Big snake loose in Maine or is Wessie a hoax?

Cross posted from DOUBTFUL.

Back in June, locals of Westbrook, Maine said they saw a large snake slithering around. After no sign of the beast a week later, a Westbrook police officer witnessed it eating something near Riverbank Park on the Presumpscot River. A second officer called in also saw it. From their Facebook page:

On 6-29-16 at about 0330 hours an Officer on patrol in the area of Riverbank Park observed a large snake on the riverbank in the area of Speirs Street. The snake was eating a large mammal, possibly a beaver (not joking). A second officer arrived and they both watched it swim across the river to the Brown Street side of the Presumpscot River where it disappeared in the thick underbrush. They estimated its length to be at least 10 feet. WPD contacted the Maine Warden Service and they expect that the snake will remain dormant for a few days because it just ate a substantial meal. The snake has been dubbed “Wessie” or the “Presumpscot Python” by locals. We ask the public to be mindful of the snake’s presence in the area and immediately report any sightings so we can remove the animal from the river.

No northern US snake gets that big. Snakes that size are native to tropical areas. The news of a possible escaped Burmese python set the town abuzz. This article noted that local businesses hoped it would be a draw, a clear case of crypto-tourism. After a week with no additional sightings confirmed, the Mayor said she called in an “expert” but declined to elaborate. Many local people were already looking for it. The article mentioned that “a local cryptozoologist and herpetologist group” had volunteered to help.

Burmese Python by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Creative Commons

Burmese Python by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Creative Commons

An updated article says that the unnamed expert was a cryptozoologist but he has yet to investigate. Hmm…

A month later, the expert, now identified as a cryptozoologist, has not yet made an appearance in Westbrook, said Westbrook Police Capt. Sean Lally.

“They have yet to come out,” he said in an email Wednesday, adding that the cryptozoologist “has rescheduled twice so far but told me he expects to be out there within the next two weeks.”

Since all are pretty convinced that it is a snake at large, I would say that ONLY a snake expert, a herpetologist, should be called in to search for it. There are a few qualified reptile people interested in cryptozoology but not many. A “herper”, I would think, would jump at the opportunity to take on such a task. But it’s not without hazard. A snake that large should not be handled by a novice and at least not by just one person. A safety guideline is one person for each 3-5 feet of constrictor snake. Any snake 8 feet or longer is considered a potential threat to people.

The latest piece calls the volunteer cryptozoologist an “expert” but then says the field is described as a “pseudoscience”. There are a few people who make their living as cryptozoologists but it’s not a formal field of zoology or folklore – there are aspects of each discipline in the cryptozoology. I can guess who the cryptozoologist is in this case but I’ll not say since all seem to wish the investigation remains low-key. I’m sure he dislikes the connotation of pseudoscience, though I contend most amateurs out looking for Bigfoot and lake monsters and calling themselves cryptozoologists are playing pretend scientist and have no qualifications to do so. Regardless of your academic status, unless you are an experienced reptile handler, I disagree that you should be out looking for a large mystery snake, though I hope no one would be fool enough to grab it if they found one.

While we’re looking at this story, there are a few items to note regarding the police sighting. First, it was 3:30 AM. So, it was dark, they only had a flashlight and lights from their patrol car, the snake was in the water, and they were surprised, I’m sure. According to the media, the cell phone video taken of the snake moving away was too poor to see anything. The Facebook spokesperson for the police department replied to a commenter who suggested they should have shot it by saying: “Well Tom, we suppose they didn’t have a good shot or perhaps they felt 3:30am wasn’t an appropriate time for touching off a 12-gauge across the river at a low light target at a distance of 100+ feet.”

Good call.  This situation was not conducive to reliable observation but distorted perception. The estimated reported length could be way off. Or, it may not have been a snake at all. That it was police officers that witnessed the event gives greater credibility to the report, but as I noted in my last post, EVERYONE can make serious eyewitness mistakes. Officers are no exception, especially ones not at all used to exotic wildlife encounters… in the dark. (I can just imagine the expletives.) Without a scale for length, they could inadvertently have exaggerated the size of the snake. But the most damning part is that there has not been any further signs of the animal since with so many people looking.

A local wildlife rescuer thinks it’s not a snake at all but a beaver dragging a log through the river at night giving the appearance of a beaver being caught by a snake. That’s actually quite plausible, however, there is no mention of a beaver dam in the area. There could be, there is just no mention of it which is rather important. It’s also not too far fetched to think that a python is on the loose. But, Wessie P. Thon won’t make it through the Maine winter, no doubt about that.

But things took an interesting turn when a large shed snakeskin was found on Saturday August 20 near a boat launch on the same river. Police posted to their Facebook page. This is the first physical evidence of a real animal. But we have to consider the quality and context of the evidence. In this case, it’s a bit shaky. The story is popular on line because of the wow and weird factor. But, the media is a bit lax, as usual, to contact actual experts on the matter. The best article with quotes from experts comes from the Huffington Post. Herpetologists are generally skeptical about the skin noting that its placement, all stretched out, is unusual. Snakes rub against branches and the like to shed the skin whereas this one looks far to neat as if it was from a captive snake that was placed there. Apparently, hoaxes like this have been perpetrated before. Noting the tourism aspect that some Westbrook businesses are promoting, and the fact that people love to get some attention online, we must consider this find suspicious.

Snakeskin found near the Presumpscot River. Is it from Wessie or a hoax?

Andrew Durso, a PhD candidate in Biology at Utah State University blogs about snakes. He tells me that it still could be a native snake because the photo is unclear on size and condition.

Snake sheds are wet when they come off and stretch very easily; some can almost double in length. Since there’s nothing in the photograph that can be used for scale, it’s hard to say how big that shed is, but I don’t see anything that rules out a smallish 1-3 foot shed that could have come off of one of Maine’s 9 native species of snakes.

The length of both live snakes and their sheds are routinely over-estimated by 30 to even 50%, he adds.

A close up look at the shed would be sufficient for any experienced herpetologist to identify the species; pythons and boas are easy to tell from native snakes because they have many more dorsal scale rows. You could also extract DNA from the shed.

He’s not sure if it’s a planted skin or not. And an escapee could remain hidden.

Needless to say, it’s not a very good photo. And, if there really was a large escaped python out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if there never was any other evidence—snakes are extraordinarily cryptic, and many times native species go undetected by herpetologists for decades.

So, I reiterate the point that cryptozoologists are not the right people to be investigating but should be watching this story evolve. There will be points to take away regarding public reaction, media coverage and the spread of ideas through the community.  Snake experts should be looking at the evidence, but instead, speculation is the norm. There is much to remain doubtful about. Even though the average person might be convinced by the stories and the skin, the case is not clear cut. We’ll have to wait for more evidence to make an informed conclusion. But, I predict that local people might start reporting every small snake or floating log as Wessie. They are primed to see a big snake and that’s what they will insist they see. Once the idea is out there, it’s impossible to squash. We can guarantee that Wessie, as a local legend, will remain around for a good while.

  9 comments for “Big snake loose in Maine or is Wessie a hoax?

  1. Perry
    August 22, 2016 at 1:00 PM

    I’m just posting this so I can be notified by email of the comments to this article. I enjoy your instructive replies to the responses you get from your critics.

  2. Ronald H. Pine
    August 25, 2016 at 3:00 PM

    I don’t know on what basis “Any snake 8 feet or longer is considered a potential threat to people.” If the snake is non-venomous and not a constrictor, then there would be no reason to regard it as a threat.

  3. August 25, 2016 at 7:40 PM

    The link reference is posted. Any large constrictor can potentially strangle or smother a human.

  4. August 25, 2016 at 7:43 PM

    What snake is that large and not venomous or a constrictor? Maybe a rat snake?

  5. August 25, 2016 at 8:44 PM

    Just a FYI, the “cryptozoologist” discussed as failing to follow through on “promised hunts” is neither myself nor our assistant director, who have both been involved skeptically and openmindedly with the investigations from the beginning. However, we have not sought publicity for our serious examination of the evidence, as has some self-styled media-oriented “cryptozoologists.”

    Loren Coleman, Director
    International Cryptozoology Museum
    Thompson’s Point
    Portland, Maine

  6. August 25, 2016 at 8:46 PM

    Once I saw that you HAD been there, I realized it was not you. Thanks for clarifying.

  7. TheRook
    August 27, 2016 at 1:38 AM

    Assuming the 10 ft. snake is real, a plausible explanation is that this snake was simply someone’s exotic pet – either escaped from its pen, or perhaps more likely, released into the park by its owner, unable/unwilling to take care of it any longer.

  8. Ronald H. Pine
    August 30, 2016 at 9:02 PM

    Some American rat snakes do get that long. They are not venomous but they are constrictors. Indigo snakes and coachwhips are examples of snakes that get that long and are both nonvenomous and not constrictors.

  9. September 1, 2016 at 9:52 AM

    According to a recent article in the Boston Globe (8/30), the snake skin has been analyzed and determined to belong to an Anaconda of all things. No determination has been made, however, as to whether the skin was actually shed by a snake living in the area or was placed there as a hoax.

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/08/30/snake-skin-found-maine-belongs-anaconda/qf9d3p1L6SZFNt3qS7tI2L/story.html

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