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 back-curving 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.”

 

This issue appeared in Animal Scene’s September 2016 issue.