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Scary Things
by Ron Glazier, Retired Director of the Zoo

Next month, the Santa Ana Zoo will be filled with scary things showing up for Boo-at-the-Zoo. To be honest though, many will be cute and enjoying a merry Halloween. Boo is possibly the best family event in the County for a safe and fun-filled Halloween. The animals at the Zoo are not scary, with two possible exceptions: the tarantula and the boa constrictor, which can be seen in the Exploration Outpost, are in a general group of animals that many find scary.

The fear of spiders and snakes is not totally irrational as many of their species are venomous or certainly can inflict painful bites. I said venomous to distinguish them from poisonous. Venomous animals inject venom through a bite (spiders and snakes) or sting (scorpions, bees, and wasps) as opposed to animals that have some type of poison in their skin or glands. An example of a poisonous animal can also be seen in the Exploration Outpost, the poison dart frog.

These frogs have a poison in their skin that can cause severe distress and even death if they were to be eaten by another animal. Although this poison would not save that individual frog, the population of potential predators learns not to eat them. These frogs are usually brilliantly colored as a warning sign. Some animals that are not poisonous have become mimics in coloration or appearance of a poisonous species to fool predators. In the case of the poison dart frog, the poison is in the skin. Native tribes in South America extract the poison from the skin of these frogs to use on the tip of blowgun darts used in hunting small animals.

Generally, spider venom is not harmful to humans and most snakes are not venomous but they can inflict a painful bite, so keep your distance. These animals are usually not aggressive and prefer to be left alone. I had a personal interaction with a tarantula that illustrates this point. My wife and I were in New Mexico and were cruising slowly along a back road one evening just to see what wildlife we might come across. We drove by a large tarantula in the middle of the road. Fearing I might have run over it, I got out of the car to see if I had-yes, I know many of you think that is weird. I had not, but it was in a defensive posture with its two front legs raised and chelicerae (spider "fangs") out. I decided to get it to move off the road-yes, I know that may seem weird, too. I got out a credit card to scoot it along but it struck the card with its chelicerae, it was scared. I then placed the card on its backside and tapped it. In a flash, the tarantula sought a safe haven and before I could move, it climbed onto my shoe and disappeared up my pant leg. I could feel it crawl up my leg to my knee. At that point, it could go no farther (thank goodness). I shuffled to the road edge and seeing no other cars around dropped my pants down to my knees whereby I could nudge the tarantula off my leg onto the grassy roadside. It scampered away and neither of us were the worse for wear.

All spiders are venomous to a degree but the venom is normally specific to their prey. However, in Orange County black widows, brown recluse, and tarantulas can inflict bites that may affect people to various degrees depending on age, health, and allergic reactions. Rattlesnakes are serious venomous reptiles and always should be avoided. Interestingly, the common gopher snake or bull snake can do an impressive mimic of a rattlesnake by flaring their jaws to look like the triangular-shaped rattlesnake head, vibrate their tail, and strike a coiled-up pose. They are capable of a bite so are best left alone.

Despite being "scary" these venomous and poisonous animals serve a purpose in the grand scheme of things in nature. They do help control the number of insects and rodents in nature which, left uncontrolled, would have serious consequences to us all. Pesticides and poisons do control insects and rodents but present another set of serious issues to be considered.

In the end, Nature Works, and we must learn how to live with it and not try to control it!

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