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At Sternberg, it's snakes alive

9/28/2012

By RANDY GONZALES

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

It's a good thing Shawn and Shauna Chance have a family membership for Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

With the membership, their family can view exhibits as often as they like without paying admission. After all, 4-year-old Malachi has seen the museum exhibit on rattlesnakes approximately 50 or 60 times, his parents joked, since "Rattlerssss: From Fear to Fascination" opened in early September.

Malachi can rattle off from the top of his head all 22 species of rattlesnakes in the United States.

The exhibit has 19 of those venomous snakes on display, and the remaining three species should be part of the exhibit by November, said Sternberg zoology collections manager Curtis Schmidt.

Schmidt likes to see a person's face when viewing the exhibit.

"Their reactions have been very interesting," he said. "I like to hang out in the exhibit and see how they're going to react. Most of it's positive, surprisingly."

Schmidt said not many people share his fascination for snakes -- just don't count the Chance clan among them.

In addition to Malachi, 7-year-old Logan and 9-year-old Zach also go bonkers for the reptiles. The family even had a corn snake when it lived in Riley. But the move to Hays in July meant parting ways with the snake.

Now, Mom, Dad and kids can see snakes to their hearts' delight. Still, they know to respect the snakes, said Shauna, whose mother was bitten by a rattlesnake when they lived on a farm years ago.

"We grew up with a really healthy respect for rattlesnakes," Shauna said. "They were just part of farm life."

The children hated parting ways with the corn snake, she said.

"The boys, they love snakes," Shauna said. "Rattlesnakes are something we're excited about."

The exhibit is a work in progress. There are more signs to be put up, detailing more information about each species. There also will be educational and interactive stations to learn more about the snakes. As well, likely on weekends, Schmidt will take a snake out of its display from time to time and put its head in a tube for safety, then let people touch the body of the snake.

That's what he did when the Chance family made a recent visit, much to the kids' delight. They petted the snake much like other children would pet the family dog.

A snake is on display for a week to 10 days before it is replaced with another snake. The snakes need a break from being handled, Schmidt said, and they are fed when they are not on display.

And, similar to people, rattlesnakes vary in temperament. Some are mellow; some not so much.

"They definitely have their individual personalities," Schmidt said. "Species are different; some are just mellow species. I would say as far as the ones we have, the Southern Pacific (rattlesnake) is probably the most testy."

At the exhibit, the rattlesnakes range from the extremely venomous Tiger rattler to the Western Diamondback and Eastern Diamondback, both nearly 6 feet in length. Not all of the snakes were easy to obtain for the display. Getting the Grand Canyon rattler was a coup.

"Very, very rare in captivity and on display," Schmidt said.

Schmidt's favorite is the Arizona Black rattler.

"Because they're very mellow, they're not aggressive at all," he said. "Their appearance is just unreal. The colors on it are amazing."

Of the 22 species of rattlesnakes in the U.S., three are native to Kansas -- the Prairie rattler, the Timber rattler and the Massasauga rattler. The Timber rattler is found in the eastern part of the state, while the other two can be found in western Kansas.

"Around here, (the Massasauga rattler) is responsible for most of the snake bites," Schmidt said. "They're not very big at all. When they're young, they don't have a rattle."

The Massasauga also resembles a rat snake.

"A lot of kids especially will pick them up if they see them because they are around towns, and they will end up getting bit," Schmidt said.

To hear a rattlesnake warn you when it starts to rattle is one of those memorable sounds in nature.

"Once you hear it, you're not going to forget it," Schmidt said.