By Allen Dale Olson
Serving a birthday cake embossed with chocolate rattlesnakes and surrounded by dozens of real rattlesnakes may not agree with most people’s idea of a perfect birthday party, but the seven-year-old honoree was delighted. His family had set up the party in the center of one of the exhibit areas in the American Rattlesnake Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of live rattlesnakes, in the Old Town quarter of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“We don’t feed the snakes during the day because that would gross you out,” Museum Director
Bob Myers told the party, “and it would also gross out the snakes.” Myers explained that snakes don’t like to be seen while eating because they are “defenseless with food in their mouths.”
I clutched my “Certificate of Bravery” tightly and strained to hear what else Myers was telling the group. The Certificate doubles as an admission ticket and credits me for “entering the fascinating realm of the rattlesnake.”
“People are not automatically afraid of snakes,” Myers told the birthday boy. “We see young people like you all the time who are not afraid to handle snakes and who really want to learn more about them. People learn to fear snakes from other people.”
Behind me was a VCR playing a film of an Anaconda attacking a wild pig; in front of me was a case of crocodile skeletons. On all sides were glass cases containing many varieties of rattlesnakes, such as Mottled, Banded, and Canebreak. One case held a Gila Monster, another a Broad-banded Copperhead.
“Each case maintains an environment friendly to the snake,” Myers explained. He said the museum is a conservation center dedicated to showing how rattlesnakes and other “less desirable” animals influence our lives. “We explore and explode myths, even cure some phobias,” he told me. One large case traces the history of Zuni Pueblo fetishes relating snakes to the human cycle of life, death, and rebirth. “During the week we host a lot of school classes,” Myers said, “and on weekends we allow private parties to use one of our exhibit rooms.”
That’s how I happened on the birthday party. I was a visitor. The museum consists of only three small rooms, so giving up space is quite a sacrifice, “though it helps with our income,” Myers said.
Most snake cases have “sponsors.” For $52 a month, a person, organization, school class, or civic group can have its name engraved on a brass plaque and provide funds to feed the animals and maintain their environment. “Admissions alone couldn’t keep us going,” Myers told me.
Recognition of Myers’ work with the museum is widespread, and since its opening in 1990, the museum has been written about or reported on in a great many journals, many of them wildlife and nature themed. “Our biggest need is space,” Myers said. “My home is so full of snakes hardly anyone ever visits me. I have several storage areas full of snakes. If only some wealthy snake-loving benefactor…” His voice trailed off.
The American Rattlesnake Museum is on the edge of a very touristy destination, but it is a serious educational center as well as a travel destination. It’s easy to walk past or to dismiss as just another curio stop. But a visit of 45 minutes to an hour can prove unforgettable to an entire family. The museum is open every day, except on major holidays, for special lecture programs, and during rescue missions. The gift shop includes books, videos, and brochures about snakes and nature conservancy.
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