Grant Park toddler first to encounter deadly snake

The first person to spot the tiger rattlesnake that slithered out of  Zoo Atlanta last Friday was 2 1/2-year-old Pierce Mower.

Around 7 p.m. Saturday, the towheaded boy ran out the front door of his parents' Atlanta Avenue home and onto the porch, where the unwelcome visitor was resting.

"Oh my God, that's a rattlesnake," recalled Marie Mower, 43, who followed her son outside. She grabbed Pierce, who was no more than four feet away from the venomous reptile, and ran inside.

Husband Guy Mower, 39, had to see it to believe it. "I'm a city person," said the Maryland native. "There aren't supposed to be any rattlesnakes in the city."

Like many of their neighbors, the Mowers had no clue an adult female tiger rattlesnake was on the loose.

The couple briefly debated what they should do next. "We discussed calling animal control," Marie Mower said, but her husband was worried they wouldn't respond in time.

"If this snake was to get away ..." he told the AJC, revealing new details about the snake's Grant Park odyssey. "I was just concerned for my son."

Mower grabbed a discarded floorboard and approached the coiled reptile, delivering three lethal whacks. "I didn't go looking to kill a snake," he said.

Had they known it came from the zoo, "we would've called them," Marie Mower said. "We're right across the street," she said, roughly 100 yards away from where the snake escaped.

Zoo president Raymond King issued an apology to the family and their Grant Park neighbors Tuesday afternoon.

"While I am disappointed and embarrassed by the incident, this event was highly uncharacteristic of Zoo Atlanta and its operations, animal care, communications and personnel," King wrote. "As a result of this unfortunate event, we are re-evaluating our procedures and protocols regarding animal management and how we communicate to the public, our members, our guests and our neighbors. We apologize to anyone who was unaware of the incident, and we regret any worry felt by our community."

Pierce's mother felt uneasy all weekend. "I know it sounds silly, but we were worried we might have rattlesnakes nesting in our yard," she said.

Late Sunday night, unable to sleep, Mower decided to investigate online, Googling "rattlesnake" and "Atlanta."

"And up pops a clip from the local news," she said. "There was no doubt that was the same snake."

At 6 a.m. Monday she alerted zoo officials. "As soon as they saw it they knew," Mower told the AJC.

But they were surprised to find it outside zoo grounds.

On Sunday zoo spokeswoman Keisha Hines told the media the nocturnal snake was believed to be inside the building where it was housed, which is not accessible to the public. The search was largely confined to zoo grounds.

"Hindsight being 20/20, we probably should've knocked on a few doors," said Zoo Atlanta Deputy Director Dwight Lawson. The local neighborhood association was alerted, he said, and an announcement was made to zoo visitors Saturday, he said, though there was no follow-up announcement Sunday. Zoo officials said the snake escaped from an unsecured cage.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Lauren Curry told the Associated Press Tuesday that an inspection team will be sent to Zoo Atlanta to investigate.

The tiger species' toxicity is considered the highest of all rattlesnake venom. Zoo Atlanta obtained the snake just one day earlier from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mower said he was disappointed the zoo didn't contact neighbors after the reptile escaped.

"My son loves the zoo," he said. "That's one of the reasons we live here. But they didn't handle this correctly."

"If my son had darted to the left ..." Marie Mower recalled. "I don't want to think about it."