FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A zoo on the nation’s largest American Indian reservation has eliminated its snake exhibit because cultural beliefs about the reptiles as bad omens were deterring visitors from seeing other animals.
Navajos are advised not to watch snakes eat, mate or shed their skin because it could affect their physical and mental health.
The Navajo Nation Zoo in the tribal capital of Window Rock has exhibited snakes for decades. But manager David Mikesic said the reptiles housed in its Discovery Center have been unpopular.
Many teachers didn’t want children seeing or even breathing the same air as the snakes, he said Friday. Some 3,000 schoolchildren visit the zoo each year on field trips.
“If there’s a concern that people can’t view snakes, why continue to house the snakes here?” Mikesic said. “I want all classrooms to see all the other animals that we have in the rest of the Discovery Center.”
The center also houses spiders, turtles, fish, ringtail cats and fish.
The two bull snakes were shipped to a Utah aquarium in March, and the rattlesnake was sent to a New York zoological society last month.
The zoo that started in the 1960s with an orphaned black bear has grown to include more than 100 injured or orphaned animals that commonly are seen on the Navajo Nation or in the Southwest.
Many of the animals at the facility — including the coyote, bear and porcupine — have a place in Navajo creation stories. Listings for each animal on the zoo’s website include what’s known traditionally about them.
Sand paintings in Navajo ceremonies depict snakes, but the depiction is never as anything good. Navajo medicine man Anthony Lee Sr. said any negative health effects from coming into contact with snakes can be addressed through Navajo ceremonies.
“It’s all dependent on the diagnosis,” he said. “From there, ceremony is prescribed.”
Paul Begay, a Navajo man from Page, said he agrees with the zoo removing the snakes. When he is at zoos or museums, he also tries to avoid coyotes and owls, which are known in Navajo culture as messengers.
“These days, if I’m going to a place like this, I take precaution and try to read the signs of what’s up ahead,” Begay said.