Saturday, April 2, 2011

The First Escaped Snake

The recent escape of the Egyptian Cobra from the Bronx zoo certainly captured the attention of the newsmedia. Frankly I was surprised that this story would have so much appeal considering the multiple catastrophies in Japan and the kinetic military action in Libya. Maybe the idea of a killer snake lose in the nation's largest city had a suitably Biblical echo. Or, maybe, it was just a fun story, a break from the more serious stuff. Whatever it was, the story took on a life of its own as someone even tweeted as the snake. In the end it will probably turn out to be good for business at the zoo as seeing the prodigal snake might be the little extra incentive to boost gate receipts this summer.

The first thing I thought about when I heard of the escape was the story of the very first snake escape at the Bronx Zoo. Having written a masters thesis and PHD dissertation (and currently working on a biography for a university press) on William Temple Hornaday, the first director of the Bronx Zoo, I recalled the account from 1899, before the zoo even opened to visitors. Hornaday arrived at work in the morning to discover that a very long black python had escaped. With so many animals arriving on a daily basis to prepare for the grand opening, it was no surprise that there would be a few mistakes. In this case some carpenters inadvertently left a hole in the python crate. (Duh!) Hornaday, who had a nose for news, ordered the staff to keep quiet. It neither inspired confidence in the management of the zoo, nor a feeling of safety in local residents to have a 16 foot deadly snake on the prowl. Instead of informing the newspaper men, he organized his staff into a grand snake posse and searched the grounds of the zoo high and low. Fortunately, they recovered the snake later in the day under one of the buildings. Only later, did he share this account with the public.

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