Robot Reptiles

(This column was first published in the February 19, 2001 Buffalo News.)


    Early one morning last week I visited the Robot Reptiles exhibit at the Buffalo Museum of Science. The exhibit was not yet open and the big room was only dimly lighted but Carl Trost had turned on the controls to activate the robots so I could see them in action.


    As must be the case for every visitor to this interesting exposition, I was drawn to the giant rattlesnake. I stood for several minutes staring at it, so close to it that its triangular head, larger than my own, was only a few feet away. I could almost touch its flicking tongue.


    Like its real counterpart, the monster moved only slightly, just enough to make it almost too lifelike for me. I am beset with a primal biblical fear of snakes yet I am both attracted to and hypnotized by them. I felt that I had to break away from the staring eyes of this one before it took control of my mind.


    But just when I turned my back on the big snake to look at another exhibit its rattle buzzed. I must have jumped a foot. For minutes afterward I felt a tingling sensation in my scalp and I wondered if my hair stood on end. Of course this was followed by extreme embarrassment. How could I be so frightened by this mechanical toy? As I ran my hand tentatively over my scalp, I looked around, fortunately finding myself still alone.


    I write now to recommend this remarkable exhibit to you because at 3:00 p.m. this Sunday, February 25th, Harry Greene will lecture at the museum. His topic, “Pit Vipers: Creatures of Mystery,” will fit perfectly with this show.


    Dr. Greene spent much of his career on the West Coast. There he was Professor of Integrative Biology at UCal Berkeley. In 1999, however, he moved to Cornell where he is now Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Curator of Vertebrates.


    As a youngster I read avidly Raymond Ditmars’ accounts of his experiences with snakes in books like Strange Animals I Have Known,first as a teenaged hobbyist and later as Reptile Curator for the New York Zoological Park, better known as the Bronx Zoo. I could not imagine any reptile book competing with Ditmars’, but Greene’s recently published Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Naturedoes so very well. It is remarkable for several reasons, not least the spectacular color photographs by Michael and Patricia Fogden. But Greene is a good writer too and his accounts make excellent reading. One of his stories I found especially charming -- and reinforcing. He tells of his big Alaskan Malamute defending him against a huge Doberman, but then, “when we encountered a hatchling Gopher Snake on the same path a few days later,…this 35-kg carnivore would not approach this 20-g reptile, so small she could have crushed it with a snap, its teeth so puny they could not even have pierced the delicate skin of her nose.” (That’s my kind of dog.)


    So I highly recommend Dr. Greene’s lecture to you. But be sure to go early to visit the Robot (and real) Reptiles while you are there.


    There are two fine local organizations devoted to reptile pets: Marion Janusz’s Reptile Adoption, Rehabilitation and Education program (contact her at 895-0285) and the Western New York Herpetological Society (contact Connie Maue at 627-9366). The society also exhibits reptiles at the museum on Sundays and sponsors a “Kids Club.” I will write about Mrs. Janusz’s reptile collection and her rehabilitation of these lizards, snakes and turtles in a later column.-- Gerry Rising