Farting snakes and frozen mice make for a strange morning

The first thing we do is defrost the mice. This involves pulling the Ziploc bags of frozen mice and birds out of the freezer, grabbing a couple handfuls, and tossing them in a bucket full of hot water, letting them float around and intermingle as they thaw.

It’s my first day as a volunteer at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael, CA, and I’m already using paper towels to rub the water off of dead rodents. Why do I have to dry off the mice? Apparently the birds of prey are picky and they don’t like their food wet. I can’t really blame them—I wouldn’t eat a wet mouse either.

The Effie Yeaw Nature Center is an environmental and cultural education center that houses a variety of rescue animals, from snakes to turles to owls to birds of prey. Every day there are groups of schoolchildren coming through on tour, learning about the animals and their place in nature, and coming to understand how to be better citizens of planet Earth.

That seems to be the goal, at least. What I remember taking away from my visit to the center as a small child was how awesome it was to watch a bird tear apart a mouse. Luckily, as I realized during my day volunteering, that feeling doesn’t go away.

After prepping the raptors’ food, we cleaned some of the snake cages. The first cage was missing its snake, who was out for a visit to one of the local schools. I got to clean this one, and I learned that cleaning a snake cage is no more exciting than cleaning anything else anywhere ever. The second cage needed a special treatment from the animal care specialist, Neil. So while he was cleaning, I would be picking up the 3.5 foot long king snake named Ringo and making friends.

“Are you afraid of snakes at all?” Neil asks me. “Only that ones that can kill you with one bite,” I respond casually.

I then learn that most snake bites, if in a somewhat timely manner, won’t kill you. In fact, rattlesnake bites often don’t even contain venom. They bite if they are surprised or threatened, and often just as a warning. “It’s the baby rattlesnakes you have to worry about,” Neil tells me. “They can’t control how to use their venom yet, so they get a hold and just pump everything they’ve got into you.”

Delightful. Maybe that’s why nobody coos over baby snakes like they do over baby everything else.

Apparently, Ringo is nesting right now, so Neil is fixing up her cage just the way she likes it so she’ll lay some eggs. “She’s infertile, but the eggs will make good exhibits when on display,” informs Neil. “In fact, let’s see if she’s got anything cooking.” He then proceeds to poke around her belly, squeezing here and there, until he wrinkles his nose and says “Aw, Ringo. Why would you do that?” I assume it’s some kind of fart, but Neil says it’s called “musking.” It’s a release of some kind of smelly liquid, “as a defense mechanism. They only do it when they feel threatened,” Neil assures me. Except that moments ago he told me they only bite when they feel threatened, and since this one is obviously threatened, it’s time to move on.

To be continued. Look for the next post about salamanders eating crickets, a bird ripping up a mouse and a man blowing owl egg out of its shell.
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