Hidden Oaks Says Farewell To Darling The Eastern Rat Snake

Darling, an eastern rat snake, swallows a mouse.

Darling, an eastern rat snake, swallows a mouse.

His nickname among some of the staff was Darling. An odd name, perhaps, for a snake, but it did reflect a kind of fondness for him.

We don’t give our exhibit animals actual names because they aren’t pets. We’re naturalists, not purveyors of anthropomorphism. We don’t want to bestow human qualities on exhibit animals because our job is to interpret nature, not humanize it.

But after 20 years with an animal, some kind of relationship forms. And so we noted on March 6, 2013, the passing of the eastern rat snake that spent the past two decades at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale.

Hidden Oaks Assistant Manager Suzanne Holland tells the story:

We were given the snake in 1993 while it was still an egg along with a few others after a homeowner found a clutch in his mulch pile. Rarely do reptile eggs that are moved survive, for unlike bird eggs, the yolk is unstable in these eggs. But he made it. During the snake’s first year of life, he sported the blotchy gray and black pattern of a juvenile eastern rat snake. These snakes are notoriously aggressive as juveniles, and he bit the animal care staff at every opportunity. Being non-venomous and small, he left only pinprick punctures, and he was not a danger to anyone. As he matured, he got used to being handled and thrived as an exhibit animal. He was often used in school programs and for outreach. His laminated skin, six feet long and shed more than three years ago, is an awe-inspiring sight. Students and parents alike are stunned to learn that he was closer to seven feet long. Since snakes don’t stretch out the way mammals like to, his true size was often underestimated.

If you’ve been to Hidden Oaks sometime over the past 20 years, you’ve probably seen the snake. Although he will be missed, he also will be replaced. Hidden Oaks will remember him only with a photo, one that Holland calls “his glamour shot,” as the eastern rat snake finished a meal of mouse.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

HISTORY: • On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. • To date, 11 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2008. Another Park Bond Referendum will be held in November 2012. Today, the Park Authority has 420 parks on approximately 23,168 acres of land. We offer 371 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park System is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: o Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist. o Eight golf courses including Laurel Hill, our newest, upscale course and clubhouse located in Southern Fairfax County o Five nature and visitor centers. Also seven Off-Leash Dog Activity areas o Several lakes including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax o The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter o Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel o An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter o Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel o Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent o A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly o A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale o Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community o Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center o Provides 274 athletic fields, including 30 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 500 school athletic fields PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: • A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. %

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