Friday, July 16, 2010
Research Ain't For Sissies
Here’s some writerly advice for ya — nothing ratchets up the tension in a scene like dropping a big ass snake right in the middle of it.
Hoo boy! Characters babble. They scream. They go for guns you didn’t know they carried. Forget that old advice about bringing a man waving a gun into the room — let a fifteen-foot reticulated python plop onto somebody’s shoulders, and things get interesting FAST.
I auditioned a line-up of menacing serpents for this walk-on role in my novel — boa constrictors and several breeds of python, including the rock and the Burmese pythons (that’s a caramel Burmese python in the photo by the way). However, I decided on the retic (as reticulated pythons are sometimes called), the big daddy of the snake world. Here’s a few snaky tidbits I’ve picked up in my research:
1. You don‘t tackle this much snake alone. One rule of thumb for snake handling is one person for every three feet of snake. For an average python —about fifteen feet long — you’ll need four really brave friends. For the largest python on record — 33 feet long and 300+ pounds — you‘ll need a NASCAR pit crew.
2. Captive-bred specimens are remarkably even-tempered, if somewhat unpredictable. Wild caught pythons, however, are extremely nervous and will bite. Unfortunately, wild-caught pythons don’t carry ID announcing them as such. The only way you’ll know is after it’s clamped down on your calf and banged you around a bit. It may not be venomous, but it’s got teeth that point backwards, the better to hold onto you as you squirm, my dear.
3. As a rule of thumb, these snakes seem able to swallow prey up to ¼ their own length, and up to their own weight.
4. A python doesn’t kill by strangling—it constricts its victim’s rib cage slowly and inexorably with every exhale, leaving each subsequent inhale shallower and shallower . . . until there’s no more room to breathe in. Cause of death—suffocation.
5. Like all snakes, pythons aren’t slimy—they’re dry and cool and silky. They’re also dense with hard-packed spongy muscle, like a scale-covered gummy bear.
6. Pythons are ambush predators; they lunge from the shrubbery, zip up on you in the water and — in the case of the green tree python — tumble from the branches right on top of you.
7. Pythons normally snack on small mammals, though they occasionally snag deer and gazelle. Swallowing such large prey makes a python slow and clunky and very vulnerable to predators. If necessary, however, it can instantly upchuck the whole business right back in its attacker’s face and make a speedy getaway. Take that, crocodile!
8. Pythons use their supersensitive tongues to “taste” where you are . . . and find out which end is your head, for easier swallowing. Which means they can find you in that dark like THAT.
9. They’re extremely valuable creatures, selling anywhere from $500 to $5000. A lavender albino ball python was once listed as the most expensive pet in the world— $40,000. Before you decide to adopt a python reticulatus, however, know it’s a long-term arrangement; they live 20-30 years in captivity.
10. Best estimates are that anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 Burmese pythons now call the Florida Everglades home. The first one was found in 1979, and since pythons have no natural predators down there in that moist steamy ecosystem, they multiplied exponentially. Right now the only way to deal with the problem is to hunt them down one at a time and drag them out by hand, which the State of Florida hires people to do. New career, anyone?