Heathwood snake slithers to stardom

dprice@thestate.comMay 24, 2012 

From the second it was caught on camera, a large snake spotted slithering up a tree in Heathwood has been climbing for notoriety.

Heathwood resident Andrew Philson snapped photos of what to him appeared to be a 15-foot python hanging in a tree behind his Devereaux Road home Monday. Officials with the state Department of Natural Resources say the critter is not the monster it appears to be in photos and is really a 6-foot-long black rat snake.

Regardless of the serpent’s size, the snake has been a hot topic in Columbia the past few days.

“People will get in a frenzy and it will blow over in a few days,” DNR herpetologist Steve Bennett said.

Philson was home for the day, taking care of his sick 3-year-old son when a neighbor told Philson there was a snake in his back yard. He went out back expecting to find a small serpent and was surprised by the thing making its way up the tree.

It was bigger than the snake he was expecting, he said, and he wasn’t about try to remove it himself. He called several agencies before finding a private pest-removal service that would take the animal. By the time the critter-catcher arrived, Philson said the snake had disappeared.

Philson’s photos of the serpent online have since gone viral — published on several local news sites around the country and featured on a CNN iReport on Tuesday.

But Bennett said the critter isn’t all it appears to be.

It looks bigger than it appears in the photo because of an optical illusion called forced perspective, where the narrow tree makes the big rat snake look like a massive constrictor. Rat snakes are “the mockingbirds of the reptilian world,” he said, and shouldn’t be a source for fear. He said that large snake sightings are easily blown out of proportion because the species carries so much baggage.

“Everybody has a snake story and opinion,” he said. “Whether people love them or fear them, they are fascinated (by snakes).”

Philson disagrees with Bennett. He is going to keep a closer watch on his yard until the thing is caught and says the snake’s size wasn’t an illusion.

“It’s not a huge tree, but it’s a huge snake,” he said. “I’m not exaggerating.”

Still, the snake has Heathwood residents like Tara Felder a little uneasy. Felder lives on the same street where the snake was spotted. She’s skeptical of its size and doesn’t think it poses a threat to her or her pets. Still, she’s keeping an eye out.

“I’m not a super-huge fan of snakes or reptiles, and I’m not wild about the fact that it could show up in my yard,” she said. “But I’m not worried it will hurt me or eat my dog or cat.”

The snake has been the talk of the neighborhood since it started appearing on TV Tuesday night, Felder said, and people are split over the snake’s danger. The Columbia Animal Shelter on Shop Road has received several calls asking if the snake has been captured, said shelter manager Melissa Light. The shelter has also received calls from people saying that the snake wasn’t a rat snake.

“I think they’re just scared to death to go out into their yards,” Light said.

Animal control hasn’t been dispatched to find the snake, and Bennett said the chances of it ever being found are slim.

But that hasn’t stopped the critter from using the social network Twitter.

An account claiming to be the snake, @SlitherSnake, was created Tuesday night and by Wednesday evening had already gained nearly 92 followers. A second Twitter account for the snake, @MidlandsMamba, was created Wednesday afternoon.

Felder said it was nice to see people having fun with the snake sighting.

“I would like to know where a snake puts a smartphone,” she said.

In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, @SlithersSnake said it wasn’t letting the extra attention go to its head. “Fame won’t change me, I’m still a #slithasupastar,” it said.

Tweets from the slithering snake

Reach Price at (803) 771-8376.

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