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TOWN GETS GRIP ON SEARCH FOR FUGITIVE SERPENT : COBRA TURNS UP IN NEW ENGLAND CLASSROOM AFTER MISSING FROM OWNER'S YARD FOR 3 MONTHS.

Byline: The Boston Globe

Fourth grader Jason Autrey reached behind his desk for his lunch box around noon last Wednesday, hungry for his salami sandwich and apple. He promptly lost his appetite when he saw what lay just inches from his lunch: Tut, the lethal banded Egyptian cobra missing since August and believed dead.

``I jumped about 3 feet back when I saw it. I was scared,'' the 9-year-old admitted. But he and his classmates at Robin Hood Elementary School soon regained their courage: ``After that we all wanted to see it.''

No wonder. In August Tut was the talk of eastern Massachusetts. His disappearance from his owner's back yard sent residents of Stoneham and surrounding towns into a mini-frenzy. Some kept their pets and small children indoors; others set out to find the elusive snake - and the accompanying fame.

After a few practical jokes (remember the fake snake someone stuck in a flower pot?) and no sign of the real Tut, some officials speculated that the reptile either had slithered far, far away, or up and died.

Little did they know that this Tut was a homebody.

Wednesday, before authorities arrived, the viper was trapped inside a recycling bin and kept from slithering out of Autrey's classroom by fourth grade teacher William Bergland, who snuck up behind the poisonous creature and tipped the bin over on top of the snake, principal Maureen Soley said.

Stoneham and state environmental police said they were almost positive the snake captured inside the school is the one that disappeared in early August after owner Anthony Ferrari left it sunbathing in his front yard, which faces the squat schoolhouse on Magnolia Terrace.

No one was hurt Wednesday, but officials acknowledged potentially deadly consequences had a child been bitten by the snake.

Autrey said he yelled ``Snake!'' after he spotted the reptile on a shelf near his desk. Teacher James Coleman told the 22 children, who were preparing to have lunch in the cafeteria, to leave the classroom.

``I didn't know if it was that snake, but I decided not to take any chances,'' Coleman said.

Soley said that after Coleman told her about the snake, she ran to the classroom and spied the reptile between a recycling bin and a bookcase. It raised its head in a way unlike garden-variety snakes. The hood around its eyes and mouth puffed out, said Soley.

``Obviously it was feeling a little threatened,'' the principal reasoned after the confrontation.

Michael Ralbovsky of Rainforest Reptile Shows in Beverly, Mass. Ralbovsky confirmed the snake was a cobra. He used a snake pole to restrain the young black-and-white reptile so he could pick it up with his hand and place it inside an escape-proof container.

Soley said the snake might have been disturbed when the basement was flooded with 6 inches of rain two weeks ago or when the basement was routinely sprayed for fleas recently.

Ralbovsky said he was not surprised that a snake accustomed to warmer climates could survive recent cold snaps. He said the snake looked healthy.

``Reptiles are very resilient. It gets cold in their native country and they semi-hibernate,'' he said. ``They probably won't eat.''

Environmental Police Sgt. Linda Thomas, who carried Tut out of the school in a secure gray box, said Tut probably survived on rodents and found warm places to live. The snake was in the custody of environmental police last night.

It remained unclear whether Ferrari will be charged under state or federal environmental laws. Police said it is legal in Massachusetts to own a venomous snake with a permit. Ferrari had no permit and was only liable for a fine of up to $50, police said.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 10, 1996
Words:615
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