July 2007

On ringneck snakes, difficult species and expertise

Mike Fedzen writes to damn the Ringneck Diary — my abortive attempt to chronicle our attempts to keep Southern Ringneck Snakes (Diadophis punctatus punctatus) in captivity in 2003 — with faint praise:

I found your little project with ringneck snakes doing an internet search. It was interesting, a little.
You made it seem too difficult to keep ringneck snakes, that’s for sure. I’ve worked with ringneck snakes for over 10 years … I am basically a professional. Basically. I have bred them, and kept many many specimens successfully. My longest kept specimen was an almost 10 year albino northern ringneck snake captive.
You picked southern ringneck snakes. In my experience, they are EASILY the most easily kept sub-species. They feed on worms, FISH, frogs, lizards, snakes, and will switch onto mice easier than you can imagine. Try guppies if you don’t have worms. Southern ringneck snakes in my experience have the largest menu out of all sub-species. I’ve gotten many specimens on mice scented with fish/worms/frogs … basically anything with slime.

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Releasing baby snakes

One problem with catching snakes in the wild and bringing them home as a pet is that some of them are live-bearing (such as garter, brown, red-bellied and water snakes), and many of them are pregnant when caught. What, then, do you do with the babies? A reader named Chantal asks whether they can be released back to the wild from which their mother came.

My answer is a qualified yes — but there are three very important caveats.

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Close enough for government work

Shawville is only an hour outside Ottawa — close enough, in other words, for me to be able to apply for government jobs. The catch is whether I’m willing to put up with such a lengthy commute. Others do, of course, but I’ve always liked living close to where I work.

Local jobs, such few as there are, really aren’t for someone with my talents or with my health issues — it’s hard to pump gas if you can’t stand on your feet for more than an hour, for example.

So my decision to work at earning income from my web sites — the self-employment route — was more or less by default. I’d already quit the one suitable local job, and my applications for various positions in Ottawa always went nowhere. (My guess is, my extremely nervous demeanour during the interview put them off.) So, after a while, I gave up looking and started focusing on this stuff, here. I’m not getting rich from my web projects, but it’s been increasing, year by year.

But tomorrow, after a drought of three and a half years, I finally start punching a clock again: I start an eight-week temp contract — an editing/proofreading job with Health Canada.

Fortuitously, my neighbour’s commute runs right past the building in which I will be working, so I will be carpooling in with her: this makes the commute much easier to bear, insofar as my health and ecological footprint are concerned.

Blogging gets moved to evenings and weekends: it’ll be interesting to see if I can manage the double workload. If I can’t, well, it’s only a couple of months away from my projects, and I’ll be able to return to them soon enough. In other words, it’s no longer an either-or proposition: I don’t have to choose between my writing and a steady paycheque.

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Armed standoff in Shawville

Sometimes, when something big happens, you’re only aware of a part of it. Last Thursday I had my own version of the blind men and the elephant.

Helicopter incident (1) Came the call from Jennifer, doing summer-school tutoring at the elementary school: there’s a suicidal man with a gun, the school is in lockdown, and we think it’s taking place in the field just west of here — two helicopters just landed there. So I grab the camera and take off along the snowmobile trail, which leads to the field. I see the helicopter there. Thinking I’m too close to the action, and therefore at risk of putting the officers or myself at risk, I double back to the highway and snap a few, distant shots from there (1, 2).

But it turns out the action was elsewhere. I’ve taken the addresses from today’s Equity (link good for only one week) and plotted them on a map for reference.

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Snake evangelism is easy

Imagine if your door-to-door Christian evangelist types never had to go door to door. Imagine if all they had to do was sit at home, relaxing, and wait for people to come by to ask them about the baby Jesus.

That’s what it’s like with snake keeping: when interested people find out that you have them, they come to you.

We just had four people — the neighbour’s older son and three of his friends — over for an hour showing them our collection. It was kind of spontaneous: they were out back and decided to ask to see the snakes. And we took four people who were, at best, ambivalent to a little bit interested and, after about an hour, had them all at least touching the snakes, and two of them doing an awfully good job at handling them — and one of them muttering about getting one himself.

It doesn’t always go that well, but the people who knock on your door asking to see snakes are, at least, self-selecting.

(I need to mention — as I do in my reptiles FAQ — that we don’t make a habit of offering tours of our collection. We’re not a zoo. We knew these people, so we were happy to oblige, but we’d generally like our evenings to ourselves, thank you very much.)

Cheakamus Canyon derailment due to engine shutdowns

Remember the notorious CN train derailment near Squamish, BC that took place in August 2005? It spilled 53,000 litres of sodium hydroxide into the Cheakamus River, all but wiping out the fishery there. Along with the Lake Wabamun spill that same month, essentially shredded CN’s reputation. Ever since then, CN’s safety record has been very much in the public eye; for proof, look no further than last February’s W5 documentary. (A Transport Canada safety audit of the railroad was made public in March.)

It continues. A Transportation Safety Board report released yesterday reveals how the Cheakamus Canyon derailment actually happened. Initial reports said that there were five locomotives at the head of the train, with no mid-train power, which observers thought was foolish, because, to quote a November 2005 Globe and Mail article, “if too much power is at the front, the engines can simply ‘straighten out the train’ and pull it off the tracks.” It’s called stringlining, and it is what happened, but it’s not because there wasn’t any mid-train power — it’s because the mid-train power was misconfigured.

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Limitless data storage and the future of history

Charlie Stross posits that we’re rapidly approaching a future where data storage is so cheap that everything — everything — will be recorded for posterity: “The storage requirement for a video stream and two audio streams, plus GPS location, is only about 10,000 Gb per year — which will cost about £10 by 2017.” Such recordings, he argues, will be “a gold mine for historians” who will “be able to see the ephemera of public life and understand the minutiae of domestic life; information that is usually omitted from the historical record because the recorders at the time deemed it insignificant, but which may be of vital interest in centuries to come.”

In response, Cory Doctorow asks: “Once everyone and everything is recorded forever, what will historians do for a living?”

My answer is: the same thing they’ve always done.

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Why I like boa constrictors

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite snake from my collection, but it’s not hard at all to figure out which snake is the most popular with our guests. It’s Snuggles, our four-year-old male boa constrictor.

Deb and Snuggles I’ve always been leery about giant snakes, but I’ve been very satisfied with Snuggles so far. Four years ago, when we got him, we figured that if we were going to start doing reptile shows, we needed to have a large boa or python. Burmese pythons are tame but huge (full-grown pythons can weigh as much as a person), and other giant species, such as anacondas or reticulated pythons, have quantifiably evil temperaments. Boa constrictors are a lot smaller than the others, but they’re also a lot tamer and a lot safer. Bottom line, I wanted a snake I could lift; I once had to do a show with a forty-pound, nine-foot Burmese who was sweet enough, but a bit much to pick up and maneuver with. (Yes, I’m weak.)

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Aphorisms on incompetence

I worked for the government long enough not to be afraid of it. When people argued that the government was being malicious or corrupt, I countered that, in my experience, incompetence was the more likely explanation. It turns out there’s an adage (or two) for that. Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” Or Grey’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.” (Yes, it sounds familiar.) Via Daring Fireball.

Feeding a snake outside its cage

Brien Rocha writes:

I was wondering if you are supposed to take the snake out of its cage and switch it to another to feed it, then put it back in its own cage. Any thoughts?

The short answer is, it depends.

There are two reasons not to feed a snake in its own cage:

1. There is a chance that the snake could ingest some of the cage bedding when it eats. This is obviously not a problem when the snake is kept on newspapers or paper towels, but it’s more of a risk when it’s kept on sand, bark or wood chips. If that stuff gets blocked in the snake’s digestive tract — snakes can’t digest plant matter, for example — then the results could be fatal. (Now, we keep a lot of snakes on aspen shavings, and we do feed them in their cages, but we use a dish or tray to present the mouse, and keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t swallow any shavings. For the most part, this is more of a problem with stickier food — worms or fish — or with stickier cage bedding.)

2. It shares its cage with another snake. In that case, there’s danger that they might each grab the same food item at the opposite end from one another and, well, keep swallowing once they meet. I’ve had to separate garter snakes that grabbed opposite ends of the same worm, for example. You just don’t want the snakes to eat each other by accident. Yes, they’re dumb enough to do that — there are reports of snakes that have tried to swallow themselves!

There are drawbacks to taking a snake out of its cage to feed it, but they’re much less severe — certainly nothing fatal. An easily stressed-out snake might not want to eat after being disturbed. A snake that associates the cage being opened with feeding might decide to bite the hand that reaches for it. And, well, you have to wait for it to finish: this is a problem if you have a lot of snakes, and it’s a problem if the snake takes a while to get around to eating.