As the Austin Police Department and Animal Protection dealt with the death of a teenager and a cobra on the loose, citizens took to social media to comment on the situation.
On July 14, Grant Thompson, 18, was found unresponsive in his car located in a Lowe’s Home Improvement parking lot along I-35 in North Austin with a snake bite on his wrist. He was taken to St. David’s Medical Center in Round Rock, where he was pronounced dead. There is a possibility that his death was a suicide.
In his car, other reptiles were recovered, but a Monocled Cobra, believed to have caused Thompson’s death, was missing. Thompson had access to the reptiles because he worked at a pet store in Temple, Texas, and was said to have always been a reptile enthusiast.
The Austin Animal Patrol planned a search for the missing cobra on July 17, but the snake was found dead early that morning near the 13000 block of North I-35 next to Palmer Lane.
Yet as the incident unfolded, people made light of the situation on Twitter. Just 48 hours following Thompson’s death and the search for the snake, someone created a Twitter handle, @Austin_Cobra, and received more than 3,000 followers.
Computer science sophomore Andrea Mata retweeted a post the City of Austin put out about the search. Mata said the several humorous responses were surprising because of the gravity of the investigation.
.@Austin_Cobra If you could meet us in the Lowe's parking lot tomorrow a.m. it would be super helpful. We'll bring the tacos, sticks & sacks— Austin Texas (@austintexasgov) July 16, 2015
“It was interesting to see how people quickly made a joke of something pretty serious,” Mata said. “I guess it calmed the mood since a lot of people were scared. The fact that the City of Austin’s official Twitter also made a joke of it was interesting [and] weird to witness.”
Despite the tweets, Mata said there was not much the City could do after it happened but wait until they had an opportunity to capture the cobra.
David Green, media relations manager for the City of Austin, said the City only posted two things on Twitter concerning the incident. He said the City treated the situation as an important matter because a person died and they suspected the cobra was on the loose.
Green said City officials studied what was happening on social media to better understand people’s tone and how to address it.
“We saw this guy generating a lot of attention,” Green said. “[The City] tweeted a press release, but when we decided to take a team out there to search for the snake, we tweeted directly to the Austin Cobra account to gain more attention.”
Green said, after looking at the analytics from the tweet directed to the @Austin_Cobra account, the City’s official statement received more attention. Despite some people making light of the situation, Green said the City of Austin was focused on the matter at hand.
“The City did not want to engage in any jokes of the incident,” Green said. “We wanted to stick with what was relevant to the City and let people know we were looking into the situation.”
Patricia Fraga, spokesperson for the Austin Animal Control, said social media was not a distraction during their process of searching for the cobra. She said it was good to see the community engaged and paying attention to the situation.
“During our process, we did not find social media distracting,” Fraga said. “Overall, it was pretty positive. Unfortunately, a human death happened, but, all in all, there was nothing too negative about it.”
Radio-television-film senior Cassie Craig said she first learned about the incident on Facebook from people who made the cobra into a celebrity. She said she started reading other news and realized the seriousness of the event.
“People are ignoring [Thompson’s] death and making this a funny situation,” Craig said. “The City of Austin and news [stations] are showing the tragedy of the situation, but people are missing the point. The kid who died and his family should be the ones getting the response rather than the cobra.”