"The manager at Yorongas told me he killed an anaconda fifty-eight feet long in the Lower Amazon. I was inclined to look on this as an exaggeration at the time, but later, as I shall tell, we shot one even larger than that."
- Major Percy Fawcett
I was sulking around the Reptile House one day when I got a text. This was years ago when texting was still sort of a new thing, and you only ever really got one if it was a big deal. It took me a while to figure out how to bring it up on the screen so I could read the fairly simple message.
15 feet max. Back soon.
Lame, I thought.
You see, the reason I was sulking was that I was the only keeper in the reptile house that day. Everyone else, from the curator to the intern, had all piled up in the zoo van and gone on a road trip one-state-over. Their mission? To meet with a man who claimed that he had a 28-foot-long green anaconda that he was willing to part with... for a price. My colleagues went off, measuring tape in hand, to confirm the size of the monster and, if it lived up to the hype, bring it back, where it would be our star attraction. I, on the other hand, got left to tend the building all by my lonesome.
It was all the cumulation of our curator's obsession with having the biggest snake possible on display. He had us scouring the forums and breeder sites and trade shows in search of his giant. Cost was no issue. "Make it a big one," was his only order.
A curator of mine used to say that a reptile house only needs four things - a big lizard (if not a Komodo dragon, than some sort of monitor or iguana), a big tortoise (a Galapagos, an Aldabra, or at least a spur-thigh), and a crocodile or alligator of some sort. And most of all, a really big snake. Huge-ass was the way he put it, scientifically speaking. The bigger, the better.
Snakes hold a magical sway over many people. Some people are horrified of them, others are enchanted by them. And, apart from the venomous species, the snakes that entrance the most people are the giants, the pythons and boas (the later including the four species of anaconda). Big snakes have been star attractions in zoos and circuses and menageries for thousands of years. In Ptolemic Egypt, the beasts on display during a parade through the city streets included not only lions and elephants and a rhino, but a python said to be 45 feet long (doubtful). Boa constrictors were to be encountered in the Tower of London's Royal Menagerie, predecessor to the London Zoo, as well as Montezuma's menagerie, shown off proudly to Cortez and his men.
Everyone wants to see a giant snake, it seems. How giant are we talking here?
For many years, the Bronx Zoo had a standing cash offer (increasing over time) for anyone who could present them with a live snake longer than thirty-feet. The challenge has never been met successfully. The most recent contender was "Samantha", a reticulated python captured by skin-dealers in Borneo who thought their latest catch might win the bet. The python, it turns out, was "only" 21 feet when she was unloaded in New York. Unfortunately for the hunters, but fortunately for Samantha, who got to live out the rest of her days at the zoo (where she put on a few more feet) instead of becoming belts and bags.
If you spend any amount of time among big snakes, you hear people talk about bigger ones - ones that they have heard of which are forty feet long... or fifty... or a hundred (same thing with alligators - I cannot begin to recall how many guests I've had tell me they see twenty-foot alligators all the time when visiting Florida). And to be sure, early travelers included lots of tales about snakes that long in their reports (along with other crazy things, like people with mouths on their stomachs, or birds that could carry off elephants). Hence the Bronx Zoo's insistence on accurate measuring. Oh, and a live snake as well. Not only do they want the live specimen, but it's a dirty little secret that snake skin (either fresh or the shed cast-off) is very stretchy.
A big snake poses certain safety challenges for the keeper, namely in that it can kill you. Eat you is a different matter - a snake that could eat an adult human is a very rare animal, certainly one I've never seen - but if you're dead already, it's kind of a moot point. Even the biggest snakes aren't that big (in terms of weight) compared to humans, but they are incredibly strong. A good-sized python has an immense amount of muscle on it. The strength behind a thirty-foot giant would be breath-taking... literally.
Most zoos I've worked at have employed a two-person rule for servicing the enclosures of the bigger snakes, just to be on the safe side. Accidents, of course, will happen.
It's a misconception that a lot of people who don't work with pythons and boas have that since they aren't venomous, they don't have teeth and won't bite. Oh, no. They have teeth. Lots of teeth. Sharp ones, too. And they will bite. That's how they get a hold of you. Then they squeeze you. A neat little trick I've learned is that, if a snake is wrapped around you (or a tree limb, or fence, or something else you need to unwrap it from), it's best to take it by the tail and unwind it that way. Try going against the head and you'll never get anywhere.
I never did get to see the fabled anaconda which led my colleagues on their wild-snake-chase. They were all pretty embittered by the time they made it back to work ("Did he think we weren't going to measure?" they all sneered). We ended up getting, a few months later, an albino reticulated python. It was a little over nineteen feet long. Not as big as they come, to be sure... but I guess it was big enough.