Christopher Andrews opened the California Academy of Sciences exhibit “Snakes & Lizards: The Summer of Slither” with the remark: “I’d like everyone to know that snakes are not slimy, dangerous or evil.”
Coming from the director of Steinhart Aquarium, a lifelong snake aficionado, it wasn’t surprising. Andrews, after all, shares his office with Balthazar, a 7-foot red-tail boa.
Balthazar is often paraded out where petting by visitors is encouraged, as long as they don’t go near the head. No venom is involved — but a bite is still a bite. Trying the midsection, I found neither slime nor evil.
Is it dangerous? Maybe Balthazar isn’t, but many snakes out there are — via their venom or the power to choke their victims.
Familiar with ophidiophobia, Andrews realizes that a fear of snakes can be among the most debilitating. But based on a lifetime of studying snakes, he is convinced that one person’s severe phobia can be cured, or ameliorated, even simply by knowing that Balthazar, who lives happily on a couple of dead rats every other week, has no use for him as meal or something to conquer.
While the exhibit shows deadly vipers and pythons that can swallow large animals, according to Andrews, they are of the type that have few encounters with humans. Nonpoisonous snakes, on the other hand, are helpful in getting rid of rats, bugs and other unpleasantness around the house.
The exhibit features three of the largest snakes: an anaconda, a reticulated and a Burmese python — plus Lemondrop, the 15-foot-long albino python, who has an attractive lemon-yellow head.
The exhibit includes both legged and legless lizards — including snakes and some 60 scaled reptiles — that entertain visitors with their projectile tongues, remarkable camouflage, surprising modes of locomotion and squamate (meaning covered with plates) adaptations.
“They have survived for over 200 million years, diversifying to occupy important biological niches on every continent,” Andrews says of his charges. “Along the way, they have evolved a number of remarkable survival strategies and have become crucial cogs in the wheels of their ecosystems.”
With nearly 8,000 known species in their ranks, the squamates are more diverse than mammals. They share scales and a specialized hinge in their jaws which allows for great manipulation of prey and gives them a fast, powerful bite. In the case of pythons, it gives them the ability to swallow a pig whole.
The show also features a gila monster, one of the world’s only venomous lizards. It delivers a toxin that causes excruciating pain and dizziness in humans — but, as Andrews points out, also is used to improve human lives. A peptide in the venom is used to treat type-2 diabetes and has shown great potential as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
IF YOU GO
Where: California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 5
Tickets: $24.95 to $29.95
Contact: (415) 379-8000, www.calacademy.org