Serpens the snake – the only constellation in two separated parts, head on the right or west, tail on the east – wriggles above our evening horizon. Saturn appears near one of the knees of Ophiuchus, the snake (ophi-) holder (-uchus).
Here are snake and snakeholder in a page from To Know the Stars.
Writing is slow, with my right hand in a splint. I want to thank you for your get-well comments after my stupid bicycle crash – the first two did me good by making me laugh, though that pained me by stretching my jaw; I still can’t get my teeth far enough apart to get solid food in. My hand inside the bandages is beginning to feel like a caged animal.
Yesterday I read an article about the world’s wild pet trade (Scientific American, October, “Loved to Death,” by Richard Conniff). It is becoming a greater cause of the decline and extinction of animal species even than habitat loss. The forests of countries like Indonesia are ransacked for their wildlife, the rarer the better. The scale of the trade is so vast that the struggles of dedicated conservators, over many years, to restore a dwindling species in its habitat are overwhelmed by poaching in days. A sudden rise in the market price of a species is a quicker indicator that it is nearing extinction than the difficult task of counting sightings in the forest.
In Indonesia, one in five households keeps wild birds in cages – the birds of which their neighboring forests are being emptied. In Jakarta, the capital, is a supermarket-sized wild-pet market. I didn’t know of it when I was there on the way to the eclipse of 1983. The worst I saw were an orangutan in a small cage, a miserable tethered eagle, and a monkey on a leash attached to a belt that I was afraid was tight around his very small waist.
But America and Europe, also, are vast customers for this trade. The exporting countries sign up to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and make poaching illegal, on paper, but do little enforcement. Rare animals are easily hidden among shipments of others, sometimes by painting or shaving them. Smuggled animals are duct-taped so that they can’t move; snakes are packed into suitcases, or crammed into soda bottles.
Who are they, these thousands of American “collectors” who imagine their guests will be impressed by a captive crocodile or rare bird from a tropical island? There apparently are so many that I’m surprised I have never found myself inside any of their houses. Once, after giving a talk about an eclipse to the astronomy club in the planetarium at Knoxville, I was taken into the adjacent nature center, and allowed to handle Sinbad, a South American red-tailed boa. He flowed along George Weems’s arm (George, are you still there?) onto my arm, and lay around my waist.
That was a captive animal that may have been nearly as happy as in the wild. But at Furman University, along the corridor toward the biology department, there were glass-fronted wall recesses containing creatures of such extraordinary beauty that I had to draw them.
None could ever stretch to their full length. What is the difference between being imprisoned in an underground cell, surrounded by concrete, and being in a glass cage? The difference is that people can stare and make faces at you. What is the difference between being a human and an animal in such an entombment? The difference is that you cannot scream that you are going mad.