Animal Scene - - ANIMAL PERSON - Text and illustrati­on by NOR­MAN B. ISAAC

“Don’t be afraid of snakes,” Reimar ‘Emang’ Pantig, 25 years old, says in Filipino. Emang is the res­i­dent pho­tog­ra­pher cum care­taker of Ni­knok, the seven-foot al­bino Burmese python at­tract­ing peo­ple from all walks of life vis­it­ing the 57 year-old Manila Zoo. Emang named his pet snake and busi­ness part­ner “Ni­knok,” a word play on “manok,” the Ta­ga­log word for the food given to Ni­knok ev­ery fif­teen days: a 45 day-old chicken.

Emang, a high school grad­u­ate from Tondo, Manila, has been work­ing at the zoo for al­most 8 years. His fa­ther, who also works at the zoo as part of the main­te­nance crew, rec­om­mended him to the photo booth owner. Emang’s stint as a graphic artist/ pho­tog­ra­pher in a uni­ver­sity belt photo stu­dio came in handy. “I learned the craft from the stu­dio at Mo­rayta,” he says. “My dream is to put up my own photo stu­dio.”

“I en­joy my job,” he proudly says with a big smile. Aside from his reg­u­lar salary, he gets tips from gen­er­ous cus­tomers. He charges fifty pe­sos per shot. “Busi­ness is good on week­ends and hol­i­days,” he says while putting Ni­knok around the nape of a vis­i­bly ner­vous teenage girl. Ni­knok, who has an easy­go­ing na­ture, coils around the shoul­ders, as the girl gig­gles while gin­gerly touch­ing Ni­knok’s yel­low head. “Okay, smile!” Emang bel­lows as he clicks the shut­ter.

Ni­knok, four years old, is one of the four al­bino Burmese pythons be­ing used in the photo booth. “He is my fa­vorite among the four, be­cause he is not frisky but very gen­tle,” Emang shares. “We used to have eight snakes. But the present owner of the photo booth man­ages only four pythons,” he says.

When asked for some mem­o­rable anec­dotes as a python pho­tog­ra­pher, he quickly replies, “Noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, I’m just happy to see peo­ple who are smil­ing and en­joy­ing the mo­ment how­ever fleet­ing, when they hold Ni­knok.”

Ni­knok be­longs to the breed of snakes con­sid­ered among the largest snakes in the world, reach­ing more than 18 feet and weigh­ing up to 300 pounds. The first al­bino Burmese python was dis­cov­ered in the early 1980s. Python breeder Bob Clark ob­tained one of these an­i­mals and pro­duced the first ever al­bino Burmese python in 1986. Though pop­u­larly called “al­bino,” these snakes tech­ni­cally ex­hibit ame­lanism or lack of pig­ment. A true al­bino an­i­mal has no pig­ment, whereas these snakes still have yel­low and red pig­ments; only their black pig­ment is miss­ing. Young al­bino Burmese pythons have bright red eyes and a white base color, topped with yel­low and red mark­ings. As they age, these mark­ings be­come less dis­tinct.

As an al­bino Burmese python, Ni­knok has a well-de­vel­oped sense of smell to make up for his poor vi­sion and lack of hear­ing. Snakes nor­mally have one lung. Ni­knok, be­ing a python, has two, one of which is con­sid­er­ably smaller than the other. Ni­knok is con­stric­tor, so he has no fangs. But he has back­curv­ing teeth that grab prey and do not let it es­cape.

If Ni­knok were in the wild, he would live up to thirty years. With the pol­luted air of Manila, and in cap­tiv­ity, his life­span is much shorter. Be­ing a python, Ni­knok is an ex­cel­lent swim­mer who can hold his breath for 30 min­utes. In­ter­est­ing facts, which the zoo vis­i­tors might not know, but as Emang the pho­tog­ra­pher says, “Ni­knok is not just a snake but sim­ply every­body’s friend.”

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