The Object at Hand
How a snake, attended by alarums and excursions, made it from an Asian jungle to the National Zoo and so to its present berth in a Smithsonian museum
A huge, female reticulated python "slithers" high on the wall on the second floor of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. It is just above a diorama of fellow giant reptiles — a cheetah-size Komodo dragon, a turtle as big as an umbrella, and a king cobra, the longest species of venomous snake in the world.
When the python died of natural causes at the National Zoo in 1944, it weighed 305 pounds and was nearly 25 feet long. In its native habitat it must have been even longer, as part of its prehensile tail was missing, but it would have had to grow several feet more to rival the longest snake ever known to science, another Python reticulatus, which measured in at nearly 33 feet.
This particular python's origins are obscure. One line of evidence suggests it came from India, but the snake could have been caught in Burma, Malaya or the Philippines. Perhaps it came to the Zoo in 1937, along with some 2,000 animals that then director William Mann bagged during a joint Smithsonian/National Geographic expedition to Southeast Asia. If so, being snatched from the wild may have saved the python from becoming rations for guerrilla fighters in World War II, led by the eccentric British colonel Charles Wingate, who snacked on reticulated pythons as his men slogged through the Burmese jungles.
In any case, the object at hand spent the war years in the National Zoo. Despite nearly 100 recurved teeth deployed in six rows, its bite wasn't venomous-which prevented its exile to the Midwest in 1942. That was when the Zoo's venomous snakes-in the name of wartime security-were shipped to the Chicago zoo and elsewhere for safekeeping. Authorities feared that if Washington, D.C. were bombed, venomous snakes might escape, wreaking havoc among the nation's wartime leaders. Apparently they didn't consider that a monster python, on the lam in Rock Creek Park or Georgetown, "could easily overpower a man and, if the latter had narrow shoulders, could swallow him," as famed herpetologist Raymond L. Ditmars pointed out.
According to celebrated big game hunter C.J.P. Ionides, pythons "bite like dogs" to grab their prey. Once caught by the snake's lightning strike, a victim dies of suffocation or hemorrhage as the snake constricts its coils around it. Bones are rarely broken; constriction simply prevents breathing and bursts blood vessels. The size of a meal does not faze these large snakes. The largest pythons frequently down medium-sized antelope, small boars, pigs and dogs, and cats small and large (including, in 1897, one of the king of Siam's kitties, complete with bell). One snake on record was found full of leopard. Another python tried-unsuccessfully-to swallow an adult elephant. Almost any creature weighing less than 150 pounds is fair game-horns, armor and spines notwithstanding. Such sharp fare occasionally causes so much discomfort that the snake coughs it up. As herpetologist Clifford Pope once observed: "Perhaps itis only Man himself who rivals the giant snakes in richness of diet."
A python's dinner may include Man himself (or herself), although reliable reports are few. Felix Kopstein, a Dutch physician and student of East Indian reptiles, told of a 14-year-old boy who disappeared on Salebabu Island in Indonesia. When the search party found a 17-foot python where the boy was last seen, the lump in the snake told the story. Dissection corroborated their suspicions. About 1930 a Burmese jewelry salesman was ingested by a snake. Only his slippers were left behind.
There's no record that NMNH's python swallowed anyone in its early years. Nor is there a record of how it was caught. But the experiences and techniques of 1930s animal collector Frank ("Bring 'em back alive") Buck shed some light on one python encounter. In his spirited report "Snake in the Grass" (Collier's magazine, January 1936), Buck tells how he and his field crew, Ahmed, Awi and Ali, were out in the Malayan jungle three miles from camp. Suddenly, Buck wrote, "I saw Ali in the coils of a big python! It had a firm grip with its huge mouth on one bare leg, a coil around the other leg, and another around Ali's thin brown body!"
A fantastic struggle took place. "We worked like demons at that center coil that was around Ali's body," Buck wrote. But by the time they loosened the coil the snake had its tail wrapped around the boy's shoulders. Buck had Ahmed and Awi lie flat on the main part of the snake while he tried unwrapping the tail. "'It's all right, Ali!'" Buck said. "'We'll get you free!'" At last they had, except for the grip of the snake's jaws on Ali's leg. "With my free hand I got out my revolver," Buck wrote. "I could have killed the python now . . . but with the boy in no danger I hated to kill the snake. After all, it had done no more than any creature defending itself."
Eventually they got the monstrous, squirming reptile on the ground but had nothing to tie it up with. Buck noticed some rattan vines, and he quickly lashed three thicknesses of vine, tying the snake's neck against its body "a few feet down," and added loops of rattan until, as he put it, "Mr. Python looked for all the world like a coiled-up fire hose." Slipping a pole through the coils, the four python hunters marched back to camp with the "abashed" snake on their shoulders.
One hopes that the spectacular creature at NMNH never suffered such indignity. In an interview, Watson Mondell Perrygo, a taxidermist and collector at NMNH from 1925 to 1965, described what may have been this python's earliest visit to the museum. "I was out to the Zoo one time," Perrygo reported, "in real cold, bitter weather. Bill Blackburne, the head keeper, said, 'I've got a big snake. . . . Will you take it down [to the museum]?' It was dead, you know. Piled up in a great big bag." Perrygo was heading toward NMNH when his heater began to warm up the car. Suddenly he heard a shoooh. "Oh, my lord,"he thought, "there's not enough antifreeze; the radiator's frozen." Jumping out, he checked the radiator. No problem. So he went around and opened the car door, "and there was this snake coming out of the bag . . . and he was live, and I mean live, hissing as loud as he could hiss!"
Quickly turning the heater off, he opened both doors, waited until the snake got chilled, and drove on with both windows down.
After its death at the Zoo in 1944, the python took a journey to immortality in a museum display. In the 1940s the taxiderming of snakes to look lifelike was a new undertaking. First, a plaster cast was made of its entire body. After the body was removed, the cast was painted on the inside with a thick layer of clear cellulose acetate, which dried into a hard "skin" shell in the exact dimensions of the snake. Once the acetate layer had hardened in the cast, each of the python's scales had to be hand-painted backward on the skin's inner surface. The laborious task was performed by the distinguished taxidermist Edgar G. Laybourne. Says his widow, NMNH zoologist Roxie Laybourne, "E.G. used a dental mirror to paint every scale in reverse."
The serpent was installed in the Malayan jungle diorama. Today the museum has 40,000 snakes in its collection, ranging from the cigarette-length worm snake to the object at hand, although only 40 specimens are on display. Many people are fascinated by snakes. But NMNH guards report that others, often including little girls, it would appear, avoid the herpetology displays or are actively hostile. Few have such strong feelings on the subject, however, as an intruder who showed up in the museum on April 4, 1969.
He was a small man, carrying a paper sack. Reaching the Hall of Reptiles, he put down the sack, took out a hatchet and began smashing holes in the glass front of the Malayan exhibit, which included the reticulated python and a king cobra rearing, with its hood spread. Having broken through the glass, the man took a butcher knife out of the sack and began decapitating the snakes. All were damaged, but other reptiles escaped injury-except for a Komodo dragon, which, perhaps because it had a snakelike forked tongue, took a couple of blows before, presumably, the man saw that it was not a snake. Before he could escape, the man was caught and taken to Captain Wilfred L'Abbe, chief of the museum's guard force. Something about him was familiar to L'Abbe. Checking back records, he found a report for January 1968 on a visitor who had brought a long pole into the museum. When questioned by a guard, the man explained that a large snake in one of the exhibit halls had stolen $20,000 from him in a poker game; he intended to get even by killing it.
After many months and $5,000, the big python was made as lifelike as ever. But the cobra never played poker again.