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Otto: Road trips with roaches and a great, big snake

Eight-foot Boa constrictor “Bo” had a brief stay at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center before moving on to a new life through the Friends of Scales Reptile Rescue.
Eight-foot Boa constrictor “Bo” had a brief stay at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center before moving on to a new life through the Friends of Scales Reptile Rescue.

Regular readers of this space may recall the time, 21/2 years ago, that I arranged to trade a few reptiles from my personal collection for assorted critters that would become display animals at the then yet-to-open Hickory Knolls Discovery Center.

Using travel carriers and assorted plastic crates, I loaded up the truck and drove to, not Beverly, but the hills outside of Galena.

There, in a Walmart parking lot, I met up with representatives from the Northeast Iowa Reptile Rescue. We transacted our business and, in a matter of moments, the rescue people were headed back to Iowa with two tortoises and a lizard, and I was motoring back to St. Charles with a handsome and only slightly bitey black ratsnake, and two tarantulas to boot.

There’s something oddly soothing about riding along with nonhuman – and specifically, nonmammalian – companions. Unlike a dog, reptiles and arachnids don’t pant on you, drool or ride with their heads out the window. And unlike a cat, they don’t mew or yowl incessantly. In fact, they typically don’t do much at all, especially if they’re securely enclosed and kept at a comfortable temperature.

We reached our destination, the Pottawatomie Community Center without incident. The ratsnake, now named Randy, and the tarantulas, known as T1 and T2, have been hardworking members of our education animal team ever since.

At the time of The Great Reptile Ride, I thought that it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience. I should have known better.

This past week the opportunity presented itself again. In this case, just like the last, the animal was beautiful; her back was covered with a stunning pattern of dark bands, and her smooth scales reflected light like iridescent gems. But unlike last time, where my longest passenger measured only about five feet in length, this new girl was big. Eight feet, I would guess, with a girth similar to that of a two-pound meatloaf.

Boa constrictor ssp., or Bo as I came to call her, had come to Hickory Knolls through an odd set of circumstances that probably will never be repeated. An escaped pet, she’d done time in a cat carrier (minus the cat, I hope), as well as a large plastic tote with holes punched in the sides, before arriving, literally, on our doorstep.

Now, before we go any further into this week’s story, I need to stress that Hickory Knolls is not an animal rescue or rehabilitation facility. It’s true that all the animals we have on display were acquired from previous owners, but we have neither the staff, space nor skill level required to take in every homeless animal that presents itself. We can sometimes provide advice about placement, but only as time permits. And we’re really not equipped to handle exotics of any sort.

OK, with that said, let’s get back to Bo. I’ve seen boa constrictors on display at zoos, and seen baby boas for sale in pet stores. But until last week, I’d never tried to interact with one, up close and personal. As a result, I’d also never been hissed at or lunged at, nor had I ever gotten a really good look at a boa’s amazing array of teeth. Bo, bless her heart, obliged on all counts.

Her hisses, which she’d uncork as a warning whenever we moved her crate, were unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Billy, our bullsnake, can snort pretty good, especially when he’s getting ready to shed. But Bo’s hisses would last a minute at a time, clearly indicating that she wanted to be left alone. (Hmm, Bo? Or GarBo?)

Her teeth were impressive, too, with two rows on top and a single row on the bottom. They weren’t huge, but they were long enough to be easily seen. They curved backward, and looked like they would definitely leave a mark. I vowed to not find out whether observation could prove true.

With the issue of escaped exotics being a very real concern, even here in Illinois, Bo showed some potential to be used for community education. But after several attempts at handling that involved three staff members plus myself; a big stick; a sandbox lid that doubled as a shield; and a sledgehammer, just in case ... I knew that I’d soon be making another Reptile Ride. The only question was, where?

Luckily, we have some pretty solid connections in the herpetological world, and it wasn’t long before I made contact with the Friends of Scales Reptile Rescue, a northern Illinois-based group with “a strong drive for education and prevention of abuse and neglect,” as it says on its website. And if it says so on the Internet, it’s got to be true, right?

Indeed, it was. FoS is an all-volunteer group dedicated to making life better for sick, injured or unwanted scaly and/or spineless pets. (FoS also rescues invertebrates like tarantulas and scorpions.) Erica, or Air, Mede is the president and founder, and when I emailed her about Bo her immediate response was, “We can help.”

The only trick was going to be getting Bo to Wheeling, where she then would be placed in foster care. I knew I was up for a ride, but was she?

She’d cleared her digestive tract earlier in the day, which meant we’d be unlikely to have issues with car sickness. I peeked inside her crate, and she raised her head and flicked her tongue at me. No hiss! That was a good sign, too. I thought briefly about removing her water dish, so as to prevent spills along the way, but Bo coiled herself around it so tightly, I decided to leave it alone.

I hooked some bungee cords into place, to make sure Bo stayed secure during the trip, and off we went. During our hourlong journey, I once again took note of the soothing silence that accompanies a ride with an unruffled reptile. No excited barks or yips, no scratching or chewing. And we didn’t have to make a “comfort stop” either.

Upon arrival at our destination, Erica welcomed us and gave me some paperwork to fill out. She identified Bo as a Peruvian subspecies and commented more than once on the snake’s gorgeous coloration. She then explained how Bo would be given a health exam and treated prophylactically for mites, then put up for adoption.

As we chatted, I couldn’t help but see and hear a large plastic tote on the floor in Erica’s living room. The rustling sounds emitting from it did not seem to be vertebrate in origin, and my pulse quickened in excitement as I thought of the possibilities.

Hoping against hope, I asked, “cockroaches?” Happily, Erica answered yes. Long story short, Blaptica dubia, or Dubia roaches, are a nutritious food source that is appropriate for many of the education animals we keep at Hickory Knolls. (Contrary to popular belief, only about 1 percent of the world’s cockroach species are considered pests. The rest, including Dubias, are helpful in surprising ways. More on this at a later date.)

Dear, sweet, generous Erica gave me a large “starter colony” of somewhere between 75 and 100 roaches, a gift that, because of the roa ches’ rapid reproductive rate, will just keep on giving. Even better, it will save us a considerable amount of money since we won’t have to buy as many crickets for our lizard, salamanders, tarantulas, etc.

With Bo safe and sound, and a new connection to reptile rescuers made, it was time to head back to St. Charles. I put the Tupperware container of roaches next to me on the front seat, and hit the road.

About 20 seconds into the trip, I became aware of a sound – a subtle crunching and crackling that was intriguing, but also vaguely unsettling. It was the roaches, scuttling about their temporary home and scritch-scratching its interior with their teensy, roachy claws.

Notes to self: On Reptile Rides, expect peace and serenity, and anticipate time for quiet reflection. On Roach Rides, hit the gas, cover the container with a blanket, and turn the radio up – waaaay up.

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or

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