San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Snake in the Red Cross

THE Red Cross of Alajuelahas 17 professionals on its roster,110 volunteers, 50 young people inyouth training programs, eightambulances and one snake. Sincethe caduceus, the insignia symbolizingthe medical profession, consistsof a snake crawling up a staff,it seems appropriate that the RedCross has a snake on its staff.The snake is a boa constrictor,called a bequer here. Its name isJulia, although its sex is uncertain.The boa was named after Julio, aparamedic who is terrified of snakes. Naming a snake aftersomeone who doesn’t care for reptiles seems like a strangejoke for people dedicated to saving lives, but Julio takes itall with good nature. He simply leaves the room when Juliais brought in.ACCORDING to paramedic José Bolaños, Julia wasbrought to the Red Cross station about a year ago, when shewas just a little snake. She was injured when she wasbrought in and her left eye is still partially closed, whichcould affect life in the wild for her. She now measuresabout a meter (three feet, three inches) in length, althoughit’s hard to tell because you can’t really straighten out asnake.She’s a good four inches around the waist, bust, hipsand tapering down to her tail, and staff members say she isgrowing. It’s obvious, too, that she has bonded with thembecause it isn’t easy to unwind her from their arms, wristsor purse straps.Julia shares an office with Darwin Mora, director of theAlajuela Red Cross, and mostly spends time sleeping in abig glass aquarium furnished with plants and rocks. Shesometimes crawls around the office or goes out with staffmembers. Mora is pleased to have her around.“She’s calm,” he explains. “Someone brought in anothersnake, but it was aggressive. It would scare people.”THE Red Cross is a place where people bring injuredanimals, under the assumption that if they can patch uppeople, they can fix other things as well. Julia was not thefirst animal brought to the unit, Mora says. Snakes, raccoonsand other wildlife brought in are released in rural orwooded areas. Julia, because of her eye injury, may get tostay.Although nobody has determined yet if Julia is male orfemale, Marcel Goldman of World of Snakes in Grecia saysthat boas can be told apart by examining their tail areas.Both males and females have spurs near the tails, but theyare larger in males. Males also have two penises, but theyare not very conspicuous.Fully grown females can reach three meters (nine feet,nine inches) long, while males dally at around 1.8 meters(six feet). When females go into heat – a misnomer in acold-blooded animal – they produce a smell to attract malesso they can find each other in the wild. Gestation is eightmonths, after which about 40 little snakes are born. Snakeseat live prey, which means that, in captivity, mice areserved up for meals.FOR Julia, life is easy. While her Red Cross colleaguesmake an average of 40 runs a day in the ambulances, monitorall 911 calls in case rescue squads are needed, practicefirst-aid and rescue skills and keep ambulances and medicalkits stocked, Julia sleeps in her tank among the rocks, sandand plants, enjoying attention from visitors and staff.

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