We cried when our dog died over 30 years ago. We cried when our cat died in the mid ’90s. We cried when our hamster and our turtle and our parakeet each died. And only a week after watching our bullsnake Hatch leave with our zookeeper friend Bryon Shipley, we cried when our western hognose snake, Roggen, died suddenly after living and working with us for over 10 years.
A fellow worker snickered when we expressed our sorrow. Some people don’t take snakes seriously. But how can she appreciate what this animal has meant to us? Although we never regarded our snakes as pets, we have respected each of them as working education animals – partners with us in attempting to bring understanding and appreciation for a misunderstood species.
Roggen was given to us by a friend who collected him near Roggen, Colorado so we could use him in our reptile presentations. We had no idea how old he was when we received him, but during his 10 years with us he brought joy to children and adults who regarded him as cute due to his small size and up-turned rostrum. Because hognose snakes perform a death throes act to induce predators to leave them alone, we called on school children to imitate that performance by wiggling, opening their mouths, sticking out their tongues, and eventually flopping onto the floor to pretend they were dead. This brought out great acting abilities as well as raucous laughs, and it delighted participants and audience alike.
But in recent weeks, Roggen had developed a lump near his heart. Our friend Bryon examined him while he visited to gather Hatch. “The only way to determine what it is,” he said, “would be to x-ray him.” Even then, Bryon said, there would likely be nothing we could do. Since Roggen was eating and acting normally, we continued to include him in our program.
Then last Sunday we bagged him up along with our kingsnake and gartersnake and took them all to the visitor center to use for interpretation. It was a slow day, so Chuck brought out only the gartersnake and kingsnake to show interested visitors and left Roggen in his bag.
When our session was completed, Chuck took the snakes back to their cages. “When I pulled out Roggen’s bag,” he said later, “there was blood on it.” Chuck removed Roggen from the bag and discovered that the blood came from his nose. Roggen was writhing as if struggling to breathe. Later that evening when we checked on him, we found him lifeless in his cage.
“It’s always sad to have an animal that is so close to us depart this world,” said Bryon later. “Given the snake’s condition, I would say that cancer was to blame. Many times a cancer will take over blood vessels and suddenly cause a break in the wall of that vessel. I’m sure he provided lots of happy moments for his audience!” Roggen is now in our freezer awaiting a proper burial.
That same Sunday I was called outside to examine a large gartersnake that someone spotted near the visitor center. She appeared at first to be defecating on the lawn. But closer examination revealed a tiny head and body struggling inside a fluid sac. “She’s giving birth!” I cried as I noticed other small bodies slithering away from their mother who is a species that hatches her eggs inside her body and delivers the young live.
It seemed appropriate that while one life expired, others emerge. Life goes on. But we’ll definitely miss Roggen.