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Why I Love Montana: Reason #167

     June 21, 2018

     Speaking of snakes. But this snake story (unlike the last one, see under DQ Blog, "The Latest Is Late") doesn't involve a thirteen-foot African rock python, spotted underfoot in the grass of a Mozambique savanna.  This one is about a modest little four-foot ball python who needed a home in Bozeman, Montana.  Bozeman is not a good place to be a tropical snake living on the street.  So, a rescue.

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     It happened like this.  One day about three weeks ago my wife Betsy, aka Zoo Girl, came downstairs and said: "Don't get mad at me, but I've just adopted a python."  I said: "Which species?"  That's collaborative decision-making in our household.  The answer was Python regius, sometimes called the royal python, less grandly the ball python, for the defensive tactic of curling itself into a ball.  Betsy hadn't precisely adopted it, not yet, but she'd committed to do so.  Next day we went to pick the snake up, from the household of some nice people whose teenage boys were leaving the nest, and so it was time for their python to leave too.  He was about ten years old, and he had aged out.  His terrarium and a heat lamp and some leftover frozen guinea pigs were part of the deal.  His name, they told us, was Zeus.  Betsy and I decided to rename him, but preferably to something that might sound familiar to his ears.  (Okay, strictly speaking, snakes don't have ears.  But they can detect sonic vibrations through their jaw bones.)  Betsy suggested the new name: Boots.  Obviously perfect, nice going, I said.

     So Boots came to live with us, his 55-gallon tank taking its place in the best available spot: my office.  I became a ten-year-old boy again (so says Zoo Girl), making trips to Petco for more heat lamps and thermometers and a hygrometer and spray bottles and other knicknacks to make Boots comfortable.  I had had many captive snakes when I was a kid—garter snakes, milk snakes, an indigo snake, then a boa constrictor in my college dorm room one year—and I'm sorry and abashed to report, they got ignorant and poor care.  Some I released back to the woods, some died.  I have captive-snake guilt, a debt of it.  I was determined from the start that I'd do my best to make up for that with Boots.  I got to know the reptile people (I almost said, "the reptile nerds," but that would be unkind, and now I'm one too) at Petco.

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     Let me re-emphasize one point: I would never nowadays kidnap a snake from the wild, nor buy one from a pet store.  I don't know where ball pythons within the U.S. pet trade come from (captive breeding, or could they still be imported from Africa in this day and age?), but I welcome someone to enlighten me.  Anyway, to repeat, Boots is a rescue.  Our house has been filled with rescue dogs and rescue cats for fifteen years.  Why not a rescue snake?

     But here's the problem with being a ball python in Bozeman: You're a snake of grasslands and savannas in sub-Saharan Africa, which tend to be humid, while the air hereabouts is very, very dry.  Even in winter when the snow is deep, even ten minutes after a summer thundershower, even during a hailstorm (between the hailstones), this part of Montana is pretty arid.  And I've struggled with that, on Boots's behalf, for the past three weeks: spritzing his tank frequently, covering one end with a damp towel, checking the humidity gauge.  Too often the gauge has shown humidity down at 40 percent, whereas the reptile folks at Petco, and the reptile mavens I've now met online (some wonderful counselors, such as John F. Taylor, proprietor of the website reptileapartment.com) have coached me that 60 percent should be minimal for a ball python.

     So today, back at Petco, I got Boots a nifty humidifier, with a refillable water bottle and an accordion hose sending mist down into his home.  But that's not all.  He would need a Plexiglas lid for the top of his tank, I decided, to keep the humidity in.  This glass should cover at least half of the tank opening, I figured, with a little cut-out in one corner for the humidifier hose.  So off I went to our local hardware store to buy a 13-by-26-inch sheet of Plexiglas.

     The hardware-store guy who drew the assignment was named Will Turpin.  Sure, I can cut you a piece to that size, he said, but you'll have to pay for the whole sheet.  Not a problem, I said.  He mounted the glass in his fancy cutting device and, with a few strokes, a few pushes, a little expert widgeting, did the job.  Any chance you could cut a two-inch square out of one corner? I asked.  (I was allowing that much for the humidifier hose.)  Sure, said Will Turpin.  But this task turned out to be harder.  Ever try to cut a small square out of a big piece of Plexiglas, with a long-arm slicer, without splitting the whole sheet or leaving ragged edges?  Me neither.  Will Turpin neither.  But he was handy and agreeable, as a hardware-store guy should be, and he worked at it for a few minutes.  As he did, I confessed to him why I was making this inconvenient request.

     A python! he said,  Which species?  Ball python, I said.  Beautiful animals, he said, I had one for ten years, when I was single and living in California.  Used to rest on my chest while I watched TV in bed, he said.  And then, when it detected that I was asleep, it would crawl away and find hiding spots in the bedroom, Will said.  When I came up here to get married, to a woman who cringes at snakes, I had to get rid of it.  But I found it a good new home, because I cared about that snake, he said.

     So, another rescue situation.  What was its name? I asked.

     "King Solomon," said Will Turpin.

     A sheet of Plexiglas in Montana costs just fourteen bucks, a bargain.  The cutting is free.  After I paid, Will Turpin held the door for me, and we shook hands.  "I envy you," he said.

     "Thanks for going the extra two inches," I said, "and the extra mile."

David Quammen

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