A Keeper's Tale, Conclusion: Hope

Green Anaconda (Steven G. Johnson/Creative Commons)

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

Because of that newly found respect for the life of insects and rodents, I couldn´t help but feel uneasy while cleaning the rat cages.

It turned out that my friend who was scared of tarantulas was also not particularly fond of rats. I couldn´t help but laugh at this, but I agreed to be the “rat handler” (the one who would take the rats out of the cages and into boxes during the cleaning) in exchange for him dealing with the piles of rat excrement that were a lot less appealing to me.

We spent hours cleaning the rat cages and during all that time, I couldn´t help but to notice that the rats would stand up on their hind legs and look at me with great attention, following my every move. I wondered what was going through their minds. Where they expecting to be fed? Or maybe they realized we were new? Whatever was in their minds, I couldn´t help but think that they were rather cute. It was a shame that all of them would end up as snake food.

I wondered if the rats had any idea of what was going to happen to them. And then I realized that I was talking to them. Whenever I moved a female rat out of the cage, I would tell it that it was OK, that I wouldn´t harm its pups, and that they would be reunited as soon as I cleaned the cage. I would also announce that I had fresh, clean water for them. And then I would enjoy the sight of them happily drinking the clean water.

My friend, busy with the excrement and the huge garbage bin in the other side of the room, wasn´t paying attention -- but I realized that I was being nice to the rats, and then it struck me that when the time came to get them out of the cages and break their necks. . .  well, it would feel like treason. Maybe not for the rats, because they were killed very quickly and painlessly (or at least that’s what Salvador told us). But to me, it would be worse than beating them to death with the dustpan. I had cared for them and provided food and water for them, and even comforted them when they were scared. After all of that, killing them didn´t feel right at all. Yes, I knew and accepted the fact that in this world, some creatures have to eat others to survive. It is the way of nature. But at least in the wild the rat had a chance to escape. Here, they had no way of avoiding their grisly fate.

There was no point in lying to myself. I was not meant for this job.

Burmese Python (Hodari Nundu)

The moment came to tell Salvador the truth. I wasn´t willing to kill rats to feed the snakes. I knew that it had to be done- I just didn´t want to be the one to do it.

I must confess I felt kind of embarrassed. For an adventurous teenager like I was, it felt like being weak. I also expected him to be irritated; after all, if you go to a zoo asking to be a zookeeper, you’re supposed to be ready to kill a few feeder rats, right?

But he was actually quite nice about it. He told me that he understood, and he even allowed me to stay and become sort of a “presenter” for the reptile house.

From that moment on, my job consisted basically in carrying a huge Burmese python over my shoulders and talking to visitors about snakes, their importance, and how they weren´t slimy monsters created by the Devil to torment human kind. I must say I really enjoyed this job. It made me feel like I was actually doing something important.

Mexico is still the richest country in the world when it comes to reptiles. However, at the same time, it is a very bad place to live if you are one. People kill harmless snakes and lizards out of fear and ignorance. Attacks on humans by crocodiles (even attacks caused by the humans themselves) are often followed by petitions to have the ancient reptiles culled. Many reptiles are endangered, or have already gone extinct. Some people believe it is too late to save our wildlife. Cities are growing fast, jungles and forests are being devastated; the future looks grim for many creatures.

Then again, some people are too quick to give up.

I always felt this way whenever I saw children looking at the Burmese python in awe, touching its skin, wanting to learn everything there was to know about it. There was a lot of interest- especially from the younger visitors. Older people seemed less enthusiastic about changing their minds about the animals they had learned to fear and despise, but children were easily fascinated by the cold blooded creatures.

A ten year old boy surprised me one day with his near-encyclopedic knowledge on pythons. We spent over an hour talking about the biggest Reticulated Pythons ever found, and about the snakes’ amazing senses, hunting techniques and anatomical traits. I don´t think I ever had such a fluent conversation with an adult as I had that day with that kid. Nothing of what I told him was new to him. Likewise, nothing of what he said was new to me, but I think he actually liked that. He probably had never spoken to another person who enjoyed learning about snakes as much as he did.

Eventually, I had to take the python back to its enclosure when it became a little bit too interested in the boy’s face. His grandfather was terrified, but the kid was exultant. When I asked the old man how did the boy know so much about snakes, he said  “They’re his passion. He is always reading about them”.

Some time later, I was standing in front of the Green Anaconda’s enclosure. A little girl and her father were besides me. The girl read the information sign besides the snake’s terrarium, and asked her father:

“What does endangered mean?”

“It means that there are very few of them left” said the man.


“Well, because people have hunted them too much”.

The girl looked at her father, then at the thick, heavy, motionless green snake coiled in the corner of the terrarium. She looked at her father again.

“That’s terrible!” she said “We have to save them!”

I couldn´t help but to smile.

If little boys read tons about pythons, and little girls want to save the anaconda from extinction, then there must be hope for the rest of the creatures.

It is not too late at all.



  1. I probably should write a follow up about how yes, there is hope, as long as we learn to respect creatures for what they are and not what we want them to be. It makes me sad that so called shark conservationists are going the way of wolf conservationists, painting them as friendly animals- basically trying to trick the public into liking them.
    That shouldn´t be necessary. They are beautiful creatures, and their dangerousness is part of their beauty.
    Maybe we should go back to the way of our ancestors, and start looking at nature with awe and respect, instead of expectations.


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