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Eating up reptile culture

The who, what, and where of keeping reptiles with an animal lover

Daniel Hoops, animal enthusiast and friend, sits with one leg crossed over the other, telling me about the snakes he keeps under his bed. More precisely, he keeps them in large Tupperware, like the ones your mother uses to store old sweaters. He is wearing a baggy T-shirt that says, “nature can’t be re-stocked,” and his red corn snake, Claudius, slides between and around his hands.

“I’ve always had snakes, turtles, frogs, and lizards,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s just part of who I am.”

I think I knew Hoops’s voice, and the shape of the back of his head, before I ever met him. His was the hand that was always stretched up from within the sea of heads in our 700-person first-year biology classes. A lot of the time, I had no idea what he was asking – that would have required keeping up with the readings.

I distinctly remember a moment in second year, when a professor gave us a lecture about invasive species and included the classic example of the brown tree snake that invaded the island of Guam. Our professor diligently reported to us that the snake had likely arrived as a stowaway on a cargo ship coming from the South Pacific. Once it had colonized the island, it nearly obliterated all bird life and caused the extinction of at least three bird species. The next class, our professor showed us a picture of a smiling student holding a brown tree snake.Apparently, this student felt that the snake had been unduly vilified; that student was Hoops. That year, I sat down beside him in one of my classes; it became something of a habit in classes to come.

When I travelled with him to East Africa last year as part of the Canadian Field Studies in Africa program, our whole group would report reptile sightings to him, and he diligently told us their scientific names – you see, Hoops had always spotted the same reptiles, only a few hours earlier than the rest of us. Children from areas nearby would hear of Hoops’s interest and bring him turtles to identify. He also compiled the longest bird identification list of any of us – it had over 400 species.

There is something a little bit mesmerising about the amount of knowledge Hoops possesses about the creatures of our world. He has worked on breeding birds in New Zealand, on sea turtle tagging in Australia, and on chimpanzee and monkey rehabilitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other projects. He also likes to care for reptiles, and has kept over 100 in his lifetime.

“Most people react surprisingly well,” he says, referring to his under-the-bed pets. I wasn’t especially surprised when he told me about his slithering friends, and his roommates don’t seem to mind either.

He keeps three snakes – two corn snakes and one bull snake – and has four mud turtles that live in an aquarium. Hoops explains that it’s not that he prefers reptiles over other animals; it’s simply that reptiles are much easier to care for.

“A plant is more work than a snake,” he says. “They [snakes] actually prefer to be left alone.”

Hoops feeds each snake one thawed, pre-killed mouse every two weeks. He also has a space heater to keep the temperature slightly warmer in his room, and he places an electric heating pad under each of the containers so that the snakes can warm up if they need to. A snake’s body temperature varies with that of its environment, so if Hoops didn’t heat his apartment, the snakes would probably freeze. For this reason, Hoops notes that snakes are commonly and erroneously known as cold-blooded animals.

“Cold-blooded isn’t really the right word, because reptiles actually often have warmer blood than humans. The proper term is actually ectotherm,” he says.

While Hoops doesn’t recommend keeping animals you don’t like, he says that compared to other animals, keeping reptiles is pretty easy and inexpensive for university students. He cautions however, that students should be careful which snakes they buy.

“All the time, I see animals that are endangered [in pet stores] and it’s very destructive,” he says. “I’m very careful to buy animals that are common in the wild and are bred in captivity.”

He asks me if I want to hold Claudius. I think about myself, the snake, and a cool Facebook photo, but decide that I just really don’t especially like snakes.

“Maybe another time,” I say. Maybe, but probably not.