Teddy Roosevelt’s $50,000 Snake
Or, Why It’s So Hard to Measure a Snake.
Way back at the beginning of Twentieth Century, before there were any world wars — not even a great one — President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to buy a snake. But it couldn’t be just any snake. It had to be alive and in good health — but most importantly — it had to be 30 feet or more in length. That would make it the longest snake ever found.
Teddy Roosevelt was willing to pay $1,000 for this snake — about twice as much as a brand new Model T at the time. For all his travels into the deepest corners of the jungle and his pursuit of Big Game on the African plains, he had never captured a snake of that size. No one had. There had been plenty of rumors of course. Tales of truly massive snakes out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered, but nothing scientifically verified. Now Teddy Roosevelt was at the end of his life. Soon he would lose his bid for a third presidential term. During that campaign, he would survive an assassination attempt only to nearly die during an exploration of the Amazon basin a few years later. That would be his last expedition. The former president knew he would not be the one to find a giant snake. So he offered a cash reward for anyone who could bring it to him. No one would claim that prize within his lifetime, but the reward would outlive him.
Over the years, it would grow from $1,000 to $5,000, reaching $15,000 in 1978 until finally peaking at $50,000 in 1980. The price would stay there until 2002, when it was discontinued. In all those decades, no one would capture a $50,000 snake.
But there were many claims.
Anacondas measuring anywhere from the length of a school bus to as long as a passenger jet were reported. None of them with any accompanying proof though. A 33 foot Reticulated Python was killed and photographed in Indonesia in 1912, but the length was never verified and the quality of the photograph was too poor to reliably judge the snake’s size. But that didn’t stop it from being widely cited as the longest snake ever found.
For years, another Reticulated Python at the Pittsburgh Zoo held the title as world’s longest snake. Aptly named Colossus, the snake even managed to nab the Guinness World Record for a time. Even though some people estimated Colossus at 30 feet or greater, upon his death, he was reported to be just over 28 feet in length. But a subsequent examination of his skeleton found it to be several feet shorter — reaching just under 21 feet.
Still a massive snake but hardly worthy of $50,000.
A captive Burmese python called Baby was at one point 27 feet. But lost nearly 10 feet in length after her death.
Snakes don’t shrink when they die. There’s no reason to believe that the handlers of Colossus and Baby were intentionally inflating their numbers. The fact is snakes are hard to measure. They are slithery and squirmy and don’t naturally lie with their bodies in a perfectly straight line. They are ambush hunters, camouflaged to blend into their surroundings, making these snakes notoriously hard to spot and subsequently difficult to accurate bead on their full dimensions. Reticulated pythons even more so. They are immensely strong and can be aggressive. They are capable of inflicting severe bite wounds and they will strike out when they feel threatened. There are several well-documented cases of large Reticulated Pythons killing and eating people.
So measuring one of any substantial length can be a hazardous ordeal.
Even in death, a snake can be tricky to measure. Rigor mortis can make the full extension of the carcass difficult. Their tanned hides can stretch, making a moderately-sized snake seem monstrous, posthumous.
Many snake size estimates are only as reliable as the person making the claim. With a lack of physical evidence or any verifiable proof, whether or not your giant snake claim entered the scientific literature often hinged upon the quality of your character. But people are famously unreliable eyewitnesses — even those of us with the utmost integrity. And our ingrained, primeval fear of these reptiles might boggle our faculties to such an extent that we are left with an exaggerated sense of their size whenever we encounter them.
So when reports of a giant Reticulated python came into the Bronx Zoo in 1992, the zookeepers were understandably skeptical. A leather company had it trapped in a train car in Borneo. Presumably, they had meant to turn it into some hand bags or boots, but the possibility of $50,000 in cash saved the snake from that fate. The snake flew into Kennedy airport in 1993 where it was met by the personnel at the Bronx Zoo and promptly measured. At 21 feet, she was a very large snake but well below the threshold for Teddy Roosevelt’s prize money. The zoo was happy to have her anyway and named her Samantha. She lived another decade and gained another 5 feet, topping out at 26 feet — the longest snake ever recorded with any accuracy. She may not have been a $50,000 snake but the reward ended with her. Concerned the cash prize might lead to the exploitation of giant snakes, the prize money was withdrawn upon Samantha’s death.
But that didn’t stop the hunt for the proverbial $50,000 snake.
In 2004, a giant python was captured by Indonesian villagers. At first, estimated to be an astounding 49 feet long and nearly half a ton, later examination put the snake at a more reasonable 21–23 feet. That didn’t stop most of the major news outlets from reporting the exaggerated length.
In 2018 a video of a supposedly 50 foot anaconda surfaced on the internet. Without any landmarks to judge the size of the snake, there is no way to tell how long it actually is but it is almost certainly not a $50,000 snake — much less a 50 foot monster. But that didn’t keep it from being widely circulated on Twitter and Facebook.
Giant snakes loom large in our collective unconscious, possibly instilled there eons ago when our distant ancestors lived in fear of these reptiles. In both South American and Norse mythology, giant snakes encircled the world. In Christian ideology, a serpent tempted humanity with the fruit of the tree of knowledge. But if I may be so bold, a tree is a poor stand in for knowledge. They are too fixed and unmoving, too easy to measure and quantify. The serpent makes a much better analogy in my view. A snake is difficult to pin down. It is slippery and can hide in plain sight. It has a lot of wiggle room. And even the most dedicated, most thorough examination of it can come up short. The serpent hasn’t cursed us with knowledge so much as the inability to agree upon its exact dimensions. In the face of a giant snake or the pursuit of knowledge, it’s best to be cautious. The margin for error is great. As we’ve seen, two people can look at the same snake and arrive at very different conclusions. And our best efforts don’t always measure up.
There could still be a $50,000 snake lurking somewhere. But that snake would be the human equivalent of an Andre the Giant, or Shaquille O’Neal, or Thor Bjornsson. Quite impressive and understandably celebrated but outliers nevertheless. And in any dataset, we don’t draw conclusions from outliers alone. If anything, they are ignored, cleaned from the data, and guarded against in future iterations. An outlier might give us an idea of the variability and diversity capable within a species population, but the degree of its variance shouldn’t be confused with its inherent value.
So a $50,000 snake might not be worth as much as we think it is. In truth, its value has likely been overestimated.
Watch the video: