A Unidata Python training workshop scheduled for Thursday and Friday March 14-15, 2019 at Valparaiso University was unexpectedly cancelled when 63 mongooses escaped from a nearby animal sanctuary and made their way to the university's Kallay-Christopher Hall. By Wednesday, March 13th, the mob of mongooses had burrowed into the building's basement and made their way to Room 210, where the workshop was to be held.
Local animal control officials called to the scene asked Dr. Kevin Goebbert, a Valparaiso professor of Meteorology, if there was anything unusual about Room 210. Goebbert replied that it was an ordinary room, and that a Python workshop was scheduled to take place there the next day.
“Their eyes lit up when I mentioned Python,” says Goebbert, “and they suggested that the animals were probably driven by hunger and were looking for the snakes.”
After Goebbert explained that “Python” is also the name of a programming language, and that there were no snakes in the building, those present quickly became aware that the mongooses had left the room. “I'm not sure if they overheard me, or if they just coincidentally figured it out at the same time,” says Goebbert.
Unidata Python developers Ryan May and John Leeman, who were slated to teach the workshop, originally planned to fly out of Denver International Airport on Wednesday, March 13. As the date grew closer, however, forecasters at the National Weather Service began to predict a severe wind and snow event for the eastern plains of Colorado. Fears that the “bomb cyclone” would close the airport led May and Leeman to alter their plans and instead take an Amtrak train leaving Denver Tuesday morning and arriving in Chicago Wednesday around midnight. Only after renting a car and driving the 90 minutes to Valpariso did they learn about the mongoose problem.
“If my cell phone battery hadn't died somewhere in Iowa, at least I would have gotten Kevin (Goebbert)'s message,” says May. “John and I still would have been stuck in Chicago, but at least we wouldn't have had to wake Kevin up in the middle of the night.”
Despite the fact that the mongooses were nowhere to be seen, Valparaiso officials chose to cancel the workshop to avoid putting students in danger. “We didn't want to alarm the locals, so we made up a cover story,” says Goebbert. “Most of the people registered for the workshop were meteorology students, so we figured they'd buy a story about the bomb cyclone keeping Ryan and John from leaving Denver. It did help that the Denver airport was actually closed. I just felt sorry for the Unidata guys having to spend another 42 hours on the train getting home.”
Unidata Director Mohan Ramamurthy found a minor silver lining in the situation. “Of course we are disappointed that we could not hold the workshop,” he says. “But part of Unidata's mission is to reach out to new communities, and at least now we know that the mongoose community is reading the News@Unidata blog, even if their understanding of the technical terms used is somewhat limited.”
Because the mongoose mob is still at large and can move quickly, and because Unidata's Online Python Training is widely known to be based in Boulder, Unidata Program Center (UPC) staff are implementing extra security precautions. “Python is considered one of the better languages from a cybersecurity point of view,” says Unidata Systems Administrator Mike Schmidt. “This mongoose thing, though … I admit it caught us a bit off guard.” UCAR staff who work in the building that houses the UPC have been warned to be on the lookout for small mammals without proper security badges trying to “tailgate” into the building, and Schmidt's team have sprayed mongoose-repellant at both ends of the Unidata Data Hallway for extra protection. Further security measures, including the temporary engagement of several Red-tailed hawks, are expected to be complete by April 1, 2019.