Few things are more satisfying to me as a Hitchcock educator than seeing the wonder and focus that appear on a visitor’s face during an up-close encounter with one of our teaching animals. As Speedy the eastern box turtle cruises along a classroom floor or one of our walking stick insects crawls up the arm of a mesmerized camper, the conversation in the room flows easily from ecology to adaptations to animal behavior. Learning is happening, but just as importantly positive memories are being made. Our animal ambassadors help the Hitchcock Center staff to foster a greater awareness and knowledge of the natural world in our visitors – just by being themselves.
Which is why it is with great excitement that we welcome our newest animal educator to the Hitchcock Center, Cornelius the corn snake! Cornelius is 3 years old and he joined us on May 7, 2015.
Wild corn snakes are usually full grown at about age 3, with an average length of 3.5 feet for females and 3 – 5 feet for males. Cornelius is currently just over 4 feet, but with the reliable nutrition that comes with being fed by humans he will likely continue to add to that length. This size combined with their beautiful red and orange pattern make for a striking sight. However, unless you’re seeing someone’s escaped pet, you won’t see any corn snakes in the wild unless you travel to New Jersey or points south. This begs the question – why would we feature a non-native species at a locally focused nature center?
The answer has to do with something you may not think of when considering snakes – personality. Some snake species are naturally more aggressive, secretive, anxious, or uncomfortable around people. Corn snakes are widely considered to be the most docile, friendly, relaxed and easy-going species of snake, a combination of traits that add up to the perfect educator snake. In addition to that, there is a robust captive population, eliminating the need to pull from wild populations.
Negative experiences, particularly early in life, can upset these traits, which is why we’ve been slowly acclimating Cornelius to his new routines. We handled him almost every day throughout the summer and we’ve gradually introduced him to small and then large groups of strangers. The more these kinds of stimuli are a regular part of his life the less stressful they become. His progress has been steady and positive. In his first month with us I would notice his grip on my arm tighten and his inquisitive tongue flicking cease after a few minutes with a small group. By the end of the summer he was meeting large groups of campers for long periods without showing any of these signs of stress.
Cornelius has already begun to increase empathy and curiosity in our visitors for one of nature’s less popular creatures. In this mission, he follows the shining example of our beloved corn snake Maizie, who passed away last February. While we will miss her greatly we look forward to working with Cornelius for many years to come. If you come in to say hello to him just be prepared to look very closely. When not feeding or meeting new people he loves to tunnel and dig in his soft, cool bedding, with just his face poking out to watch the world!
Yesterday, Cornelius shed his skin and we caught much of it on video! Watch how quickly this amazing shedding process happens.
Patrick O’Roark is an Environmental Educator at the Hitchcock Center. He leads school field trips,residencies, homeschool programs, and has served as a summer camp counselor for several summers. Patrick also serves as live animal caretaker for the teaching animals at the Center.Click here to return to full list of blog entries. Or chose a specific Blog category below.