A recent Twitter post about former N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences resident George the Python received abundant views, likes and shares. It also raised a question that remains popular among museum visitors as they gaze at living animals residing in our exhibits. “What’s its name?”
George was a big draw from the time of his arrival in 1964 to his demise more than two decades later, yet the practice of naming animals in the museum’s living collections ended in the 1970s. “The shift to anonymity reflected a national trend in museum exhibits … (away) from projecting human traits on the live animals they share with visitors.” Yet one passage in “A Long Look at Nature,” a book written by former museum communications director Margaret Martin, reveals a colorful history …
“Perhaps because of their longevity, live reptiles at the state museum won the affection of visitors and often received nicknames. ‘Pamlico Pink was one of the most beautiful snakes I ever saw,’ wrote William Mann of the zoo. A canebrake rattlesnake from Pamlico County, Pamlico Pink was on display from 1935 to 1946. His portrait was painted for a snake identification guide issued to World War II GIs training in North Carolina. Onslow, a diamondback rattlesnake, was on live display for 15 years, and Columbia the cottonmouth fascinated visitors for many years. In 1964, a record 49-pound snapping turtle was captured near South Creek, christened Big Bad John, and carted to the state museum for a popular living exhibit.
“Live reptiles with nicknames brought in crowds, and gave visitors a way to connect with the animals. No animal in the state was better known than George the Python, a beloved Burmese python that enlarged the state museum’s popular image as ‘the snake museum.’ George received scores of valentines and thousands of letters from visiting school children during his 25 years at the museum; 7,000 people stood in the rain for his ‘Coming Out Party.’ George arrived (already named) from Vietnam in 1964 with a Special Forces sergeant returning to Fort Bragg. Throughout the Vietnam War and for years afterward, military personnel and Vietnamese refugees came to visit the exotic snake. George’s popularity was probably due in part to his size, and partly because he symbolized North Carolina’s unique cultural ties to Vietnam.”
Although not named in Martin’s book, Dewey Simpson was the man who transported the oversize snake – in a suitcase – to the museum after saving George from becoming the featured entree of some Cambodian soldiers in his patrol. Initially kept by the soldiers as a mascot, George was wounded by shrapnel during a Viet Cong attack in 1963, but was patched up by a medic and survived to come to the United States.
The snake’s first, temporary home at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences was a hastily converted exhibit case, but George was eventually housed in a custom-built, temperature-controlled enclosure with a climbing tree and swimming pool.
For years thought to be male, George was eventually determined to be a “she” by museum veterinarians. When George was measured in 1985, she was 16 feet long and weighed approximately 120 pounds. She died in 1989 at the ripe old age of 28.
Jon Pishney is head of communications for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.