Reports of rampaging giant snake send media hiss-terical

The 15-foot python was allegedly found by fishermen near Warsaw. Tomasz Gzell/PAP

The 15-foot python was allegedly found by fishermen near Warsaw.

A man-eating exotic monster on the loose makes for a story no tabloid could ever resist and if it happens during the summer news drought the temptation spreads to the media better known for their political coverage or for art reviews.

And so it has proven when the shed skin of a five-meter (15 foot) long python was found by fishers in the area of Warsaw.

Zoologist Robert Maślak from the University of Wrocław told The First News: “The stories of a hungry, aggressive snake that could attack people are plain silly.

“Pythons eat once every few months – some captive snakes refuse food for a year or a year and a half without any detrimental health effects. Yes, you do hear stories about people killed by pythons: you do because it is extremely rare. Even attacks on dogs are very unusual – that is exactly why films of such incidents are so popular on YouTube.”

A python, he says, has a marked preference for rats and frogs over larger pray and actively avoids humans, small children included. Hiding in tall grass or a hole in the ground, the snake, unless found, is in fact waiting for a slow death when the Polish summer inevitably gives way to autumn and the tropical animal freezes.

“An animal rescue operation is in progress: we are trying to save its life, not eliminate a threat to people,” Maślak says.

Not that news editors would allow such petty considerations to get in the way of a good scare. Thus, one tabloid announced the police had imposed a curfew in the area where the shed skin was found – the local police denied this in an interview PAP while confirming the find of the skin and that an animal rescue operation is taking place.

Meanwhile reports have multiplied of python sightings: the snake was seen attacking a beaver (there is conflicting news about the outcome of the encounter with some claiming the beaver escaped and others that it was swallowed whole). In an apparent parody the reptile has been described as eating a horse though the story has since been reproduced in all seriousness.

While a large snake has indeed shed its skin near Warsaw in recent weeks, the story has taken on a life all of its own, provoking comparisons with the media hits of summers past and Sosnovsky’s hogweed (barszcz Sosnowskiego) in particular: this mildly toxic plant that can cause skin burns has been denounced in the tabloids as an immediate threat to human life for several summers running.

With the killer weed’s newsworthiness rather exhausted, the python makes for a welcome variation on the familiar theme.

More seasoned watchers of the Polish media are reminded of a 2006 whale sighting in the Baltic Sea, the first in decades. While that was confirmed by scientists, Fakt, a tabloid, quickly spotted the animal up the Wisła (Vistula) – and then further and further up the stream, past big cities and dams across the river.

With the whale apparently able to magically scale dams, it remains to be seen what tricks the python may yet prove to have up its sleeve.