While working at the Bronx Zoo, I had the once-in-a lifetime opportunity of helping to import and care for one of the largest snakes in captivity. While “largest snake” debates are ongoing, the massive Reticulated Python I came to know was awe-inspiring by any standard. Dubbed “Samantha”, she was captured as an adult in Borneo, and eventually reached 26 feet in length and 275 pounds in weight. The story of how she arrived in the USA involves a cash reward established by Theodore Roosevelt, the leather trade, animal dealers and other twists and turns.
Wanted: 30 Foot-Long-Snake
In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt, long involved with the Bronx Zoo, offered a reward to the first person who presented a snake of 30 feet in length; in time the reward grew to $50,000. In 1992, I and other Bronx Zoo staff heard rumors that a giant Reticulated Python that had been captured in Borneo. We did not get overly-excited… being well-seasoned, I automatically deducted 25-50% from the size of any “biggest snake-turtle-croc” stories that came my way. But then grainy photos arrived by mail, and the snake depicted was, if not the largest I’d seen, impressive. Whether by design or bad luck, the photos did not allow us to accurately gauge the animal’s length.
In those pre-internet days, it was difficult to correspond with the leather company that owned the snake, which was confined in a railroad car near Samarinda, Borneo. Then as now, importing large animals was fraught with difficulties. Therefore, we enlisted the help of a local leather company with ties in the region and a trusted animal importer.
Meeting a Giant
I was on hand to pick up the snake when she arrived at Kennedy Airport in 1993, but just barely, as there were several cancellations and other problems. I found out about the shipment at the last minute, while at a restaurant. The ensuing trip to Kennedy and the zoo wound up being an interesting first date for my companion, who was not interested in reptiles!
As soon as we hoisted the snake’s crate, we surmised that it did not contain a record-breaker. Our suspicions were confirmed once we stretched Samantha out on the reptile house floor. At a “mere” 21 feet in length and 175 pounds in weight, she was impressive, but far short of what we had been led to believe.
However, after having handled hundreds of large constrictors, I’m able to say that our new arrival was stronger by far than any captive-raised snake of similar size. I’ve also noticed this regarding captive-bred Green Anacondas, when compared to those I’ve caught in the field. As in other species, her muscle tone was also noticeably different than that of her more sedentary relatives.
Wrestling With a Giant (and losing!)
In the wrestling match that broke out once we unpacked Samantha, I wound up in the weighing crate with her. She pushed outward and pinned me against the crate’s side. I know what broken ribs feel like, and mine were just about to crack when my co-workers managed to pull her away from me. Only a few seconds had elapsed, and she was pushing out, not constricting (when she could have exerted far more pressure), but there was no doubt that I was grossly over-matched!
It was difficult to obtain background information on Samantha…a great disappointment given her size and the fact that she was captured near a village. She was well known by local people, and reportedly used a cave as her main shelter. When Samantha began raiding chicken coops, she was easy to locate. Unfortunately, the actual details of her capture were never revealed.
Reticulated Pythons often adapt well to human presence, and occur even within Bangkok and Singapore, where dogs, rats, cats and livestock form part of their diets. Visiting Singapore Zoo keepers once told me that they lost an adult Cape Hunting Dog to a free-ranging Retic. I recently came across a fascinating article which revealed that 26% of the Philippine Agta men in one region have been attacked by Reticulated Pythons, with 6 deaths resulting. Please see this article for details.
Giant Snake Diets
Samantha proved quite calm as compared to other adult, wild-caught Retics I’ve worked with. Her diet was comprised of 25-30 pound pigs, one of which she consumed each 4-6 weeks. She was certainly capable of taking larger meals, but remained in good health on this feeding regime. At her death in November of 2002, Samantha measured 26 feet in length and tipped the scales at 275 pounds.
The largest snake meal I’ve witnessed was a 60 pound White-Tailed Deer taken by a wild Green Anaconda in Venezuela. I’ve observed and read about many others…please see this article, and post your own experiences below.
The internet is stocked with claims of giant snake sightings, but many border on the ridiculous…and cross that border! However, there are a few legitimate giants in zoos and private collections, including several that are well known by “first name” to snake fans – “Fluffy” and “Marcy” are especially popular.
Clifford Pope’s 1961 classic, The Giant Snakes, is a great resource for snake enthusiasts. His photo of the massive “Colossus” inspired many herpetologists of my generation.
The Bronx Zoo’s $50,000 reward has been withdrawn, but I like to think that a 30-foot-long Anaconda or Retic is lurking somewhere even as I write these words. Please let me know your thoughts on this prospect, and I’d love to hear any stories, rumors or experiences you may have.
Snake Skins in Burma image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Waguang