Keeper Stories – Thursday, January 26
Just the other day, I was stopped by a guest at the Zoo who asked me where our black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) Kobe was located. She said that he was her favorite snake, and seeing him was the whole purpose of her visit that day! Sadly, I had to report to her that the mamba had passed away.
Kobe was our one and only mamba here at Zoo Atlanta, and it was a huge loss for our department. He was a very majestic snake (just shy of 10 feet in length!). As a lot of you are, I am very sad that he has passed. I don’t like picking favorites, but I can relate to the guest: He was my favorite snake also. When we posted the announcement on social media that he had passed away, we were flooded with comments describing how loved he was by many! That was such an encouraging thing to see! Being a herpetology keeper, I have a deep love for snakes, and have loved them ever since I was very young. My first encounter with a rough green snake my dad caught for me was a memorable experience, and I have been hooked on these animals ever since.
I had the honor of being Kobe’s primary caretaker during the last year of his life. He came to the Zoo in 1993, but he was born much earlier. We are unsure of his exact birthday because he originally came from Zimbabwe, but one thing we are sure of is that did he live a full and long life.
Toward the end of his life, Kobe developed a small lump on his back. I would overhear guests supposing that it was just a bit of food he was still digesting. But in time, it grew larger and became apparent that it was not a food item. Our Veterinary Team took X-rays and worked hard on his diagnosis, but it was not clear what it was or what caused this to happen. Meanwhile, keep in mind that he could have been close to or even surpassing 30 years old! He was quite possibly the oldest black mamba at any zoo! On his final day, our Veterinary and Animal Care Teams made the difficult decision to euthanize him. After examining the growth in further detail, it was apparent to our veterinarians that the quality of his life was compromised and there was little chance of recovery.
Generally, when people observe our reptiles, they don’t equate intelligence to them as they are often sitting still. Reptiles are usually not thought to have the same cognitive abilities as mammals, or abilities that you would generally associate with training and learning behaviors (such as in primates). But many reptile species do have the capability to train and learn behaviors. Crocodilians and monitor lizards are well known for this throughout zoological collections, and the behaviors these animals learn are crucial aspects of their daily care routines. Snakes are often not viewed in the same light; however, that seems to be changing as there are now several training programs in zoos for large venomous snakes, especially mambas and cobras.
For elapid species (mambas, cobras, and their relatives) we work under “protected contact” (as we do with many of our other Zoo species). This means we work differently with these snakes than we do with others; for example our rattlesnakes, where we use tools such as snake hooks to help shift the animals when they need to be transferred from their areas for cleaning, health checks, etc. For Kobe the mamba, we would shift him in and out of a transfer box that is located on the outside of his habitat. Like I said earlier, he seemed to be a very smart snake. He often appeared to be thinking of ways to “outsmart” the keeper staff. It was a big deal when we would finally get him to shift. He was good at sneaking his food out of the box before we could secure him inside. He preferred chicken chicks, so that was the “go-to” snack when trying to get him to shift.
Kobe will be missed for years to come, by our Herpetology Team, others that knew him, and very much by me. R.I.P buddy.
Keeper I, Herpetology
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