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SARS Scare Forces Changes in Beijing Restaurant Menus - 2003-06-13

Fear of the SARS virus means some snakes in China are ending up in the zoo instead of restaurant cooking pots. Ever since scientists warned that the deadly virus may come from wildlife, China's adventurous eaters have been shunning some traditional delicacies - and restaurant owners have had to jettison some excess ingredients.

Word has gotten around in China that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome might come from contact with wildlife, so the Chinese, whose cuisine includes a wide array of animals, have turned away from some old favorites.

With no orders for snake dinners, a delicacy here, Beijing restaurants have been stuck with the expense of feeding snakes they cannot sell.

Some eateries secretly began releasing their excess snakes, which caused chaos when the snakes started appearing in people's cars and homes.

Since the middle of May, worried residents have been calling the Beijing Zoo's snake catchers to track the creatures down behind couches, in alleys, in trees, and elsewhere.

The zoo's deputy director, Zhang Jinhuo, says none of the snakes have been poisonous. He says a few have gotten away, but his experts have managed to catch 17 of them.

Mr. Zhang, stretching his arms as wide as he can, says some of the snakes are really long.

Zoo worker and snake-catcher Tien Tongqing has been raising snakes for 20 years.

Mr. Tien says snakes have qi or inner power, just like people. He says understanding qi helps him read a snake's mood, and he is able to catch it without much trouble.

He distracts the snake by waving his foot in front of its head. When it strikes at his shoe, he grabs the tail and gently wrestles the creature into a wire cage.

Most of the snakes found are Hei Mei Jin, or "striped racers." They are not dangerous, and live in China's hills, grasslands, and farms, Zoo officials say captured snakes go into quarantine for a few weeks to see if they are sick. They may end up on exhibit in the zoo's snake house, or they may be released back into the wild.

Snake is a Chinese delicacy, especially in the winter: the meat is said to warm the insides. Mr. Zhang, the zoo official, says he would never eat snake, and he thinks other people should not either.

Snakes eat mice and other pests and Mr. Zhang says they are friends - even if they frighten some people.