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Snake tips the scales

September 02, 1997

By JENNYLYNN BROWN

Staff Writer

When George Gossard Sr. walks his pet, skittish children gather around, neighbors peer out their windows and small varmints run for cover.

He's been raising Camiel, a 16 1/2-foot, 180-pound Burmese python since she was 8 feet long and weighed 35 pounds.

"I used to pick her up by myself. Now my back hurts if I try it. So we put all cats and dogs outside and she crawls through the house," said Gossard, 40.

Camiel, 6 1/2, is one of many nonpoisonous reptiles in the Gossard's Madison Avenue home in the city's West End.

There's Spike and baby Iggy - both iguanas; Al, the albino black snake; two Ball pythons; a Savannah monitor lizard and a wild black snake.

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They arrived in the home one at a time - and they each stayed, said Tina Gossard, 37, George Gossard's wife. "Some of them, I don't mind - some of them, I'm scared of," she said.

She's not alone.

"My mother and sister are petrified," George Gossard said.

"It's a hobby. I love reptiles, but mostly snakes. When I was a kid, I used to sneak them into the house. I breed black snakes and release them into the wild to help farmers out," he said.

While in the Marine Corps in the 1970s, Gossard said he kept a snake in a burlap sack in his locker.

"Since I was 3 years old, I wasn't afraid of snakes," said a proud 10-year-old George Gossard Jr., who was at home with his brother, Justin, 13.

What was Gossard thinking when Camiel grew to 100 pounds?

"I knew how big she would get then, and I know how big she will get - 22 or 23 feet long," he said. She's like John Candy, he said. "He's big - she's big."

Gossard built a 7-foot-long, 4-foot-wide, 3-foot-high glass and wood cage, complete with lights and a heating pad. Tropical snakes need heated surroundings, he said. "But once she popped the light bulbs when she got too hot."

Gossard's other snakes eat live rats, which he keeps in cages, but "Camiel won't touch the rats. She eats two or three live rabbits a month."

"Growing up on the farm where there was a lot of copperheads, my older brother had a BB gun and we always shot them," said Gossard's friend, Jackie Weller, of Blairs Valley Road in Clear Spring.

"I never knew the benefits to farmers. Georgie helped in introducing me to exotic snakes that can be friendly. She's one of the gentle giants," Weller said.

Weller, 36, a former snake avoider, now helps with snake hygiene.

After Gossard and Weller carry the brown snake with black markings upstairs and bathe her, Weller sits down and puts a towel on her lap. Weller covers the snake with another towel. "She dries herself as she goes across my legs -like a car wash," Weller said.

Gossard, who works at Charles Rotz Inc. in Chambersburg, Pa., said he plans to buy a yellow anaconda. When shopping for snakes, he considers its age, size, breed and health.

"It's got to have healthy skin and eyes. I look to see whether the nose is running, because most times, snakes die of colds," he said.

Even when raised as pets, snakes still act instinctively.

"She bit me once, but it was my fault. I had handled the rats and she smelled them on my hands and thought, `Food,'" he said.

Old myths and Bible stories about snakes still strike fear into people, he said.

"The snake got a bad rap. They don't prey on humans. They don't intentionally go to bite them. Most bite when you invade their space," Gossard said.

Or when you smell like food.

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