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Reptiles fight elements to survive in Oklahoma



Reptiles have been hitting the headlines in Oklahoma, mostly for hard times that have befallen them.

"Merlin" and "Albert" are rock stars " one is even a movie star " when it comes to snakes and alligators in Oklahoma.

The snake-napped albino python and orphaned 12-foot, 800-pound American alligator made headlines. 


Merlin was taken, not once, but twice from the Little River Zoo in Norman within a 10-day period in September 2008. There was some concern about whether the 12-foot Merlin could make it if he was released outdoors after he was taken. Chances are " he couldn't.

Albert is a 43-year-old alligator that came to live in a tiny southeastern Oklahoma town from Hollywood, Calif., about eight years ago. 

The movie-star alligator, which appeared in the 1996 film "Eraser" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, lived in a farm pond as the pet of his owner, Richard Beamon. That is, until the 69-year-old Beamon died from a chain saw accident in late January.

The 12-foot alligator, unusual for its size in Oklahoma, was rescued by caretakers from the G.W. Exotic Animal Park and moved from his pond to the animal park in Wynnewood.

Albert had not only been surviving, he apparently had been thriving outdoors thanks to his owner. In his new home now, Albert could live another 50 years.

Some exotic animals can survive an Oklahoma winter, but most cannot.

A study released in February 2008 by the U.S. Geological Survey focused on the "potential non-native python habitat," in the U.S. and indicated pythons could exist in the wild in up to 32 states in the continental U.S " stretching north to Washington, D.C., and west to the Pacific.

A map showing the climate of the Burmese pythons was published with the study to compare the U.S. climate to that of Pakistan and Indonesia where the snakes exist naturally.

But, the potential for pythons slithering " and thriving " in Oklahoma is more than just latitude and longitude.

"The north part of Florida is about as far as it realistically can get," said Brian Aucone, the Oklahoma City Zoo's animal management director and a herpetology expert.

Even far south Texas is too dry for pythons, he said. 

In Florida, pet pythons released into the wild are creating havoc with the native species, including alligators in the Everglades National Park. The price tag for invasions of exotic species costs the state more than $500 million per year, according to the National Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Florida's python problem, however, may be limited to the Sunshine State.

Other studies since that original USGS study went into much greater depth. The USGS study only factored mean rainfall and temperatures.

An August 2008 study from City University of New York computed the extreme temperatures in 32 states and found the invasion of the pythons for the rest of America just won't happen.

"It just gets too cold," Aucone said.

And there are other problems.

"When you are a tropical snake, you are not designed to hibernate," he said.

Merlin was returned unharmed after his second snake-napping to the Little River Zoo, packed tightly in a burlap sack. Zoo officials expressed gratitude at that time that he made it back to the zoo because with winter coming, the popular albino snake likely would have frozen.

The American alligator is native to far southeastern Oklahoma, and small alligators are not uncommon to find in farm ponds. But they generally don't grow as large as Albert.

"Because of our short season, the growth rate is much slower," Aucone said.

He said Albert had much more opportunity for growth because he was apparently fed well by his owner.

It took 12 people 12 hours to move him to G.W. Exotic Animal Park along with four snakes found at Beamon's house " a 9-foot python, 7-foot boa constrictor, 2-foot king snake and a poisonous 2-foot copperhead.

Family members told park officials that Beamon was close to Albert and that the alligator responded to certain commands.

"Gators are very intelligent animals," Aucone said. "They are very easy to train."

He said alligators at the Oklahoma City Zoo are trained to go inside on command and can be called back out.

"But we discourage people to have them as pets," he said. "They may be trained, but they are still wild. We keep our distance."

Joe Schreibvogel, park director of the G.W. Exotic Animal Park, said he often gets calls about alligators and snakes.

"We get (pythons) dumped off every other day," he said. They get about three calls a year about alligators.

The Wynnewood park is a nonprofit organization with a mission of rescuing every animal it can. Schreibvogel said he sent six people to pick up Albert, which he expected to be about 5- or 6-feet long.

"I wasn't expecting to find a dinosaur," he said. It was the biggest alligator he said he'd seen in his 23 years in the animal park business.

The effort continued as the sun went down, and it started getting cold. Albert didn't put up any fight when they removed him from a pond, after partially draining it with a backhoe borrowed from a nearby oil rig site.

"He was so cold, he didn't care at all," Schreibvogel said of the rescue.

Reportedly, Albert was found nearby Beamon's body, which the alligator hadn't touched. Schreibvogel said alligators normally won't hunt a human, and most aren't big enough to go after "a small cow or deer or somebody's dog."

Albert is now at home in the park's new alligator enclosure.  Schreibvogel said Albert's movie days are over, because he is just too large to move around, even if the occasion presented itself.

"He's going to live in peace here," Schreibvogel said.

Mark Howery, a biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said pythons, boa constrictors and alligators are not generally a threat to the public.

To have an alligator, a permit is needed, and few people can qualify. Beamon did not have a permit.

"I would say most people don't have any business with an alligator," Howery said, noting there are relatively few incidents with snakes or alligators in Oklahoma, and people shouldn't worry about encounters with them. But that doesn't mean they should have them as pets.

Agreed Aucone, "As tame as they might be, they are not tame. They are just trained."

There are 46 species of snakes native to Oklahoma. Of those, seven are poisonous.

Those include five kinds of rattlesnakes: western pygmy, western massasauga, large western diamondback, timber rattlesnake and prairie rattlesnake.

The last two poisonous snakes are the copperhead and the western cottonmouth. The copperhead is found in sandy, forest-type areas; cottonmouths are a water snake. "Carol Cole-Frowe

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