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catoctin- hot stuff exhibit

June 19, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

THURMONT, Md. - Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo is giving visitors interested in venomous animals an exhibit they can sink their fangs into.

Rattlesnakes, copperheads, cobras, Gila monsters, green mambas, Gaboon vipers, puff adders, scorpions and tarantulas are just a few of the venomous creatures featured in the Thurmont-area preserve's Hot Stuff exhibit, which runs through November to honor the facility's slithery beginnings as a two-acre snake farm in 1933.

"The return to venomous is a celebration of our beginnings," says owner Richard Hahn.

He and his family have expanded the preserve's wildlife holdings to about 600 animals from throughout the world since buying the snake farm in 1966 - but reptiles remain Hahn's "first love," he says.

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His passion for snakes shows as he leads a tour through the Hot Stuff exhibit, stopping at each glass display case to discuss the cold-blooded critter inside it. Hahn describes the highly venomous African green mamba that's draped over a tangle of tree branches like he might describe a star athlete - "intelligent, agile and quick." He stresses the difference between poisonous and venomous animals, a distinction characterized by a venom delivery system such as a stinger or fang.

Hahn, who says he has handled hundreds of venomous snakes but never been bitten, likens the way the Gaboon viper's extraordinarily long fangs fold back against the roof of the snake's mouth to the folding wheels of an airplane. He says the puff adder is responsible for more deaths than any other snake in Africa due to its practice of lying along paths in the savanna.

And Hahn details the king cobra's picky dietary habits - other snakes, preferably smooth-scaled species native to Southeast Asia - and his efforts to wean the world's longest venomous serpent from its preferred natural diet by suturing hors d'oeuvre-sized pieces of dead snake to a "daisy chain of rodents."

The signs above each display give visitors a mere glimpse of the knowledge Hahn has acquired since he started collecting garter snakes in the fourth grade.

"I like people to learn," he says, sounding out the scientific name - Crotalus horridus atricaudatus - of the canebrake rattler. "We hope that the educational value in here is much more than just what people see."

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