Ask G&G

Ask G&G: Why Pythons Aren’t Good Pets, Bamboo Is Never the Answer, and You Shouldn’t “Break” a Colt

Snake buds, bamboo barriers, and horse whispering

Illustration: BRITT SPENCER

Does anybody still keep Burmese pythons as pets?

A Like the mix of toluene and nitrogen in TNT, the cocktail of non-native apex-predator pets and freakish human vanity can be trusted to explode. The largest specimens of Python bivittatus tip the scales at two hundred pounds, quite the load of carnivore to have around the house. Many python lovers fail to envision certain biological aspects of living with large predators, so, twenty feet of snake later, folks grow disenchanted by the constrictors’ need to muscle out into the living room and crush the family border collie into an appetizing meatball. As Aristotle pointed out, our hubris knows no bounds. Buttressed by that most human flaw in Florida, former pets released over decades found their Eden in the Everglades, where the hundred-thousand-plus reptiles have wiped out the park’s small mammals. Hurricane Andrew’s 1992 destruction of a vainglorious Burmese python pet-breeding facility contributed to that dismal record, flooding the treasured wilderness with hundreds of young. On the bright side, the state has banned keeping them as pets and has beefed up its professional bounty-hunter program and its annual “pro-am” Florida Python Challenge in the Everglades, during which killing the largest monsters yields up to $2,500 in prizes. Great fun in the field, but it’s a losing battle—python mamas can lay clutches of up to a hundred eggs annually. In their native Southeast Asia, deforestation has made the snake an endangered species. As the preacher notes in Ecclesiastes, all is vanity.

Bamboo can be the devil’s curse in a garden, but can we responsibly use it to block out the neighbors?

October’s a golden minute for planting bamboo, right? Yet the crazy bamboo exigencies stand athwart you. The clumping varieties won’t create that good green fence you want. Running varieties require rhizome barriers, sunk two feet deep, because those roots do merrily run, to the tune of some forty feet per season. But before you trough in fifty feet of barrier, please consider the location of the devil in the equation. He’s not in the bamboo. He’s waiting for you to return from your splendid month at the beach next summer, when you’ll be prying those runners out from under the flagstones you laid around the drinks gazebo. Admittedly, some neighbors can make heaving sixty-pound flags feel like a breeze, but bamboo doesn’t come with an off switch, so you’ll see other tricks down the road. Why not pour a stiff dividend and have a think about putting in some old-fashioned lattice you can train a spray of fine roses to climb. Roses don’t run from where you put them.

We want to break our new colt ourselves. Got tips?

Not everything the cowboys did was right. The ride-’em-till-they-stop-buckin’ path only teaches a young horse that his flight instinct—triggered by situations the animal senses could call for force—works perfectly. As with our two-legged young, that’s not how you want your equine charges to view their education. Only in the last forty years have American training practices moved toward a more productive, biologically aware philosophy of enlisting the horse as your partner, extending gentle invitations to accomplish tasks and to acquaint him with people over time. Popularized here by John Lyons and the brothers Bill and Tom Dorrance since the 1980s, the approach has been with us since Xenophon, the great Greek soldier and horseman, published his magnum opus On Horsemanship around 355 BC. As the Southern Native American tribes domesticated the horses they got from the Spanish five hundred years ago, they began with gentle practices and have kept those in robust use. The Choctaw and other tribes largely eschewed European tack, preferring direct body-to-body communication. An 1875 account of a Cayuse horse race notes that a soft, woven-hair rope, sans bit, fixed around the lower jaw acted as the bridle. You want that level of trust with your new colt. Here’s your lodestone: Reverse the “breaking” paradigm. A new colt is like a china shop; you don’t want to break a thing in him or about him. Rather, teach yourself what your colt sees and thinks. Then, when you do finally mount up and let fly, the dialogue you’ll have with your new partner will take your breath away.