TAMPA — When Busch Gardens opens Cobra's Curse this summer, the snake-themed, spinning roller coaster will have an air-conditioned ride queue with an exhibit of live snakes. The park touts it as part of a mission to educate the public.
The problem, some animal advocates say, is that snakes are very sensitive to vibrations and sound. Putting vipers and pythons in front of thousands of tourists next to a rumbling roller coaster could be torture for these animals.
"It is correct that snakes do have an acute sense of reverberations," said a statement from Busch Gardens in response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times. "Our highly accredited zoo team has been thoughtfully working on creating a process to slowly acclimate the snakes to their new environment in the queue line at Cobra's Curse."
In a year that has seen drastic changes for animals at SeaWorld parks and the retirement of Ringling's circus elephants, Busch Gardens is again venturing into the precarious world of mixing of wildlife and entertainment.
The snakes were scheduled to move into the ride area in the coming week. The roller coaster is running tests daily and visitors are expected to ride Cobra's Curse by the end of May.
Because reptiles don't bark, cry or grimace, "misery in a glass tank can so easily go unnoticed," said British reptile biologist Clifford Warwick, who consults for animal-rights groups on issues such as the reptile trade and has questioned the ethics in keeping snakes and other reptiles captive.
Busch Gardens officials said they are trying to make the snakes comfortable, letting a Times reporter and photographer follow along in the process of acclimating the snakes.
It's not unlike work the park did in 2011, when cheetahs housed around the newly opened Cheetah Hunt roller coaster were readied for the screams of riders whizzing by at 60 mph. Keepers spent weeks exposing them to recordings of ambient theme park noise.
Phil Hillary, manager of zoological operations at Busch Gardens, showed the industrial-looking shed near the park's compost and mulch piles. Tractors and front-end loaders regularly moved enormous mounds of dirt nearby, providing the occasional loud noises and rumbles handlers hope will acclimate the snakes.
"A front-end loader made a loud boom and we fed the snake right after to reward her for being calm," Hillary said. The reward (a thawed rat pup) was given to a Jameson's mamba, a deadly tree snake.
Hillary's team kept each snake in quarantine for months to make sure they didn't have infections or pests that they could give future roommates.
The team kept a daily log of the snakes, their fecal remains, if they were shedding skin in full pieces or little sections, considered a bad shed. They also noted if the snakes seemed calm, active, if they puffed up or went into strike pose.
"They are smart," Hillary said. "You can tell they are watching you, trying to figure you out."
An air-conditioning unit rumbled near the entrance to the room that housed the two tanks holding the mambas. In the next room, tanks housed vipers and an Angolan python.
Two workers at a time followed a meticulous system of safety in caring for venomous snakes behind locked gates. One of the animal care specialists, Cayle Pearson, has a biology degree and 10 years at the park, but said much is learned by experience and sharing information.
"There are not a lot of college classes that can teach you how to handle a mamba," Pearson said.
British biologist Warwick was skeptical of the acclimation plan.
"The organizers' claim to 'acclimate' the snakes is not only poorly informed, because for snakes, such major seismic forces would not lead to genuine habituation," Warwick wrote in an e-mail. "But also, they would be subjecting the snakes to highly disturbing 'acclimatization' work just to get there. 'There' being nowhere good anyway."
Parent company SeaWorld has made animal welfare its central business. In March, company leaders vowed to end circus-like Shamu shows and orca breeding. Joel Manby, the company's new CEO, faced reporters with Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle by his side to announce the plan. The company's focus from now on, Manby has said, will be attractions and thrill rides with an environmental message.
In April, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums announced that Busch Gardens Tampa Bay was again granted accreditation, a seal of approval from the largest zoo association in the United States. The AZA reviews care, conservation and educational programs and renews accreditation every five years.
Busch Gardens, Disney's Animal Kingdom and SeaWorld are the only theme parks nationwide that have gained zoo status, AZA spokesman Rob Vernon said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also gives Busch Gardens good marks, but does not regulate snakes or other reptiles because they are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act.
For the next four weeks in the acclimating process, Hillary and the zoological staff noticed the mamba didn't skitter to the high box in her aquarium tank as often when there was a loud noise. Even when Hillary closed the door with a loud thud, she stayed put.
The first test rides of Cobra's Curse began in early May. Hillary's team was dispatched to make sure the flamingoes and other birds in the area weren't getting agitated by the noise of the new roller coaster.
"We can hear Montu louder than Cobra's Curse," Hillary said.
The smooth steel ride is fairly quiet, he said, and inside the exhibit, "there are walls and walls of concrete, so we are very comfortable with that spot."
After consulting with herpetologists at institutions such as the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., home of an award-winning reptile complex, the Busch Gardens team decided that instead of slowly adding one snake at a time, they will put them all in at once.
"This way it's neutral territory, and they are all in there," Hillary said.
The species in the exhibit were specifically chosen because they all come from Africa, Hillary said, and other zoos have successfully housed them together in the same habitat.
Once they are transferred into their new home, a multi-level exhibit that mimics the forests, deserts and watery habitats each snake prefers, the animal care team will observe the snakes to see that they are getting along and don't seem too anxious.
Hillary acknowledges that some people will never be happy seeing any animal in captivity.
"That is the crux of the issue," he said. "If you believe in managed care for animals, we think we can provide the best care of animals in the world."
Though some zoologists back Busch Gardens, some scientists question how acclimation to a roller coaster is possible.
"I'm not aware of any studies that evaluated the long-term response of snakes to this kind of potential stress," said David A. Steen, an Auburn University wildlife ecologist recognized for his aggressive social media use to educate the public about the world of reptile science.
"There are few ways to determine when a snake is immediately uncomfortable," Steen said, "but over the long term, the snake may exhibit a reduced feeding response and lose weight."
Still, Steen said, "with proper care and enough resources, it is likely possible to create excellent conditions in captivity for many different species of snakes."
Snakes are often sold in pet stores as easy to care for. They are usually fed only once a week and even in the wild spend a large proportion of their time coiled up in a tight-fitting hiding place.
Having the snakes in the ride queue "gives us the ability to educate our visitors to how critical they are to our ecosystem," Busch Gardens said in the statement, "as well as how they benefit the environment in several ways and should not be seen as domestic pets."
Pacelle, the Humane Society president who stood beside the SeaWorld CEO, said the company still has a ways to go. But he's happy with progress the theme parks are making toward animal welfare.
"We don't expect many companies to turn everything around overnight," Pacelle said.
Pacelle is currently on a tour for The Humane Economy, his new book in which he argues that corporate America is transforming how it treats animals because of the increased awareness of humane consumers, investors and citizens.
"I think there will be continuing controversy at SeaWorld over orcas and swimming with the dolphins," Pacelle said.
Will the public have the same concern for slithery creatures?
"Generally speaking," he said, "it's hard to get people excited about snakes."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.