Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Snake in the Lake

Above is an aerial view of Lake Hopatcong in northern New Jersey.   It features 45 miles of shoreline, tourist hotels and rentals, multiple marinas and a nice small-town resort atmosphere.

This is high season around the lake.  Visitors have been coming to the area for at least 100 summers now. They swim, fish, kayak and sail, and also enjoy daily temperatures from the low 60s to the mid 80s, more pleasant than in most of the region.

Unfortunately, the typical halcyon atmosphere has been ruffled this year by reports that an anaconda snake has moved into the neighborhood.

It was sighted not long ago by a man whose house is near the lake.  He called the police after spotting a large green snake several times near his house.  Authorities pooh-poohed his concerns at first but then admitted they had found evidence that a big snake had spent some time in a sewer pipe near the man's property.

By then the snake had moved on, probably into the lake itself.  Anacondas are said to be clumsy on the ground but agile in water, able to move at speeds as fast as 25 miles an hour.  They typically swim only with eyes and mouth above water.  That and their dark green color make them difficult to spot.

In fact, anacondas have no business being in New Jersey.  They are South American natives, a boa species with big teeth but whose bite is not poisonous.  They grow to be the largest snakes in the world (by width if not absolute length) and kill their prey as other boas constrictors do, by circling and crushing the bones and life out of small to good-sized animals and then eating them.  Anacondas can grow to lengths of 30 feet or more.

Anaconda ownership is banned in New Jersey by a law most residents only recently knew existed. (Apparently the snake was unaware of this as well.)   Speculation is that the initial owner of the anaconda tired of it or grew frightened of it and dumped it in the Hopatcong neighborhood.  At this point, no one expects the owner to step forward and take responsibility.

It took a while for authorities to be convinced that the snake was actually an anaconda and not a more benign boa, but a local snake expert investigated, saw the snake twice and declared that, yes, it is undoubtedly an anaconda.

Now there are police, naturalists and television crews trolling Lake Hopatcong, looking for the anaconda.  This sounds like a real needle-in-a-haystack effort.

For tourists just seeking a pleasant boat ride or dip in cool water, knowledge of the snake no doubt is interrupting the quiet enjoyment of a summer retreat.

The local constabulary wants everyone to calm down.  They say the snake is not interested in eating people (although it would be best to keep an eye on small children.)  If people leave the snake alone, they say, the snake will not bother them.  (One anaconda report I read yesterday said anacondas are known to be "moody.") In addition, they say, reports of the snake's length are vastly overstated:  This is a smallish anaconda, only 12 to 15 feet long.


Note:  If you think the above is reminiscent of a movie, you're right.  Anaconda was released in 1997.  Its plot:  A documentary film crew in the Amazon is taken captive by an obsessed man (Jon Voight) on an Ahab-like quest to find and destroy the world's biggest, most frightening snake.  Most people hate-hate-hated it, but the late film critic Roger Ebert saw it as a highly entertaining revival of the B-movie action films of the 1950s and gave it 3.5 stars out of four.

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