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ON Press: BC snake sanctuary no-vacancy

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Sat Dec 30 10:43:55 2006  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

GLOBE & MAIL (Toronto, Ontario) 30 December 06 Vancouver Island's snake sanctuary posts no-vacancy sign - Caretaker hopeful funding available for unwanted-reptile haven (Shannon Moneo)
Victoria : Morgan York first spied the exotic creatures two decades ago at Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition, and since then, the 29-year-old has been crazy about snakes.
They are so wrapped around her life that Ms. York has for almost two years operated British Columbia's only snake-exclusive rescue and adoption service, dubbed Snake in the Grass.
In that time, the self-taught snake expert -- in scientific circles she'd be called a herpetologist -- has been filling her basement suite in the Victoria suburb of Saanich with abandoned, unwanted and sick snakes.
"People continue to buy snakes and don't know what to do with them," Ms. York said.
Snake in the Grass came to be because a former roommate of Ms. York's left behind a pair of the reptiles.
At the moment, 13 non-venomous snakes live with Ms. York, her astronomer husband Brian, 26, and daughter Darcy Rae, 11. The eight corn snakes, three pythons and two boa constrictors rest on, or slide under, old towels in their own plastic boxes or glass aquariums in the suite's dining area and study.
"We're at capacity. We can't take any more," Ms. York declared.
Adoptions are infrequent because Ms. York has to be certain the snake is going to a suitable home.
While the Victoria SPCA had not heard of Snake in the Grass, Ms. York said she gets regular calls from pet stores and individuals seeking help for problem snakes.
When the SPCA takes in the occasional snake, it contacts veterinarian Chris Collis. He has been operating the Glenview Animal Hospital in Colwood, west of Victoria, since 1993. Thirty per cent of his practice involves exotic animals such as snakes, fish and birds.
The veterinarian has noticed that snake purchasers tend to be people with unusual lifestyles.
"You don't have the 45-year-old woman with three kids coming in with a boa," Dr. Collis said.
Usually, snake owners are people in their late teens and 20s. Some are "socially irresponsible," the 45-year-old veterinarian said.
They may have $400 to buy a baby python, but they don't have follow-up funds to properly care for it. Eventually, the challenging-to-keep animals are abandoned or die of neglect.
But Ms. York is so devoted to her snakes that she'd choose pricey volunteer work with the reptiles over her paid job as a youth counsellor.
She figures that some months she spends up to $1,000 to operate Snake in the Grass.
About $50 a month is spent on frozen mice bought in bulk in packages of 25 from a specialty supplier. Live mice fight back and can injure a snake.
When Ms. York does the weekly feeding, she uses chopsticks to dangle the tiny, thawed rodents in front of the waiting snake. Chopsticks are mandatory because rodent scent on skin can make a calm snake attack.
Other costs include lights and heaters to keep the snakes warm.
But the biggest expense is veterinarian bills. Often the snakes accepted by Snake in the Grass are sick or have been neglected. The necessary $35 fecal tests and $200 X-rays add up.
Which is why Ms. York wants public support. She would like to have a standalone snake rescue and adoption facility and resource centre where she and her three volunteer assistants could expand their work.
Grant money is non-existent, she said, so donations or sponsorships are needed.
A name like Snake in the Grass, however, may not ingratiate the organization to those with deep pockets.
Ms. York disagrees, saying that it's only in England where the phrase "snake in the grass" refers to a deceitful or treacherous person or hidden evils. During educational visits to schools, she does her best to dispel the bad rap tagged on Eve's downfall.
"In some cultures, snakes are protectors," Ms. York said. "The medical symbol is a snake."
For Dr. Collis, it doesn't conjure up the best of images.
"There's not a lot of public sympathy for this," he said, referring to the raising of money for snakes. "When you have cute animals like abandoned koalas, pandas, the public will throw money at you."
When creatures like snakes, rats or bats need help, the buck stops there.
Dr. Collis has treated snakes that have been burned because rocks in their enclosure were too hot. Some get fungal diseases because they're kept too moist. Others wheeze when they breathe, a sure sign of a respiratory infection brought on by cold surroundings.
And big snakes can be dangerous. If they attack, a fatality is almost certain, Dr. Collis said.
So he would never have a snake join the rabbits, chinchilla and guinea pigs cared for by his two young children.
Local municipalities do not have bylaws aimed at reptiles, unlike regulations governing dogs and cats. Ms. York has heard of a reptile lover who had 35 snakes -- and other cold-blooded creatures -- slinking around their home.
Several months ago, she got a middle-of-the-night call from the Saanich police. They were called to a home by a distraught resident who found a Ball python (a breed that can live for up to one year without eating) in their bathroom.
"What would have happened to it if I wasn't around?" wondered Ms. York, who took in the python, now named Canary.


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