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.