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Cold-Blooded Gift From Serbia Warms Hearts In Croatia

This white-lipped island pit viper is one of the 25 snakes donated to the Zagreb Zoo after the death of the Serbian chef who owned them.
This white-lipped island pit viper is one of the 25 snakes donated to the Zagreb Zoo after the death of the Serbian chef who owned them.
ZAGREB -- Giving someone a poisonous snake isn’t usually seen as the friendliest gesture.

But Croatia, which this week received 25 snakes from Serbia -- including the world’s most venomous species, the Gaboon viper -- says it’s thrilled with the gift.

“Poisonous snakes are something that people are afraid of, but also very interested in,” says Ivan Cizelj, the fish, amphibian, and reptile curator at the Zagreb Zoo, where the snakes now make their home.

“They’re kind of a hot item,” he adds. “The herpetological houses at zoos are always very crowded. Because no matter how much people hate snakes, they still come and look at them!”

The snakes were donated by the family of Predrag Ristic, a Serbian chef and snake lover who had spent a lifetime cultivating what was widely considered Southeastern Europe’s largest collection of rattlesnakes, vipers, and other exotic snakes.

Ristic died in a car accident in May, leaving his family uncertain what to do with his beloved snakes.

Some acquaintances say the grieving family was approached by the local police just hours after Ristic’s death, demanding that they turn the snakes over to the Belgrade Zoo.

Neven Vrbanic is a Zagreb snake lover who had developed a close friendship with Ristic. “We used to talk for hours on Skype about snakes and life,” he recollected in a recent post on the VenomLand chat site.

(In Pictures: The Poisonous New Arrivals At Zagreb Zoo)

He says Ristic’s family could not continue caring for the high-maintenance menagerie, which includes black-tailed rattlesnakes, tree boas, and a Sri Lankan green pit viper. But they were determined that the snakes be kept together.

“The Belgrade Zoo didn’t have the proper conditions, and other zoos wanted some of the snakes, but not all of them,” says Vrbanic, who helped facilitate the snake transfer after he was contacted by an official from the Serbian Agriculture Ministry. “The Zagreb Zoo proved to be a good place because they were willing to take in all of the snakes.”

New Facilities

Cizelj notes that the zoo, which up until now has housed a wide variety of snakes but only a few moderately venomous species, went to considerable measures to accommodate its new guests.

In addition to cages outfitted with safety glass and CCTV security cameras, the zoo has purchased a special antivenom from a Berlin pharmaceutical company that its handlers keep nearby in case of an accidental brush with their deadly charges. (A bite from the Gaboon viper, whose imposing fangs can grow as long as 5 centimeters, can leave its victim dead within 15 minutes.)

Even those Croatians with a healthy fear of snakes appear to be temporarily setting aside their phobias to welcome the Serbian newcomers.

Ties between Serbia and Croatia are normally tense at best, colored by regional rivalry and lingering resentment from the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. But the Ristics’ “snake diplomacy” is seen as a welcome exception by some Croats accustomed to thinking of Serbs as takers rather than givers.

“They didn’t give back our Lipizzaners,” wrote one Croat on a social-networking site, in reference to the theft of hundreds of purebred horses from a Croatian farm during the war. “But at least they gave us their snakes!”

Some Serbs, meanwhile, had a slightly different take on the snake transfer. A headline in “Kurir,” a right-wing Serbian newspaper, said, “Let All The Poisonous Snakes Go To Croatia.”