The Hagenbecks were a family of collectors of all manner of animals that supplied the world’s zoos with a wide variety of exotic animals for more than a century. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that they came across a number of extraordinary tales – and extraordinary animals, too. Indeed, one of the Hagenbecks’ explorers was the very first person to encounter a pigmy hippopotamus, on February 28, 1913. In addition, explorer Lorenz Hagenback had a particular interest in snakes. But not snakes of the average variety. It was super-sized snakes that fascinated him, to the point where he made it his business to collect just about as many credible reports as possible. A fascinating story came to Hagenback from a pair of Roman Catholic priests, Father Victor Heinz and Father Protesius Frickel. Father Heinz’ story was particularly notable, since it revolved around the sighting of a truly colossal monster. Heinz prepared a statement that told the entire, shocking story:
“During the great floods of 1922 on May 22 – at about three o’clock to be exact – I was being taken home by canoe on the Amazon from Obidos; suddenly I noticed something surprising in midstream. I distinctly recognized a giant water snake at a distance of some thirty yards. To distinguish it from the sucurijiu, the natives who accompanied me named the reptile, because of its enormous size, sucurijiu gigante (giant boa).
“Coiled up in two rings the monster drifted quietly and gently downstream. My quaking crew had stopped paddling. Thunderstruck, we all stared at the frightful beast. I reckoned that its body was as thick as an oil drum and that its visible length was some eighty feet. When we were far enough away and my boatmen dared to speak again they said the monster would have crushed us like a box of matches if it had not previously consumed several large capybaras.”
Such was the extraordinary nature of the encounter, Father Heinz was far from hooked on finding all he could on the immense beast and its ilk. He learned that yet another huge boa had been shot and killed, one day previously, as it tried to devour a capybara – the world’s largest rodent and which can reach the size of a dog. It wasn’t long before Father Heinz had a second sighting of a massive snake:
“My second encounter with a giant water snake took place on 29 October 1929. To escape the great heat I had decided to go down river at about 7:00 p.m. in the direction of Alemquer. At about midnight, we found ourselves above the mouth of the Piaba when my crew, seized with a sudden fear, began to row hard towards the shore. ‘What is it?’ I cried, sitting up. ‘There is a big animal,’ they muttered very excited. At the same moment I heard the water move, as if a steamboat had passed. I immediately noticed several meters above the surface of the water two bluish-green lights like the navigation lights on the bridge of a riverboat, and shouted: ‘No, look, it’s the steamer! Row to the side so that it doesn’t upset us.'”
It was no steamer: “Petrified, we all watched the monster approach; it avoided us and re-crossed the river in less than a minute a crossing that would have taken us ten to fifteen minutes as long. On the safety of dry land we took courage and shouted to attract the attention of the snake. At this very moment a human figure began to wave an oil-lamp on the other shore, thinking, no doubt, that someone was in danger. Almost at once the snake rose on the surface and we were able to appreciate clearly the difference between the light of the lamp and the phosphorescent light of the monster’s eyes. Later, in my return, the inhabitants of this place assured me that above the mouth of the Piaba there dwelt a sucuriju gigante.”
And, finally, there is the following account of Reymondo Zima, a Portuguese merchant, who Father Heinz had the good fortune to interview. Zima told the priest:
“On 6th July 1930 I was going up the Jamunda in company with my wife and the boy who looks after my motor-boat. Night was falling when we saw a light on the river bank. In the belief it was the house I was looking for I steered towards the light and switched on my searchlight. But then we noticed that the light was charging towards us at an incredible speed. A huge wave lifted the bow of the boat and almost made it capsize. My wife screamed in terror.
“At the same moment we made out the shape of a giant snake rising out of the water and performing a St. Vitus’s dance around the boat. After which the monster crossed this tributary of the Amazon about half a kilometer wide at fabulous speed, leaving a huge wake, larger than any of the steamboats make at full speed. The waves hit our 13-meter boat with such force that at every moment we were in danger of capsizing. I opened my motor flat out and made for dry land. Owing to the understandable excitement at the time it was not possible for me to reckon the monster’s length. I presume that as a result of a wound the animal lost one eye, since I saw only one light. I think the giant snake must have mistaken our searchlight for the eye of one of his fellow snakes.”
It was, to be sure, a lucky escape.