, where they toast the Royal Canine Court.

This famous parade incorporates music from many local bands including New Wave Brass Band – a supergroup with members from Rebirth Brass Band,  Bonerama, and the amazing Roots of Music!  If you would like to see a portion of the parade, you can view it here.

Just like every parade during Mardi Gras, there is a king and a queen, excepet this parade’s king and queen are canines!  You might be wondering how they decide who they luck pups are.  Well, usually the king ascends through the ranks, usually after being a grand marshall or a duke in Barkus parades years prior.  The Queen is selected by a secret ballot and announced only weeks before the parade.  This lucky canine queen is always a rescued or an adopted female dog.  This year, “Dirk” is the king and Queen Barbie is the queen!  Check out their rescue stories below.

KING OF BARKUS XXII, "Dirk"
KING OF BARKUS XXII, “Dirk”

Dirk’s rescue story:

Dirk he was left in a small cat carrier outside the Jeff Parish Animal Shelter on New Year’s Eve. He spent the night in that kennel in the rain and freezing temps, with the fireworks popping all around him. The staff found him when they arrived on New Year’s Day. He was emaciated, soaking wet and shivering in the back of his kennel. With lots of love and attention, he has blossomed in to the perfect pet. He loves dogs, cats, kids, humans and chickens. Dirk gets along with everyone and everything (not your typical chihuahua scared personality).

QUEEN OF BARKUS XXII "Barbie"
QUEEN OF BARKUS XXII
“Barbie”

Barbie’s rescue story:

In September 2012, the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter received a routine call for a stray dog pick up in Westwego. When the officer Brad Naquin arrived on scene, he was greeted by a petite, blue, female pit bull terrier that was literally missing her face. Her muzzle had been shredded and her emaciated body was battered with scars from repeated dog fights. ….. When Barbie arrived to the shelter, her injuries horrified us but we were awestruck by her outgoing, sweet, and mighty mouse type personality. Barbie had no reservations about trusting anyone. She was, in fact, inviting and engaging. She was either not ashamed or unaware of how she looked and whatever pain she may have been feeling, she wasn’t going to let that be the deterrent in making new friends. She even struck poses for the photographer, reveling in this newfound positive attention. ….

Her miraculous recovery began when the heroic staff at Southern Animal Foundation offered to take Barbie under their wing and thus her long, journey of surgeries, heartworm treatment, and healing began. The results post each surgical procedure were remarkable. Barbie was a canine plastic surgery phenomenon. After several months, Barbie’s broken face was restored, piece by piece. Her transformation exceeded all expectations. And during her journey, the heart of this dog was renewed.

Barbie is a survivalist. What she has experienced in her short life and the dog she has become as a result of her trials and tribulations is a marvel to us in the animal sheltering and rescue world.  Barbie has been searching for her final wish to come true for quite some time: her own happy ending with a family. She is a charming, happy go lucky, bundle of child like curiosity. A wide eyed wonder intrigued by all things new and all things good. She is playful, can’t get enough of playing with tennis balls, and to date, has never met a stranger, despite her savage betrayal by mankind.  Barbie also holds no grudges towards her fellow canines and gets along effortlessly with dogs which impresses us immeasurably.    Read the rest of Barbie’s amazing and inspiring rescue story HERE. 

Barkus Bites!

  • The King ascends through the ranks,usually after being a duke or grand marshall.
  • The Queen is selected by secret ballot and announced only weeks before the parade, and is always a rescued or adopted female dog.
  • Every year the Krewe of Barkus donates the proceeds of the parade registration fees, merchandise sales, and ball profits to worthy animal welfare groups.
  • Barkus is the dog equivalent of the Bacchus parade.

Previous Year’s King and Queens

Last Year's Barkus Theme: Tails and Tiaras
Last Year’s Barkus Theme: Tails and Tiaras
  • Last year’s theme was  “Tails and Tiaras: Here Comes Honey Bow Wow!”.
  • Last year’s king was Jacques Miller Wallis.  King Jacques even has his own twitter account, where he describes himself as “King Barkus MMXIII, Lover of all things New Orleans, especially Mardi Gras, oysters, jazz ,dining al fresco, and Audubon Park.
  • Last year’s queen was the rescued Great Dane, Hattie, who reigned over New Orleans’ Barkus parade. Learn more about the beautiful Queen Hattie here!
  • King Jacques Miller Wallis and Queen Hattie Warner had a pre-parade feast in the French Quarter at Galatoire’s, the grand dame of New Orleans’ historic restaurants.   View their canine royal feast!

 

Reviewing Stand at Good Friends Bar, where they toast the Royal Canine Court
Reviewing Stand at Good Friends Bar, where they toast the Royal Canine Court

The Krewe of Barkus is a non-profit organization founded by Wood Enterprises and they love to give back to the animals.  All of the proceeds from parade registration fees, merchandise sales, and the Barkus ball profits are sent to worthy animal welfare groups and homeless animals.  The Barkus mission is to develop, foster, and promote programs to benefit abused, neglected, and homeless animals, as well as promote responsible pet ownership with public education.

If you do decide to make the trip down to the Crescent City for Mardi Gras, skip Bourbon Street and the other tourist traps.  Go to the parades, celebrate  the carnival season with the locals, and most importantly see the dogs on parade while supporting a wonderful cause for animals.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!!!

 

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The Krewe of Barkus & Meoux Pet Parade: “Stars, Guitars & Animals from Mars” is another popular pet parade in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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Photos courtesy Lake Charles & Southwest Louisiana C.V.B. and WDSU.

There Is No Death

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Death is not a subject that many people want to discuss or even think about, especially when it revolves around the death of a beloved animal.  However, as tough as this subject may be, I believe that if we allow ourselves to see it differently, we can find peace and comfort in it.  We may even come to see it as a gift.

I have been around animals in a professional setting for over 20 years. I have lived with companion animals for 36 years.  Death has always been an aspect of living and working with species of all shapes and sizes.  Sometimes death came slowly and I was prepared, and sometimes it came when I least expected it and knocked me to my knees.  Sometimes it lingered and I dreaded every moment up to it.  Each time it was difficult and I struggled to understand what the animal was experiencing and why it had to be “that way”.  I finally found many of the answers that I had so desperately asked for all of those years.

Six months ago today my beloved Samantha passed into spirit. Samantha’s body had been struggling to overcome a malignant mass in her chest cavity.  This mass was forcing fluid into her lungs, making it very difficult for her to remain active and breathe normally.  We aspirated her chest several times to remove the blood and fluid, and the vet recommended that I give her a steady and strong dose of meds that would help pull fluid from her body to keep the lungs clear.  To our surprise it began to work, but the cancer was eating all of her muscle mass and what little fat she had.  The meds were dehydrating her terribly.  It was a delicate balance and she was still deteriorating rapidly.  The veterinarian told me there was nothing further that they could do. Her body could give out any day now. It could be days, weeks, or months.  It was now up to me to keep her as comfortable as possible.

Every day I would have to leave her and not know if she was going to die while I was at work.  I would pray that she would be alive when I got home.  I raced home each night and desperately hoped that I wasn’t too late.  She was always waiting there for me, patiently.  This was my form of hell. Every day was so emotional and painful, but I knew she was holding on to life.  I didn’t know how I knew.  I just did.  But when would it be time to let her go?  When would be the right time to ease her suffering?

So here I was, alone, having to make these live and death decisions for my dear Samantha.  Mothers and fathers say that they don’t have a favorite, but I did.  She was my girl.  She had and still has my whole heart.  I adored her from the moment I rescued her when she was a completely feral cat on the streets of New Orleans.  She and I had weathered many of life’s storms (literally and figuratively). I knew we could get through this together.  I was determined to do everything I could to help her live her last days in peace and surrounded with love.


 

One of my best friends had recently said goodbye to her feline companion because of cancer.  I finally understood what she had been experiencing.  She reached out to me after he passed and told me about an animal communicator that she had been using during the time that he was ill.  She said that this animal communicator was currently helping her with another one of her furry family members that was fighting the cancer battle, too.  I was a little surprised to hear that she was a believer in “that sort of thing” because she is a very rational, science-based, fiercely intelligent woman.  I figured if she believed wholeheartedly in it, there had to be some validity to this animal communicator.

I took the plunge and contacted Pet Psychic Edwina.  This was one of the wisest decisions I have ever made.  This decision changed my life and Samantha’s life forever.  My beliefs were challenged, and Edwina showed me another way of seeing, experiencing, and understanding my animal companions.  It was one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given.  It was a gift for Samantha, and from Samantha.  It was our gift to each other.  Through Edwina and her insights Samantha and I bridged the gap together.


 

Recently I listened to an interview from another well known and respected animal communicator.  She touched on many aspects of what I learned from Samantha and Edwina, regarding animal “death”, soul connections, and what really happens when they transition into spirit. Maybe after hearing what she has to share, it can help you as well.

In these 2 video conversations, Danielle MacKinnon helps to answers these questions:

  • Do our animal companions go to the afterlife when they die?
  • Do animals have souls?
  • Will we see them in the afterlife?
  • Do our animal companions return for another life?
  • Is it okay to euthanize animals?

 Animals, “Death”, and The Afterlife (Part 1)

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How Animal Companions Communicate with Us After Passing(Part 2)

You can read more about this interview here.


Although it was months ago, it still feels like yesterday that we said goodbye.  I miss her every day. But after what I learned from Samantha I understand so much more now.  The pain, grief and suffering gave me the gift of knowledge, understanding and insight.  I know that she is never really gone.  I know now that there is no death.  I know and trust that my animal companions hear me. They can hear all of us if we take the time to speak with them.   When people say that the ones we love live on in our hearts, they really do because that is where we loved them, and love never dies. Goodbyes are only temporary.  The ones we say goodbye to are always there when we think of them, when we remember our times together, and when we speak to them.

When you think of your beloved animal companion that has passed, know that they hear you.  Feel their love that  is endless.  Believe that their spirit is free and never dies.  If you were connected in life, you are still connected in the afterlife.  Call on them when you miss them, when you need inspiration, or when you just want to say hello again.  They are always there for you.

Say no goodbyes to those we love, 
Though they have passed from view. 
Our mortal eyes seem not to see 
The truth that our hearts do. 
Love is of the spirit. 
It exists beyond these shores. 
And love still flows between us, 
Now and forever more.

starry night_pet loss_I did not die