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FEAR AND LOAFING: Hissssy fit (Snake Handler)

 

Click on the photos to enlarge them...

Before Clyde the Burmese python began coiling around my neck is when I would have preferred hearing about how lethal he is.

"This animal can easily overcome people our size," says Jack Jewell, the consulting animal curator at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, whose size is considerably larger than mine.

Burmese pythons, native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia and the airplane seats under Samuel L. Jackson, kill by constricting their prey even tighter than my late grandmother's Thanksgiving hugs. (Speaking of which, I think I'm starting to see her at the end of a long tunnel of light.)

Clyde and his cohort Bonnie -- who else? -- dine every two weeks on thawed jumbo rats. Today is not their feeding day, and I can't call this fact settling. So we can hose down the climate-controlled python habitat, I'm walking Clyde -- essentially one 12-foot-long, 35-pound, hissing bicep -- into the adjoining feeding area and he seems to be expecting something.

This is worse than a meeting with my lawyer (although strangely similar).

"I like everything about this job," Jewell said earlier, "but it's a tough career over the long haul."

Jewell, 50, works full time as general curator at Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. But he stops by the Natural History Museum twice a week to tend to its much smaller collection of animals and fish.

"There isn't a whole lot of money," he said, "and you've got to hang out a long time to get ahead -- or you've got to be willing to travel all around the world and look for jobs as they present themselves."

Animal curators start at about $30,000 per year, according to Jewell, and top out at $50,000 -- if they can find the work.

"Right now there's a huge boom in the zoo and aquarium business in China," Jewell said. "So if you're willing to move to China ..."

Back to the snake that's squeezing the life from my body ...

"They're extremely strong," Jewell continues as I inquire how to best avoid becoming a journalist-shaped hump in Clyde's tail.

"Your rapid movement in front of his head is a bad thing," Jewell replies. "Otherwise, you're in good shape."

Jewell had the typical prepubescent male love affair with reptiles. But because he lived in the El Paso, Texas, desert, it wasn't confined to books, zoos and the exotic-animal store.

"There were tortoises, Texas horned lizards and snakes everywhere," said Jewell, who collected milk, garter and rat snakes. "They came right into your backyard."

Jewell never grew out of the phase -- although he expanded his animal obsession to the ocean floor after relocating to the Bay Area in the late '70s.

"I worked in a tropical fish store there," he said, explaining that it was at the worst possible time -- just before the huge retail chains gobbled up the pet market like the "Jaws" shark.

"Don't worry, he doesn't recognize you as food," Jewell says as he helps remove my killer-snake necklace and we slowly lower Clyde into an enclosed corner of the feeding room. He adds, however: "That's not to say he won't bite you -- if you surprise him, scare him, or touch him incorrectly."

Again, not to nitpick, but beforehand was also the preferred time for my lesson in correct snake touching.

Since pythons have no venom, a bite won't kill a human (at least not unless or until anaphylaxis or infection set in). However, it will hurt enough to make you wish it did. (And, according to Jewell, the answer to the question, "Does a snake bite?" is always, "Is it a snake?")

After the fish store tanked on him, Jewell's animal expertise landed him a job with the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, which led to one at the former Marine World Vallejo in California. In 1998, he moved his wife and three daughters to Las Vegas and began work at The Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage.

"Las Vegas offered much better opportunities in employment and housing," he said. "It still does."

By the next year, he eyed a help-wanted ad for the under-construction Shark Reef.

"Initially, it was hard to get people to come out here, because the reputation of Las Vegas was dubious," he said. "But now, people are happy to come here, because we have the resources and we've proven ourselves as being capable."

Jewell supervises a team of 10 animal-care specialists at Shark Reef, and two to four interns at the museum.

After the python tank is cleaned and Clyde slinks back in, I move two smaller snakes -- Prozac the boa constrictor and Jake the gopher snake -- from their cages to the feeding room. (All four were unwanted pets donated to the museum by private owners.) Handling these guys seems like nothing compared to Clyde.

"Careful," Jewell says. "People usually get into trouble when they get cavalier."

He points out that "smaller animals are always more nervous than larger ones" -- a fact I should have realized, being a nervous smaller animal myself.

It's feeding day for Jake and Prozac (named for his calmness, and even he once nicked Jewell in a force-feeding mishap). I'm not sure which is grosser -- having to grab rigor-mortised rats from a plastic freezer bag running under warm water, or having to wash up in that same sink afterward.

"You should smell the rats we feed Bonnie and Clyde," Jewell says, adding that he's pushing to graduate them to dead rabbits.

The day's work done, I check myself fastidiously for overlooked puncture marks. There are none, but the side of my right hand is glowing red.

"The snakes' skin is riddled with bacteria," Jewell told me earlier, which is why he ordered me to scrub my hands with sanitizer between handlings. "They crawl around in their own urates and feces and, if you have tiny wounds you may not even know about on your skin, they could get infected."

Jewell said snakeskin -- which is leathery, not slimy like commonly assumed -- once gave him a "rip-roaring" infection in some cat scratches he forgot he had.

My malady is not entirely bad news. I always wanted a small scar that would communicate my bravery to the world.

I show my throbbing paw to Jewell.

"No," he says. "That looks like an allergic reaction to the hand sanitizer.

"The stuff we use is pretty strong."

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.

 
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