By M. Diane McCormick
Every family has one – the burly uncle who hugs you hard enough to break a rib.
The difference between Uncle Burly and a 10-foot python? Uncle Burly understands the words, “Stop. I can’t breathe.”
I don’t mind Ricky the python’s scaly skin. She is remarkably smooth. Her purple, forked tongue, darting out to collect scents from the air, is a little freaky at first, but put your finger to her mouth, and you barely feel a flicker.
However, when someone drapes a python over your shoulders, and she immediately delivers an amazingly tight bear hug for a creature with no arms, your breath gets a little shorter.
Adventure Chick took a jaunt to Lancaster County to play with pythons – and African tortoises and alligators. OK, I didn’t handle the alligators. Wasn’t allowed to hold the iguana, either. Iguanas have very long, very sharp claws.
This is Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary (forgottenfriend.org), where abandoned or given-up creatures find homes. Founder Jesse Rothacker explains that he was a typical kid, “captivated by frogs and lizards.” As an adult, he learned there were no reptile rescues in the area, so he ran a newspaper ad in 2004 offering to find good homes for discarded reptiles. That was the beginning of Forgotten Friend, now a registered nonprofit.
Some sanctuary residents live there permanently. Others are waiting for adoption. They spend their days in tanks or cages. They get sun, because even creatures with exoskeletons need vitamin D. I carry an African tortoise outside, her spiny legs paddling from underneath her heavy tank of a shell, like she’s swimming on air. She and her tortoise buddies ceaselessly graze on a patch of grass. Their sharp jaws make audible ripping sounds as they tear into their diet of grass supplemented with cactus and vegetables grown in the sanctuary’s herbivore garden.
Sanctuaries such as Forgotten Friend get publicity from the unusual finds and dramatic rescues. Ricky the python, for instance, was encountered by a PennDOT worker in York County. Must’ve scared the be-jeebers out of the poor soul.
But most of Forgotten Friend’s charges are the products of broken homes or changing lives, says Rothacker.
“The typical story is that someone had it when they were little, and they just couldn’t keep it anymore,” Rothacker tells me. “One of them was a situation where the marriage was going different ways. You can imagine. Who gets the house? Who gets the African tortoise?”
Sometimes, reptiles are “quasi-abandoned,” left with a friend or relative who’s not diligent about providing care. The same questions that come with providing for family pets are “amplified” with reptiles.
“You may be able to bring your cat over to your mom’s or your aunt’s, but oftentimes, no one has room for a python or tortoise.”
Forgotten Friend is a kind of reptilian match.com, using the power of networking to pair reptiles with loving owners. “There are a lot of reptile folks that are looking for new pets and want to help, and there are a lot of reptile owners that find themselves in a situation of needing help.”
Rothacker’s educational programs teach nature appreciation and responsible ownership. “We encourage people to do their homework,” he says. “Know how big the animal is gonna get and how long they’re gonna live.”
Will you be around in, say, 100 years or so to see your African tortoise through to the end? Probably not. And that cute little alligator who turns into a 15-footer “gets to be un-keepable. They kind of keep growing no matter what.”
Forgotten Friend’s two alligators are small. At three feet, “they don’t take your arm off,” Rothacker says. “I doubt they would take a finger off, but you’d certainly need a Band-Aid.”
Rothacker likes his herpetology humor. There are deadpan jokes about updating your life insurance policy, and insurance carriers requiring “Beware of the Attack Iguana” signs.
For me, the biggest surprise of the day – well, second to finding out that I could let a python grip my torso without screaming – was learning that Pennsylvania doesn’t regulate ownership of the exotic creatures lurking and slithering here (venomous snakes are different, but Rothacker doesn’t take them in).
The sweet little Eastern box turtles that hide under large hostas in the turtle garden here? They’re “native reptiles” that require a permit. But an iguana, alligator or python? Your spouse might have a thing or two to say about it, and the neighbors certainly don’t want to encounter your reptile friend curled up in the bathtub, but they’re perfectly OK as pets.
Not that there aren’t consequences for irresponsible ownership. Take Ricky the python, for instance. Her owner’s in trouble. It’s illegal to release non-native species into the wild in Pennsylvania, because once they get a foothold – or belly-hold, I suppose – they compete with native species for food sources, nest sites and habitat, according to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. They could also be ill-suited to the climate and geography. In Ricky’s case, the police were investigating a “person of interest” who could face charges of animal cruelty, endangering the public or disturbing the peace.
At Forgotten Friend, Ricky gets veterinary care and antibiotics meant to heal burn marks – she might have been caged too close to a heat lamp – and promote proper shedding. Up close, Ricky is a spectacular creature. She’s a reticulated python, native of Southeast Asia and member of the longest snake species in the world, capable of growing to 30 feet. Her color combination of shimmering blue, gold, yellow, green and brown is called “tiger.”
And when I pose beside Rothacker for a photo while he handles her, she is suddenly draped across my shoulders.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” I say. She seems to want to coil her head around my neck.
“She does that right before she strikes,” Rothacker deadpans.
More herpetology humor. Thank you so much.
“You’ll feel some squeezing, which is actually a good, normal thing,” he says. Oh, that’s reassuring.
As I try to get a handle on this wriggling creature, Rothacker advises giving her head and neck about 12 inches of freedom. Her grip tightens around my midsection – I mean it. She’s really squeezing – and Rothacker explains that she’s getting leverage. Imagine an acrobat using spine and core section for balance, he says. Same thing with pythons. If pythons, with their spiny ribs, are just flopping around in the air, “that’s a lot of work. If they’re able to get close and have a center of gravity close to your body, then all this constricting is actually helping them to grip.”
So glad to help. I remember the Shel Silverstein poem, set to a tune we sang as kids. “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor, a boa constrictor, a boa constrictor.” The song doesn’t end happily. “Oh, heck, it’s up to my neck. Oh, dread, it’s upmmmmmmmmmmffffffffff…” But Ricky, I’m told, just had her dinner of three frozen rats. Oh, joy. I’m safe.
Which I was all along, I know, but still. Next time I encounter a python, I’ll just nod “hello.” If it offers a hug, I think I’ll pass.