Zoo focuses on year of the snake

Pythons. Cobras. Anacondas. 2013 is the year of the snake and the Audubon Zoo is celebrating with a special exhibit.

Amanda Mazzoni, the Discovery Walk coordinator at Audubon Zoo, was busy Saturday leading a team of staff and volunteers while zoogoers gasped “ooh” and “ahh” over the reptiles.

“Snakes are one of our largest animals in our collection that we have for education,” Mazzoni said. “So, we thought what better way than to say, ‘Hey, it’s the year of the snake and here’s how cool and wonderful these creatures are,’ and get people more aware of them.”

But getting visitors over their fear of snakes is the first step.

“People come in and they’re either petrified of them, or they have the wrong assumption of them and there’s a lot of mis-education out there. We thought it worked really well to get people more familiar with them and appreciate them versus fear them,” Mazzoni said.

Some visitors stopped by in between Saturday’s Carnival parades. Others came to escape the Carnival crowds and spend a quiet afternoon enjoying the sights.

The exhibit included a python feed, educational performances at the Shell Theater, and a snake encounter.

Monty, a 40-year-old Burmese python, was brought out for a visit.

“We’ve had some people that were terrified,” Mazzoni said, “so getting them to actually touch a real snake and just be comfortable with them around is great.”

Three-year-old Olivia McGowan must be the exception. She fearlessly marched up to Monty and caressed the mighty python all the way down his back, boldly shouting, “I have to touch him!”

She reached for Monty’s head just before Stephanie Joseph, youth volunteer coordinator, warned the child to steer clear.

“They’re just such a people-pleaser,” Joseph said. “They’re a dynamic animal, and so when people see three or four people holding a snake, they stop and they check it out and they come listen to what you have to say, which is really neat.”

Joseph, who has been a volunteer youth coordinator for three and a half years, said she enjoys watching both the volunteers and visitors open up to the animals. She first worked with snakes when she was 13 as a junior keeper and was fascinated by them.

So what don’t we know about the zoo’s slithery reptiles?

“The biggest misconception about snakes are the length,” Mazzoni said. “People get snakes when they’re small, and they think oh, it’ll only get as big as its enclosure, which is a complete myth. Reptiles, just like humans and all animals, grow throughout their entire lifetime. They just reach a maximum size at a certain time.”

This was the first official Chinese New Year’s year of the snake commemoration at Audubon Zoo. Past theme exhibits have included “All Snakes Day” and the “Year of the Tiger.”