Snakes slither back into Ireland

Saturday, March 16, 2002

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Legend has it that St. Patrick scared the snakes out of Ireland. Maybe, but these days they're catching on as pets -- and turning up in unexpected places.

"We're finding them in attics, in people's cupboards, under the sink in the bathroom," said Gillian Bird, education officer of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "One family was watching TV when a snake crawled out from underneath. TVs are such warm places."

Increasingly, Bird's office is being contacted about snake sightings. One lady was spotted last week dropping her out-of-favor serpent from a car parked outside Dublin Zoo. But sometimes people's imaginations are getting the better of them.

"When we go out on a call we're wondering, 'Is this going to be a garden hose again?"' Bird said.

The half-dozen reptiles in her center's 2-year-old "snake house" are real enough: corn snakes, bull snakes and a red-tailed boa, none native to this damp and cool land, all abandoned or on the run from their owners.

Bird admits they're no experts in caring for them but they've had to learn, because snakes are becoming popular pets.

"We tell people a snake's for life, not just for Paddy's Day, but not everybody listens," she said.

Murky history

The Irish snake trade has its own murky history. Monica Roden, whose Dublin Pet Stores is the oldest shop in Ireland, doesn't sell anything slithery these days. But her father did back in the 1930s.

"We had grass snakes here, shipped over from England. I was just a wee girl but I remember my father going down to the docks to collect the wriggly boxes," said Roden, 69, whose family business dates from 1845.

"There were no rules in my father's time and pet shops sold everything from geese to monkeys."

Today, the best place to go for a good snake in Dublin is Thomas McElheron's shop on Wellington Quay, where St. Patrick's celebrations were starting Friday night with floating bonfires on the River Liffey.

McElheron each year breeds a few hundred snakes -- corn snakes from the Carolinas in the United States, dwarf pythons from Africa and Australia, milk snakes and rosy boas from South America and Mexico -- but he won't sell one to just anybody.

"This is a 15-year commitment. I vet everyone who says they want a snake, to see if they're on an ego trip or have really researched it," said McElheron, who turned to reptiles as a boy when the family dog made his allergic brother wheezy.

Reptile experts doubt that any snakes were native on the island back in the fifth century when Patrick was spreading Christianity and, supposedly, scaring off any serpents that got in his way.

Most abandoned snakes turn up dead, unable to keep their cold blood going through the night.

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