2017 Year in Review: Raina DeFonza, Outreach Coordinator

It’s time to look back on 2017! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2017 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

This year, two things stand out for me as being special or memorable in 2017, and both relate to our education snakes in our Outreach Room.

Earlier this year, we welcomed a tiny, new, green family member – Greenbean the Northern Rough Greensnake. We were so excited when she arrived and later officially became a member of our education animal team.

All of our education snakes live in enclosures in the library – a room with lots of daily activity and frequent visitors. When people stop by, they can pop into the library and observe Severus the Ratsnake climbing up the branches in his enclosure or spot Max the Cornsnake soaking up the warmth from the sun shining through the window.

Max the Cornsnake, soaking up some morning sunlight!

Rough Greensnakes can be a sensitive species (i.e., they can be stressed out by too much human interaction). It makes sense – they are very small snakes (Greenbean is about as thick as a pencil) that spend their lives in the greenery of trees and plants, hunting for bugs. They work hard to remain camouflaged. Because of her natural history, we wanted to keep Greenbean in a place that saw less traffic and was generally “quieter”.

We decided to keep her in the outreach room – the room that Lacy, Alex, and I share as our office space. This room also happens to be the landing spot for donations, a crate-loading station for education animals, and a “mail room” for Lacy as she prepares retail and Caring for Critters orders for shipment. The only spot in the room that could be kept relatively clutter-free was a spot on the counter behind my desk. We decided to keep Greenbean’s house here for now.

Greenbean is fed five to eight live crickets in her enclosure, two times per week. She hunts the crickets, usually almost immediately after we put them into her enclosure. She is a fierce and efficient hunter, and it is really, really fun to watch her go to work. It’s also fun to try to find her as she camouflages against the greenery in her enclosure.

Can you spot the Greenbean?

Greenbean, hunting a cricket on the roof of her enclosure.

Since Greenbean and I have become deskmates, I’ve had lots of new visitors. Everyone wants to check on Greenbean, watch her hunt, show her to their family and friend, etc … My desk suddenly became very busy when Greenbean the Social Butterfly moved in!

I’ve loved watching people as they watch Greenbean – she is so tiny and charismatic. I feel lucky that she’s moved into this room.

* * * * * *

There was another snake who unexpectedly spent some time in the outreach room – Albus the Eastern Ratsnake. You may or may not know that Albus is known for being an escape artist. On more than one occasion, he has freed himself from his enclosure to explore the bookshelves in the library. He has never gone far, and it’s been years since Albus has taken a surprise “vacation” from his home; we thought we had figured out all of his tricks and thwarted all his schemes.

Albus, trying to squeeze between the glass doors of his tank.

But we were wrong. During a day of Open House tours this fall, I was sitting at my desk in the outreach room while rehabilitation extern Jolanda tended to the education snakes in their feeding tanks, which were neatly lined up near my desk to keep them out of the way of the tour groups coming through the Center. Each tank had a secure lid with a heavy rock or book on top to make sure the snakes couldn’t push the top loose.

Jolanda peeked in on Albus to see if he had finished eating, and then stepped away to attend daily rounds at the hospital.  I remained at my desk and all was quiet … until Jolanda checked in a few minutes later, only to discover that Albus had somehow escaped in the 15-minute window – he escaped smoothly and quietly, without me noticing even though I was just a few feet away!

I didn’t panic at first. Albus never goes far and he’s a pretty big snake, so I didn’t think he could hide for long. Jolanda and I checked in the drawers near the feeding tank, and then in the cabinets … and then in all the boxes near Lacy’s desk, and then we increased our search radius to the bathroom and then the tops of the cabinets … and we grew the Search Party to three people … then five … and soon 10 of us for looking for Albus. We were climbing ladders, using flashlights to look behind wall cabinets, and emptying any vessel in which Albus could feasibly fit his long body.

No sign of Albus. So, I panicked a little. He had eaten his meal, so he wasn’t hungry, which was good except that we probably couldn’t lure him back with food. So we set up a “hot spot” in the Outreach Room, with a heat lamp and heating pad, and left it on overnight for three nights. Albus didn’t return.

We didn’t give up hope. I really believed Albus hadn’t gone far, and he was just hanging out until he got cold or hungry or found his way back to a spot that was visible to people.

For nearly three weeks, Albus was missing. A few times a week, we’d make reminders at daily hospital rounds that everyone should keep an eye out for Albus. Periodically, you’d see staff or students peeking into cabinets or searching through boxes in their spare minutes, trying to find our missing colleague.

Of course, we found Albus when we weren’t looking for him. Outreach Coordinator Alex was cleaning out a drawer near his desk, and he discovered a very long, very fresh, Eastern Ratsnake skin shed -- a sign of Albus! Alex shone a light behind the drawer to see if he could easily pull it out to check for more signs of our missing snake– and there was Albus, all curled up underneath the drawer without a care. Alex yanked the drawer out and I reached in to pull out the snake fugitive.

The snake skin shed (left) and blurry photo (right) that led us to Albus!

I paraded him around the office so everyone could welcome him back, and sent a flurry of texts to people who weren’t in the office (rehabilitation extern Jolanda had gone back to Estonia). After a quick health check by our veterinary staff, Albus was returned to his enclosure and reunited with his cage-mate, Severus.

Severus and Albus, curled up together after Albus was returned to their shared enclosure.

Hopefully that’s the last of Albus’s grand escapes, but if it’s not … we know where to look.

-- Raina

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!