When contractors refurbishing a house in Beersheba's Old City heard a distinctive hissing sound, they didn't hesitate - they immediately called the city's emergency number. Ron Robinzon, a certified snake catcher and snake expert at the Beersheba Zoo, was summoned.
"I drove over right away," Robinzon recalls. "I walked into the house, heard the sound and knew the workers were right - it was a snake. What surprised me was the snake itself - it was a Palestinian Viper, not often seen in Beersheba."
"I couldn't have missed it," he continues. "It was hiding behind a pile of boxes. Finding such a rare snake in such a heavily trafficked place was exciting all by itself, but it was also one of the largest Palestinian Vipers I'd seen - at least a meter and a half long and very strong. I catch snakes of all kinds, but this one was really fun."
The habitat of the Palestinian Viper, one of Israel's nine venomous snakes, ends about at Lehavim, Robinzon says.
"The whole situation was bizarre. The snake has a characteristic zigzag pattern on its back, and even though it doesn't have rattles on its tail, when it shakes it, it mimics a rattlesnake with a very distinctive noise. When it's annoyed it makes a whispery whistle with its mouth, so when I heard that, I was very careful," he says. "I have a tool - sort of like a golf club - and worked it under the snake, lifted it up, then just picked it up with my hands and dropped it into a sack. That was it. Most of the snake catching you see on television is done just for the show. Ideally, the snake should be caught quickly and gently, without all the fuss. Catching this snake was exactly the kind of thing I love doing."
Robinzon took the reptile back to the zoo, but it wasn't destined to stay there.
"That was another good thing," Robinzon says. "The Weizmann Institute in Rehovot has a program where they milk venomous snakes and use the venom to produce an antidote for someone who's been bitten, so we shipped that big snake to them. They'll keep it, take care of it, and periodically milk it for venom."
"Milking isn't a very friendly thing to do to the snake, but it saves lives," he says. "Knowing that the snake will help save lives just made it all the more satisfying."
Robinzon doesn't think the snake made its own way from wherever it was all the way into Beersheba's busy Old City.
"I think it probably hitched a ride in some boxes. It most likely crawled into a carton somewhere and then was brought here," he explains. "We found another Palestinian Viper in Beersheba's industrial area that I think hitchhiked in, too. Someone saw it on the floor in a liquor store where shipping boxes had been dumped, and I'm guessing that it came in with the boxes. Since we already have very nice Palestinian Vipers in the zoo, we shipped that one off to Weizmann, too."
THE LONG, low, humid and dimly lit reptile house at the Beersheba Zoo - built in memory of Lieutenant Gil Eisen, one of 73 soldiers who perished in the 1997 helicopter crash - doesn't lack for snakes, lizards, geckos and other cold-blooded critters.
"Our emphasis is on showing Israeli animals," says the zoo's general manager, Shlomo Haddad. "We have a wide variety of indigenous snakes and reptiles here, species commonly found in this general area. But when people come to a zoo, they want to see exotic things, too, like boa constrictors."
"Boas and anacondas aren't native to Israel - nor are our two alligators who came from Mississippi - but we have them here anyway, just because people want to see them," he says. "We have snakes from Africa, North and South American, India and Southeast Asia."
The Beersheba Zoo - formally known as the 'Municipal Zoological Park' - began in the Neveh Noy neighborhood in 1954 when an elementary school teacher, Mania Uriely, started offering a highly innovative and interactive nature program.
"Mania's program was headquartered in Shorashim, an old schoolhouse," Haddad says. "All she had was two rooms and a yard, but she inspired kids of all ages - me included - to love animals and nature and to want to learn everything they could."
"When she outgrew that space, we moved to the Neveh Ze'ev neighborhood, into an old immigrant transit camp with a few buildings and sheds," he continues. "The Zoo was there from 1985 until it outgrew that site, too. In 1996 the city allocated this space, right on the city's western edge."
"When we first came, there wasn't anything here at all, just a flat space," Haddad recalls. "Interestingly enough, the train tracks for the old Ottoman train run right along the edge of our new nature addition. The city's beltway highway is just beyond that, so we have a comfortable cushion of open space."
Today the zoo encompasses 40 dunams, with another large parcel recently donated in memory of fallen pilot Major Gidi Zachai that will be open to the public soon.
"We have 150 different species of animals, reptiles, birds and mammals," Haddad says. "We offer the same kind of interactive education Mania developed, emphasizing hands-on, active participation. We have classes and workshops, a petting zoo and allow children to help us in our rehabilitation center, caring for injured wild animals."
ONE OF the most interesting facets of the Beersheba Zoo's reptiles has nothing to do with the snakes themselves, but rather with the herpetologists who work with the snakes. Haddad himself is a snake expert, and two of the Beersheba-born children who volunteered with him years ago earned their professional credentials and returned to join the Zoo as snake experts in their own right.
"I love all the animals," Haddad says, "but snakes are my specialty. There are always little kids who want to follow me around and learn about snakes - that's how I started myself, following the zoo manager around. Even when I was in the Army, I'd come back and spend every free minute working here. Now, having some of my own protÃ©gÃ©s working with me is rewarding."
Itay Tesler, now responsible for the reptile department, was one of those kids.
"Everything I've learned, I've learned from Shlomo," he says. "The more time I spend here with him, the more I realize how true that is. I'll be excited about something new I've discovered and then find out Shlomo knew it ten years ago."
Tesler's passion for snakes started during a casual hike with friends.
"I was maybe eight years old," he recalls. "We found a snake under a rock. I can't even explain to you how excited I was. The rest of the kids ran away, but all I wanted was to catch the snake and keep it as a pet."
"It was a total compulsion, and learning about snakes became an obsession," Tesler continues. "I wanted to know everything there was to know so I could help them and understand them. I always knew I'd be a herpetologist."
Ron Robinzon and Tesler are roughly the same age, and as kids, both hung out at the zoo.
"We didn't get to be good friends until we got older," Robinzon laughs, suggesting there might have been a boyhood rivalry. "But we knew each other as kids."
"Shlomo was my teacher, too," Robinzon says, noting that his passion for snakes started even younger. "As a kid, I was always at the zoo. I started volunteering when I was about six. Like Shlomo, I love all the animals, but the snakes grabbed my attention. Why? It's hard to say. The mystery of them, maybe. Or maybe because everyone else was afraid of them. I can't explain it. It's like seeing a girl and just knowing she's the right one."
Today two boa constrictors captured Itay Tesler's interest.
"There was a class here this morning that wanted to see a snake feeding, so I went to get the rat. When I came back, I saw our two constrictors lying very close together and realized they were mating. I didn't want to disturb them, so I put the rat back. The male constrictor has two penises but uses just one at a time. It can take many hours or even days for them to disconnect," he explains.
Baby snakes figure in one of Shlomo Haddad's best memories, too. "A long time ago - 16, 17 years - I brought a female asp for the zoo. It was very young - in fact everyone told me I was silly to take such a young snake because it would take at least two years for it to grow big enough to breed. That was okay with me - I had time.
"A year and a half passed, and I decided it might be time to put it in the cage with the male," Haddad continues. "I did, and then just forgot about it, didn't pay any more attention. Then one day I walked by the cage and there were all these little baby snakes, with more being born while I watched. That was the first time something like that happened - now, baby snakes are born regularly, it's not a big deal. But I hadn't even known that female was pregnant. I wasn't expecting it."
COMING INTO the zoo through the arched white arbor entrance, the reptile house appears first, just after the playground and snack shop. When you spot a fenced area with a number of large gray rocks scattered about, you know you're in reptile country - especially when one of the 'rocks' moves.
The 'rocks' are actually several very sizeable tortoises.
"Tortoises grow to be very old, but these are quite young, seven or eight years old," Haddad says. "During the winter they come out to warm themselves in the sun. In the heat of the summer, they'd be inside."
Two alligators lounge nearby in two separate - and segregated - ponds, looking like logs floating in a green, leafy enclave. Both of these three-plus meter-long beasts lie completely under water, only the tip of their elongated snouts above the surface.
Just inside the reptile house, two boa constrictors are in similar positions, lying nearly submerged in their own water hole.
"Boa constrictors can actually stay under water for a minute or two," Haddad says. "They'll come out when they want to eat."
A meter-long python dwells in the next cage, blending so perfectly with his surroundings you have to look closely to see it.
"This is a small python," Haddad says. "They get very large - four or five meters, easily, even six."
Asked why all the snakes seem to be nearly immobile, Haddad explains, "Even in the wild, snakes don't move around much, not if they don't have to. When they do move, it's because they're looking for food."
One of the big problems in the reptile house is keeping visitors from knocking on the glass enclosures, Robinzon says.
"Snakes are deaf, they can't hear the noise, but they do feel the vibrations," he explains. "They also see you just as easily as you can see them - so frequently the venomous snakes will strike at the hand they see, and hit the glass instead. That's very bad - they hurt themselves. We've had snakes hit the glass so hard they bleed."
Most of the snake cages contain shallow pans of freshly torn lettuce and other greens, but the main weekly meal for most snakes is mice or rats. The rest of the time, the denizens of these cages lounge comfortably in a consistently toasty 28 degrees. Many of the cages open to the outside on the opposite wall, so during the summer they can go outdoors.
Israeli snakes occupy most of the space. Other than the Palestinian Viper, the mostly-dun colored snakes are unique because they're so small, as compared to snakes indigenous to warmer climates.
"All desert animals tend to be small," Robinzon says. "The bigger the animal, the more energy it requires. When food and water are scarce, there's an advantage to being compact."
One very small snake, indigenous to the Egyptian-Israeli border, leaves squiggle marks in the sand every where it goes.
"That's how you know it's there," Robinzon says. "You see their tracks."
Among the foreign snakes, the "milk snake" stands out. With its flashy bright red, black and white stripes, it would be hard to miss that one. Others - corn snakes, gopher snakes and king snakes - are less colorful but much bigger. The Black Racer comes next, a gleaming thin black reptile that imitates the Black Cobra, a desert cobra.
"The Racer can move very fast," Tesler says.
How fast? "Fast enough so you couldn't catch it," Tesler says, apparently oblivious to the notion that some people might be running away from the snake, not trying to catch it.
Lizards and other footed reptiles dwell here, too, including three grumpy-looking meter-long iguanas, each resembling a miniature prehistoric monster. Today, all three have chosen to perch on one single slender tree branch that's slightly too short - the fellow on the far left is forced to leave one foot dangling off the side.
Then there are the cute little geckos, the onomatopoeia of the reptile world. When excited, they repeat their own name, 'Gecko!' Gecko!'
There's much more to the zoo than just the snakes and lizards. Stepping out of the reptile house, wide winding brick walkways dotted with benches and picnic areas welcome visitors to the mammal and bird domains.
"Most of the animals here were born in captivity," Robinzon says. "They're used to people and like to be fed. We sell cups of animal food at the gate for NIS 2 - it's just a vegetarian dog food and much healthier for them than Bamba."
The intricacies of keeping all the zoo animals fed is a story unto itself. Nearly every animal enclosure has pans of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes or other fruit.
"Most of the produce is given to us by the rabbanut," Haddad says. "In the land of Israel, we're required to separate out a tenth of the produce as an offering. Since that produce can't either be sold or eaten, giving it to us to feed the zoo animals is the perfect solution."
"Our agreement with the rabbanut is that every day, we pick up whatever they have, even if it's just one box," he explains. "Most of the time it's more, and it's all free. Sometimes the fruits and vegetables are more perfect than anything you could buy in stores. It's taken from the best of the produce."
Among the mammalian residents of the zoo are oryx, ibex, deer, ponies and gazelles. There are monkeys and baboons, a plethora of rodents including nutria, a mother porcupine and two adorable babies, friendly guinea pigs who beg to be fed, and a number of furry predators - leopards, wolves, fox, jackal, wild cats - who aren't quite as friendly.
At night, it's the jackals that Shlomo Haddad enjoys. As zoo manager, he and his family live right next to the zoo so someone is available onsite should anything happen.
"The jackals make a lot of noise at night," Haddad laughs. "I enjoy it, but sometimes my dogs bark back at them, then the jackals howl more, which makes the dogs bark harder. Sometimes there are other night noises, too, burglars trying to break in. Sometimes they're after computers or tools, but more often they want to steal the animals."
"We used to have sheep for the petting zoo, goats, a donkey, even a sweet little camel," he says. "But the week before any Muslim holiday, they'd all disappear. It just got too difficult to keep those animals safe, so we stopped replacing them. There's no realistic way to stop the constant thievery."
Long before you can see the bird section, you can hear it. Thousands of birds - raptors, owls, ducks, geese, parakeets, passerines, pelicans, game birds, ostrich, emu, jackdaws and even turkeys - chirp, gobble, hoot, quack, twitter and otherwise sound off. A flock of elegant swans gracefully glide around a man-made lake, which, on sunny winter days, is one of the zoo's big attractions.
"People love to sit by the water and watch the birds," Robinzon says. "Many of our larger birds are rescue animals and have a wing or something else missing. People found them injured and brought them to us. We restore them to health and then use them in our educational outreach."
Robinzon emphasizes that the main objective of the zoo is education, but in order to accomplish its mission, it has to be run like a business.
"Admission fees are our main source of income," he says. "That's why last year at this time we were struggling. During Operation Cast Lead, we went for an entire month without a single visitor, with no income at all. The animals don't ask how many people came through the gate today - they just need to be fed. So we had some tough weeks. Now we're working to bring more people in - we're putting on shows and special events of all kinds. We've had a thousand people here on our biggest day, but we could handle twice that many."
The new Gidi Zachai Nature Area is partly constructed, and will constitute a big draw as soon as it's complete.
"It's a completely natural area, with a wadi running through it that's part of Nahal Beersheba. During the winter, the lake fills up and attracts birds of all kinds. We need to build platforms and shaded areas for visitors, but first we need the funding. If we had the money, it could be ready in two months."
The wildlife has already moved in. "There are raptors, a family of porcupines, fox, snakes - they're already here," Robinzon says. "Sometimes at night we take groups of kids out here and using flashlights, look under rocks to find scorpions - there's plenty to be found. If we could finish this area and make it ready for visitors, we'd really be adding something important to the whole community. It just takes time."