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Missing Egyptian cobra didn't get far

After someone posing as the Bronx Zoo's runaway snake captivates tens of thousands of followers on Twitter with its tweets about slithering around New York, workers find the real thing hiding in the reptile house.

April 01, 2011|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — There had been bigger beasts loose in New York City.

Ming the tiger, for example, who lived undetected in a Harlem apartment until he bit his owner's leg in 2003 and was moved to a sanctuary. The coyote who led city officials on a 24-hour chase through lower Manhattan last spring before being caught and sent back to the wild. The baby alligator found huddled beneath a car in Queens in August.

But they didn't become Twitter stars with tens of thousands of followers, like those who catapulted a missing Egyptian cobra to fame before it was recaptured Thursday, six days after vanishing from its Bronx Zoo enclosure. A clearly relieved zoo director, Jim Breheny, said at a news conference that the snake was found about 9 a.m. curled up in a dark corner, still inside the reptile house.

"She's alive and well," said Breheny, standing in front of a large screen beaming a photograph of the venomous vagabond.

By Thursday, more than 200,000 people were following @BronxZoosCobra as a mysterious tweeter claiming to be the serpent slithered through New York's hot tourist spots, with coffee and meal breaks along the way.

"Don't even talk to me until I've had my morning coffee. Seriously, don't. I'm venomous," read one of the more than 60 tweets.

Workers noticed the snake was gone last Friday. Officials of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, sealed the reptile house and put out a statement aimed at quelling any public worry.

"Sweeping searches continue on a daily basis," it said, adding that wildlife officials were confident the snake had not escaped into the wild and was in no position to raise its hooded head and deliver deadly doses of venom.

But Breheny, noting the challenges of spotting a 20-inch, pencil-thin black snake that weighs less than 3 ounces, had also warned that it could be weeks before the serpent was found. In the end, it was the irresistible (to snakes at least) scent of rodents that captured the cobra.

Wood shavings commonly used by mice and rats were placed on the floor of the reptile house, and the snake was lured from hiding, said Breheny, adding that a naming contest might be held for the snake, whom zoo officials never formally named.

That appeared to be a sore point for the tweeting snake, who responded to emailed questions Thursday. "Funny how all the cute animals like pandas get names. It is clearly just another case of notcuteenoughism," it said. The snake also clarified its gender, writing: "I'm a girl cobra." And no doubt a young one. "If I could choose a name? Mrs. Justin Bieber."

For all the joking, Laura Maloney, chief of staff of the Humane Society of the United States, said the incident underscored the danger of people trying to keep such animals as pets.

"If the Bronx Zoo, which has a history of training and resources in handling venomous animals, can have such an incident, you can only imagine what is possible in the home," Maloney said.

According to Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group, 20 states ban keeping wild animals and venomous reptiles as pets. They include New York, which passed its law after the tiger incident.

The cobra incident should serve as a wake-up call to the Bronx Zoo, which should have strict protocols to prevent such incidents, Maloney said. These would include keeping venomous snakes in a so-called hot room with tight security.

Breheny said there would be an investigation into what had enabled the snake to flee, one of the mysteries — along with the tweeter's true identity — surrounding a story that so captured the city that some local news stations broadcast Breheny's news conference live.

A Facebook page, Bronx Zoo's Cobra to Host SNL, had more than 6,400 fans by Thursday evening. The snake was cited in tweets by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and comedian Steve Martin, among others. Not even the closure of the zoo's reptile house kept people away. A slip of paper stuck on the door of the exhibition space and noting its closure became an attraction, with visitors posing for pictures next to the small sign.

A young woman passing by earlier in the week speculated that the zoo would never find the snake. "They'll just get another one and say they found it," she said, only half-jokingly.

There was no immediate final comment from @BronxZoosCobra. But a recent tweet indicated the snake had enjoyed its last day of freedom like thousands of New Yorkers — attending the Yankees' opening game: "If you see a bag of peanuts inexplicably moving along the ground at Yankee Stadium today. Just ignore it. It's probably nothing."

tina.susman@latimes.com

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