The Texas Zoo is working to protect the endangered Louisiana pine python

While most view snakes as a threat, a recent review lists a variety of East Texas as threatening.

As part of the process mandated by the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducts five-year status reviews of 35 threatened or endangered fish, wildlife, and plants. A recent review lists the Louisiana pine python—which is indigenous to western central Louisiana and eastern Texas—as a threat.

In their efforts to help protect the species, staff at the Ellen Trout Zoo are working with other zoos around the country — including the Memphis Zoo, Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and Fort Worth Zoo — to protect the pine snake.

Due to their efforts, there are currently 150 Louisiana pine pythons at the Ellen Trout Zoo.

Previously, there were about 20 zoos participating in the pine snake species survival plan, and the species coordinator asked everyone to breed the pine snakes, then send the offspring to partner zoos, Zoo Director Gordon Henley said.

“We’re going to get five or six specimens a year, and then we got together again with the steering committee and we said, ‘Let’s combine it among the zoos that want to commit,'” he said. “We’ve all been raising those in Texas or southern populations, which are defined as south of the Red River.”

At the time, Henley said, there were about 119 snakes circulating among zoos.

A mating pair of Louisiana pine eels at Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin.

Lufkin Daily News, Joel Andrews / Lufkin Daily News

“Right now, we’re looking at close to 150 here, and every other zoo maintains close to 100,” he said. “A little over 300 of them are in the National Forest in Louisiana, so this merger worked.”

North Snakes are operated by the Memphis Zoo and Fort Worth Zoo, Henley said.

“Everyone who raises it, they pass and keep a certain number to keep their numbers growing and the animals released,” he said. “Last month, they’ve released about 60 more out there in Louisiana, and they’re all breeding at this location, and the people watching it pick up the kids — they all have radio transmissions.”

As the consortium of zoos and aquariums’ philosophy on species survival plans changes, Henley said, what zoos do together will become a consortium-run species.

Henley said the program is not as simple as raising snakes and then releasing them into the wild.

“It got all kinds of twists and turns,” he said. “We raised them without a launch site – so every year we’ll have 40, 50 babies and keep them.”

Robert Jackson, director of the reptile and amphibian group at Ellen Trout Zoo, said the zoo should ideally locate the female and male snake and put them together in a box. In some cases, he said, he puts two women and a man in one box.

“They have a bit more of a natural make-up,” he said. “They have a pair of different boxes for nesting; they have a natural substrate they can dig into, and we give them some branches and some bark to hide under and crawl on.”

Jackson said the zoo has snakes from Texas and Louisiana. In 2021, he said, they hatched 44 eggs, the largest number hatched to date.

“We keep some Texas pairs, then we do pairs in Louisiana, and then we have a couple we mix together,” he said. “We sit down and we try to look at their ancestry and their background and try to research that genetic diversity so we get the best perfect pairs.”

Jackson said that any adult snake — or “adult” that is close to breeding age — should be cooled in the winter just as if it were in the wild.

“They follow that natural cycle – cooling and warming,” he said.

Jackson said the zoo is able to have more breeding success because it is able to control the temperature of the room in which the snakes are located.

“We’ve had a kind of warm winter this year, and I don’t know how that affects snakes in the wild, but they do get cold dips and get exposed, so you can still breed, but do you have less overall with the wild species because you don’t have consistently cold winters?” He said. “Here, we are able to control and manipulate those parameters with a little consistency.”

“We are able to occupy a space like this and make a huge impact on the species,” Henley added.

Henley said the Ellen Trout Zoo is currently searching for a release site for the Louisiana pine eels that are at the zoo.

“This would be an opportunity for landowners who have a large land — four or five thousand acres — of long-leafed pine where they wouldn’t mind acquiring it, or the Forest Service,” he said. “We are really interested in being able to release these animals.”

Henley said that although the zoo is involved in other conservation efforts, it’s just as important as protecting native species.

“Indigenous animals are as valuable in our environment as exotic animals, and I think it is important for us, for our zoo and for our people to appreciate what we have here in our own backyard and to realize the importance and importance of our local wildlife,” he said.

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