Fourth grader Jason Autrey reached behind his desk for his lunch box around noon 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 said. 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., 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.