When Busch Gardens opens Cobra's Curse this summer, the snake-themed, spinning roller coaster will have an air-conditioned ride queue with an exhibit of live snakes. The park touts it as part of a mission to educate the public.
The problem, some animal advocates say, is that snakes are very sensitive to vibrations and sound. Putting vipers and pythons in front of thousands of tourists next to a rumbling roller coaster could be torture for these animals.
"It is correct that snakes do have an acute sense of reverberations," said a statement from Busch Gardens in response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times. "Our highly accredited zoo team has been thoughtfully working on creating a process to slowly acclimate the snakes to their new environment in the queue line at Cobra's Curse."
In a year that has seen drastic changes for animals at SeaWorld parks and the retirement of Ringling's circus elephants, Busch Gardens is again venturing into the precarious world of mixing of wildlife and entertainment.
The snakes were scheduled to move into the ride area in the coming week. The roller coaster is running tests daily and visitors are expected to ride Cobra's Curse by the end of May.
Because reptiles don't bark, cry or grimace, "misery in a glass tank can so easily go unnoticed," said British reptile biologist Clifford Warwick, who consults for animal-rights groups on issues such as the reptile trade and has questioned the ethics in keeping snakes and other reptiles captive.
Busch Gardens officials said they are trying to make the snakes comfortable, letting a Times reporter and photographer follow along in the process of acclimating the snakes.
It's not unlike work the park did in 2011, when cheetahs housed around the newly opened Cheetah Hunt roller coaster were readied for the screams of riders whizzing by at 60 mph. Keepers spent weeks exposing them to recordings of ambient theme park noise.
Phil Hillary, manager of zoological operations at Busch Gardens, showed the industrial-looking shed near the park's compost and mulch piles. Tractors and front-end loaders regularly moved enormous mounds of dirt nearby, providing the occasional loud noises and rumbles handlers hope will acclimate the snakes.
"A front-end loader made a loud boom and we fed the snake right after to reward her for being calm," Hillary said. The reward (a thawed rat pup) was given to a Jameson's mamba, a deadly tree snake.
Hillary's team kept each snake in quarantine for months to make sure they didn't have infections or pests that they could give future roommates.
The team kept a daily log of the snakes, their fecal remains, if they were shedding skin in full pieces or little sections, considered a bad shed. They also noted if the snakes seemed calm, active, if they puffed up or went into strike pose.
"They are smart," Hillary said. "You can tell they are watching you, trying to figure you out."