March 13, 2010

Abandoned viper in Saco puzzles aficionados

By David Hench
Staff Writer

The Maine Warden Service says it could confirm by next week who left a deadly Gaboon viper in the woods behind a movie theater in Saco, where it apparently died quickly from the cold.

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A gaboon viper like the one found last week behind a Saco movie theater. This one was photographed at the Cape Fear Serpentarium in Wilmington, N.C.

Jeff Woodbury/Staff Artist

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A yellow eyelash viper, a Central American snake, photographed at the Cape Fear Serpentarium.

Jeff Woodbury/Staff Artist

Additional Photos Below


THE MOST POPULAR pet snakes in Maine are corn snakes, ball pythons and boa constrictors – all non-venomous.

THE GABOON VIPER is native to sub-Saharan Africa, where it lies on trails, waiting for prey, which may be rabbits, birds or other small animals. Captive Gaboon vipers are typically fed rats, alive or frozen.

EVEN IN AFRICA, few people are bitten by them because they are not aggressive. They are, however, one of the most venomous snakes and can deliver a painful and sometimes fatal bite.

A PERSON BITTEN by any poisonous snake should immediately contact the Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222.


Investigators said this week that they have interviewed a person who may have owned the snake.

A subculture of owners is drawn to the decorative and dangerous snakes, which are native to sub-Saharan Africa and illegal to own in Maine.

"They're very beautiful and exotic- looking, with a large broad head," said Dean Ripa, who runs the Cape Fear Serpentarium in North Carolina, where he keeps four or five Gaboon vipers. "The deadliness factor makes them interesting, but they're not so hard to keep" because they are not particularly aggressive.

But when they do bite, it's very bad news, said Dr. Karen Simone, head of the Northern New England Poison Center. "You could lose a limb and you could die, from the bite or as a result of allergic reaction to the anti-venom."

Treating a Gaboon viper bite would probably mean contacting the Bronx Zoo and getting anti-venom rushed to Maine or sending the patient to New York, she said. There is no such anti-venom in Maine.

"I've worked in poison control for 20 years, and almost all the bad bites we have is people being bit by their pets, and many of those were intoxicated people," Simone said. "You're not faster than your snake."

People typically acquire illegal snakes from people who have breeding pairs and sell the offspring, Simone said.

A dog walker found the Gaboon viper behind Cinemagic on Route 1 on Monday. Saco police called in the Maine Warden Service, which has been investigating the case.

David Sparks, a former animal control officer who now runs Sparks Ark Animal Emergency Services, said he has occasionally had to retrieve wayward pet snakes, though never a poisonous one.

"That (viper) was a big poisonous snake. I can't imagine why someone all of a sudden would decide to get rid of it, unless they were afraid of being caught," he said.

Possessing an illegal exotic species is a misdemeanor.

Authorities could seek additional charges in Saco because the snake was released where it could have posed a danger to others.

Sgt. Tim Spahr of the Warden Service said the snake apparently was released alive, then simply stopped moving when it got too cold.

Snake fans say such a valuable specimen is unlikely to have been discarded.

Young Gaboon vipers can sell for $500. A 5-foot viper, like the found one in Saco, which was at least 4 years old, could fetch $1,000.

Anyone who keeps a snake knows that it couldn't survive long in the Maine cold, and needs temperatures of about 88 degrees to digest its food properly, said Robert DuBois, president of the Maine Herpetological Society.

Society members keep all manner of reptiles and amphibians, including decorative frogs, turtles and the most popular pet snakes: ball pythons, corn snakes and boa constrictors.

Nationally, the hobby has grown over the years, with magazines, large shows and conventions dedicated to it.

Large breeders in the Southeast produce 30,000 to 60,000 animals a year, DuBois said.

Snakes make attractive pets, he said.

"They're a lot easier to keep clean than other pets. Your cat's going to leave hair all over everything," he said.

The society has been working with the state to expand the number of reptiles and amphibians that can be kept legally in Maine.

It recently helped to add almost 40 species to the list, including chameleons, colorful dart frogs and new turtle species, as well as more snakes -- species that aren't endangered in the wild and aren't dangerous, he said.

The society has an adoption service for people who discover they cannot care for their snakes.

Although illegal snakes cannot be posted for adoption, an owner could look to a state that is less restrictive.

Releasing a snake into the Maine woods is almost unthinkable, DuBois said.

"There is nothing that upsets us more than that."

Ripa, in North Carolina, suspects the viper was left by animal-rights activists -- whom he has sparred with over the years -- who may have planted a dead snake to create anxiety in the public.

Spahr said that is doubtful. "I don't think this would have any bearing on our state allowing or disallowing venomous snakes," he said.

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

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

A copperhead snake, found in the southeastern United States, photographed at the Cape Fear Serpentarium.

Jeff Woodbury/Staff Artist

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