Good evening from the BDN Portland office on Congress Street. A new chapter in the summer’s great mystery — What’s up with that huge Westbrook snake? — unfolded this weekend.
What we’re talking about
The Westbrook Police Department is sending a portion of a large snake skin found on the riverbank Saturday to a Texas scientist for genetic testing, hoping to settle the question of exactly what type of large snake has been stalking the banks of the Presumpscot River this summer.
The discovery of the skin — which Westbrook police Capt. Sean Lally said is “12 feet, 1 inch [long], and 4 inches in diameter at the widest point” — comes after two officers reported seeing a giant snake, at least 10 feet long, eating what appeared to be a beaver along the riverbank in late June. That sighting came soon after police received a report of a snake “as long as a truck [with] a head the size of a small ball” slithering near a children’s playground in Riverbank Park.
The snake is probably an escaped or released pet, possibly a Burmese python or a boa constrictor, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife previously told us, based on the early descriptions. But John Placyk, a herpetologist at University of Texas, Tyler, who offered his expertise to Westbrook police, said the scales on the skin and markings suggest otherwise.
“The scales and coloration just don’t match up to a boa or a python,” he said, suggesting that it might instead be a very large rat snake. While not native to Maine, rat snakes might nonetheless be able to survive the state’s cold winter, the biologist said.
“If this is a rat snake, it might be showing up for a couple years depending on how bad the winters are,” said Placyk.
A section of the snake skin found this weekend has been shipped to Placyk for testing. The biology professor runs a molecular ecology laboratory capable of conducting DNA testing on tissue samples. The DNA sequence will then be compared to a database of animal genomes to settle what type of snake Westbrook police might be dealing with.
Placyk said testing, which is being conducted free of charge, could be completed within nine days of him receiving the sample of skin. And while he said that skin is typically stretched during the molting process, there is no doubt that the found skin belonged to a large snake.
But some are skeptical that the skin came from the same snake reported earlier this summer, suggesting it could have been left there by a person. “I suspect this is a plant,” Ian Bricknell, a marine biologist at the University of Maine, Orono, wrote on Facebook, saying that a shed snake skin would be rolled up rather than stretched out, as the one found Saturday appears in photos.
While he cautioned that he’s no expert, Lally said the skin at least seems real enough.
“It looks real. It feels real, but it could be a plant,” he said. “Some people will be skeptical either way.” — Jake Bleiberg
Drug overdose deaths in Maine continue to soar — In 2015, a record 272 people died of drug overdoses. In the first six months of this year, 189 died, Attorney General Janet Mills today said. At this pace, “this year’s total may be at least 378 or higher,” her office said in a press release.
Two kids found a loaded gun next to a playground in South Portland this weekend — Police said it was loaded with four bullets, had no safety and had recently been fired.
Portland schools will address ways to help immigrant families feel more connected to their children’s education — Noel K. Gallagher reports: “[A] years-long effort by immigrant parents to organize and communicate their concerns to school district officials is taking a critical step forward after the Portland School Board voted to form an ad hoc committee to review district policies in order to remove barriers that have left some immigrant families feeling alienated. A ‘Parents Manifesto’ created by the families will be used as a guide for the committee, which will be formed in the next few weeks.”
The Big Idea
‘El Chapo and the Secret History of the Heroin Crisis’ — Don Winslow writes in Esquire:
Okay, I’m going to say it: The heroin epidemic was caused by the legalization of marijuana.
We wanted legal weed, and for the most part, we got it. Four states have legalized it outright, others have decriminalized it, and in many jurisdictions police refuse to enforce the laws that are on the books, creating a de facto street legalization.
Good news, right?
Not for the Sinaloa Cartel, which by the time Colorado passed Amendment 64 in 2012 had become the dominant cartel in Mexico. Weed was a major profit center for them, but suddenly they couldn’t compete against a superior American product that also had drastically lower transportation and security costs.
Maine voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana on Nov. 8.
Got any interesting story ideas, suggestions or links to share? Email Dan MacLeod at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet @dsmacleod.
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