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Everything to know about venomous snakes in Memphis from ‘The Reptile Guy’



The onset of summer means more time spent outside, on hikes and swimming in lakes. With the warmer temperatures and rise in outdoor activities, The Memphis Zoo Herpetarium can help you be more aware of the slithering creatures that will sometimes be your company in the lakes and forests.

The Herpetarium contains a menagerie of amphibian friends and a collection of enthusiastic zookeepers.

On my recent visit the zoo, the energetic Herpetarium staff seems perfectly at ease in an environment that, to most people, would seem treacherous. Each herpetologist, technician, and veterinarian is visibly passionate about the reptilian inhabitants, even going so far as to point out genetically unique Caecilians and answer a reporter’s many questions.

Facts about snakes that would make most people squirm merely draw out the fascination of Heratarium staffers.

Chris Baker, ‘The Reptile Guy’

As you might expect, the Memphis Zoo has a quintessential “reptile guy” — and, arguably, he knows more about snakes and other reptiles than anyone else in Memphis.

And the reptile guy, Chris Baker, has an official title. He is the associate curator of reptiles and aquatics and has worked with reptiles at the Memphis Zoo for 25 years. When I recently visited the Herpetarium, Baker casually recited a plethora of facts about snakes in Tennessee while handling a Madagascar Tree Boa as she was getting surgery. Yes, you read that correctly, a snake was having surgery.

Baker is also vice chair of the American Zoo Association, Snake Taxon Advisory group and holds the studbook for Komodo Dragons.  “I know where every single one of the 147 US Komodo dragons are living currently. I know their relatedness. I know their parentage. I know everything there is to know about their makeup,” Baker said.

Baker refuses to name his favorite animal in an interview.

What are the venomous snakes in Tennessee?

Baker walked me through the venomous snakes that live in the three-state Mid-South area and adjacent counties.

The copperheads, cottonmouths, and timber rattlesnakes are the most common, venomous snakes that live in the Memphis Area. Small pygmy rattlesnakes are often found around Pickwick Lake.

Copperheads are usually found in wooded areas in leaf litter, logs, or rocks for cover. Cottonmouths live in swamps, sloughs, and wetlands, and can be found in rivers and lakes, hence the name “water moccasin.” The timber rattlesnake is the largest and most dangerous snake in Tennessee and also lives primarily in wooded forests.

According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, out of the 33 species of snakes in Tennessee, only four are venomous.  Although snakes, particularly venomous snakes, are certainly nothing to take lightly, Baker said: “Snakes bite people when people force interactions with snakes. Snakes don’t seek you out to bite you.”

‘Snakes are cool’

When asked, Baker told me why he finds snakes so interesting, “Biologically, their natural history is interesting, complex, and fairly misunderstood and snakes are just cool. Things are cool in and of themselves. I don’t have to say it’s cool. It just is.”

That sentiment shined through in his care of the reptiles, as he fearlessly but gently handles various snakes and skinks. Chris knows each animal by name and even personality. Every reptile that I met came with a story, and Baker told the stories with enthusiasm.

“To me, it’s a little bit silly to have to see a value in something in order for it to be unique, interesting or (to be) something we’re studying,” Chris said about snakes.

Nell Rainer is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal. You can reach her at nell.rainer@commercialappeal.com

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: What to know about venomous snakes in Memphis from ‘The Reptile Guy’

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