Authorities are trying to learn how a deadly – and illegal – Gaboon viper came to be slithering along the wooded trails behind Cinemagic in Saco.

Like some eerie escapee from “Avatar,” playing inside the theater, the colorful viper stretched almost 5 feet and lay in the trail, much as the snakes do in their native sub-Saharan Africa as they lie in wait for prey.

But this one was dead, after succumbing to the cold of even a mild Maine winter night. The vipers prefer temperatures above 70 degrees; the temperature Sunday night dropped below freezing.

The snake was discovered Monday by someone who was walking along one of the trails behind the theater, on the edge of woods that stretch out extensively to the east of Route 1.

The person didn’t handle the snake, but took a cell phone picture and then contacted police, who called in the Maine Warden Service.

“It appears it had been released alive, probably last night,” said Sgt. Tim Spahr of the Maine Warden Service.

“Somebody, in their mind, was releasing it into the wild,” Spahr said, noting that there are retention ponds in the woods, which might have seemed like good habitat.

The snake’s release could land the owner in hot water.

“They’re not legal in Maine. You could not get a permit for that,” Spahr said. “I don’t even know if they would be legal in the U.S.”

He said such a snake would probably have to be purchased on the black market – or on the Internet.

“I also think if you’re releasing something that is potentially dangerous or fatal to somebody, we would probably talk to the District Attorney’s Office about other charges related to recklessness,” Spahr said.

The warden service is investigating to determine who owned the snake, although Spahr would not elaborate.

He said wardens have encountered other exotic snakes, such as cobras and pit vipers, but never this species.

Gaboon vipers apparently are popular pets – as far as venomous snakes go. The snakes are can reach 7 feet long, with a hefty girth, and can appear sluggish but strike with blinding speed, according to the Web site www.VenomousReptiles.org. The site describes proper care and feeding for the pets.

The snakes have longer fangs and more venom than any other poisonous snake. They’re also beautiful, with intricate geometric patterns in shades of brown.

And they are deadly. Some viper owners have died after being bitten and not getting immediate treatment with anti-venom.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com