Where’s Wessie? Snake story is confusing and growing cold

It’s now September and there is still no conclusion to the Wessie mystery which surfaced in late June. Is there a giant snake on the loose in Westbrook, Maine?

In my last post, I discussed the evidence advanced so far and the problems with it – eyewitness reports from locals and from two police officers, though the latter was at 3:30 AM. I recently found a reference to the first sighting which is a bit too much to swallow:

…a woman filed a report with the Westbrook police department claiming to have seen a snake as large as a truck, with a head the size of a basketball.

Head the size of a basketball? Only in the movies.

That’s not what the police saw nor does it correspond with the physical evidence discovered – a shed skin from an obviously huge snake (but “truck size?”), just laying there in the open near the Presumpscot River, found by a local on August 20. This was not Titanoboa. Yet, Wessie-mania went into maximum overdrive.

Recovered skin photo courtesy of Westbrook Police Dept.
Recovered skin photo courtesy of Westbrook Police Dept.

The skin was sent to a university lab to undergo DNA testing. Some people have said that DNA testing was not necessary as the skin could have been visually identified. But the DNA makes it more conclusive. And sciencey, of course. Dr. John S. Placyk Jr., of the Department of Biology at the University of Texas at Tyler concluded that the skin was from an anaconda, about 8-9 feet long. He was 100% certain of the result that was matched to a genetic database. National Geographic magazine online reported that Placyk sent his results to an anaconda researcher to refine the identification. Jesús Rivas of New Mexico Highlands

Green anaconda in captivity. Photo: LA Dawson/Wikipedia
Green anaconda in captivity. Photo: LA Dawson/Wikipedia

University compared it to what sounds like a more specific genetic database of anaconda samples from across South America. He concluded that the skin was from a female green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) maybe 10 to 12 years old based on size. According to the genetic comparison, Rivas told Nat Geo that the ancestry pointed to Peru or Bolivia, “though the snake probably was bred in the United States.” Anacondas (genus Eunectes) are the world’s heaviest living snakes and second longest, measuring up to 30 feet but typically not getting that large except when coddled in captivity. They are native only to South America and are illegal to keep in Maine. Maine wildlife officials are not particularly worried about Wessie, although they suggest people might keep an eye on small pets in the area around the water. Westbrook lies to the west of Portland, Maine and has an average first frost date in early October. Tropical snakes can’t survive long in the wild at those temperatures. They are even rather sluggish in the 70-deg range.

That the results came back anaconda instead of the assumed identity of python added a new twist to this story. One of three scenarios applies to Wessie – there is or was a monster at large, there was not a snake observed at all, or that this was a giant hoax. What is involved in these scenarios? Let’s think a bit more about each.

Option A. Wessie is real

Choices for what she is includes:

  • an anaconda. If this is true, then someone broke the law by importing an illegal animal, has kept that information secret from anyone who might squeal about it, and that it escaped or was set free. Snakes this size are good as escaping because they are very muscular and can push open doors or lids. Or, it got too big to handle and take care of and the owner deliberately let it go. Cruel and stupid, but not implausible. Anacondas are not for novice snake keepers. They require a particular environment and careful supervision.
  • some other large constrictor such as a python. The same scenario as above applies though several species of pythons are allowed to be kept in Maine.
  • a big native snake. It would be anomalous for a large native, like the northern water snake, to be more than 5 feet long.

If Wessie is real but not an anaconda, someone planted the shed skin, thus, this would be partly a manufactured hoax.

Option B. Wessie is not real

That entails the following:

  • eyewitness testimony was mistaken. Not unusual. Observations of a smaller snake or a log may have been misperceived. The original account of such a huge snake is implausible at face value since no snake that size even exists alive today.
  • the story took on a life of its own and the community was sucked into the hype. Pretty typical urban legend route. The twist is someone wanted to escalate the hype by planting the shed skin.

Option C. Wessie is a deliberate hoax

Then,

  • someone planted the shed skin. That means they are keeping an illegal animal locally or they deliberately obtained a fresh shed skin of a rather rare captive snake, placing it in a location where it was sure to be found.
  • the local officials were not sufficiently skeptical. The mayor went as far as to call in a cryptozoologist who offered to help. Really, without enough information, we can’t really blame them for this. It’s hard to gage from just media reports but I’d bet locals wanted some sort of action taken.

Why a hoax? Well… a boost for business, some fun for the town,  an opportunity for a few attention seekers to be in the spotlight, some folks playing a joke to see how far they can get.

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Two novelty shirts available in Westbrook promoting Wessie. Photo credits: Boston Globe

Will they find Wessie dead or alive? Hard to say but it’s unlikely. It’s difficult to imagine people mistook a native snake for a giant monster and even more difficult to accept that a hoaxer would go through the trouble but we shouldn’t be surprised. The alternative, that it is an anaconda or escaped python, is also not implausible (According to a government biologist I spoke to about this story, it would not be the first time a pet python had escaped in Maine.) A large snake may hole up and die, never to be retrieved. There is only about a month left for the Wessie story to run but already it’s growing cold.

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4 thoughts on “Where’s Wessie? Snake story is confusing and growing cold

  1. Nice post, Sharon. I would lean towards it being an anaconda or python rather than a hoax. Unfortunately there are a lot of irresponsible owners of dangerous animals out there.

  2. Poor Wessie. If she’s ananaconda (that would be neat) or a python (also cool) I surely hope she’s found, caught unharmed, protected, and given shelter before lethally cold weather set’s in. In addition I hope she’s shipped to South America where she can live out her life wild and free as nature intended, a sweet fairy tale ending for a silly wayward snake, but a Mulder said, I want to believe!

  3. As the skin was from an anaconda I lean towards deliberate hoax. Pythons are way more common as pets, I miss my son’s albino Burmese but he preferred to keep his girlfriend (now wife).

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