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Our adventurer dives into the snake pit
By Corey Levitan
Indiana Jones is about the bravest movie icon, no? He didn't flinch at poison darts, rolling boulders, flesh-eating spirits.
Even he couldn't deal with snakes.
Recent studies suggest that the most common phobia is hardwired into the brain, stretching back to a time when early mammals had to survive in an environment ruled by deadly reptiles.
My fear of snakes stretches back to summer camp, when my counselor hid his pet boa in my pool locker. (Hard as it may be to believe, I was not a loveable kid.)
When I read that Santa Ana's Discovery Science Center planned a live show called Snakes Alive!, I asked if I could participate, as a way to face down my ophidiophobia for this column. (The show ran from Feb. 9-16.)
"Be careful," my grandmother in Florida told me when I called to say goodbye.
Dallas-based Daryl Sprout begins the show by puncturing some myths for his audience of 50 kids and a handful of parents. Snakes can't hear, for example, so that flute-playing business is a crock. He then displays a few common North American snakes.
"Those were the mildly unfriendly snakes," Sprout says. "Now we're gonna get to the VERY unfriendly ones." One panicked boy tears from the front row to his father's lap in the bleachers.
"Oh, Corey!" Sprout calls out.
I gave Sprout only one direction before the 45-minute show: Freak me out. Unfortunately, this guy takes direction well. I am introduced to a hissing Central American boa constrictor who, with no provocation, lifts his head and bears needle-sharp teeth. Someone has sarcastically named him Mr. Happy.
Sprout, 42, bills himself as a herpetologist and comedian. Right now I'm hoping he's more former than latter. Sprout's hook anchors Mr. Happy, but I can't help notice that the amount of slackened snake is about equal to the distance between us. My legs buckle and quiver as the pink flesh of Mr. Happy's open mouth takes aim. I instinctively step backward.
Call me Mr. Unhappy.
"Where are you going, Corey?" asks Sprout as he edges forward. "Come on, you wanted an adventure!"
Mr. Happy hisses louder and unhinges his jaws. This is worse than a meeting with my lawyer (although, strangely, similar).
Before the show, Sprout told me that snakes don't want to attack humans.
"Venom is not made for self-defense," he said. "It's made for getting lunch. By hissing or rattling, they're telling you to go away because you're too big to eat."
But Mr. Happy seems to know I'm only 5'6" and might be worth a shot. He lunges. Snakes taste like chicken to us. I wonder what I taste like to Mr. Happy.
Actually, he only gets my hat. And I don't even think he reaches that far, I can't tell. The lunge is like lightning. I'm just glad I wore this stupid Indiana Jones prop. If I hadn't, the most prominent target on my head would have been (like it even needs stating?) my nose.
Lest I overstate the danger, Mr. Happy isn't venomous. It's illegal to display venomous snakes in California outside a zoo.
"But he can make you bleed pretty bad," Sprout said before the show. Sprout -- who also owns a snake-removal business -- has had a few of his own snake-handling nightmares.
"I'd been feeding rabbits to a Burmese python once," he said. "And when I picked it up, he decided I still had a rabbit in my hand and he nearly swallowed my entire hand.
"I had 38 puncture wounds on both sides."
For his next trick, Sprout removes a behemoth serpent from a wooden box.
"Corey will now demonstrate how boa constrictors got their name," Sprout announces. My summer-camp nightmare is recurring. Sprout wraps the beast around my neck.
"That's right!" Sprout answers the audience, "from the way they kill their prey!"
I'm not merely entertaining the audience, I realize. I'm entertaining Sprout, who must have performed this act 200 times without such a perfect comedy pawn.
The boa feels cold, since he's room temperature and my skin is 20 degrees warmer. But he's not slimy like I imagined. He feels like leather.
"The trick is to stand very still and remember that you VOLUNTEERED for this," Sprout tells me.
Everyone laughs, but the boa is slowly tightening around my throat. I'm reminded of Homer choking Bart during one of the early "Simpsons" episodes.
"It's OK if he turns a little red," Sprout tells the crowd. "Just let me know when he starts to turn blue."
And I thought the hugs from my great grandmother at Thanksgiving were inappropriately firm. Speaking of which, I think I now see her at the end of a long tunnel of light.
Sprout explains that the snake is merely hugging me like he would a tree, to avoid falling. If he hugged me like he did a mouse or rabbit, the children in the front row would require decades of therapy.
For Sprout's final mind game, he pulls out an albino Burmese python, a scaly pink mound that looks like it battled Sigourney Weaver in space. This is the type of snake that bit Sprout 38 times.
"Anybody ever seen 'Fear Factor'?" Sprout asks. He instructs me to lie down on the stage, then places the 50 lb. wriggler atop my prone body.
"I think we need more than this one, what do you think?" he asks the audience, which screams approval. Nearly all the snakes he introduced this afternoon get dumped on me, plus a couple of new ones. Ball pythons, carpet pythons, the summer-camp boa -- more than a dozen. There are more bright colors in my face than at a Phish concert.
The audience erupts in equal parts laughter and screams.
Imagine hiding out in a baggage compartment under hundreds of pounds of leather bags. Now imagine the bags writhing across your skin.
I forgot to ask whether these snakes were fed, and which, if any, bite. But it's not like I could do anything more than lie still anyway.
"Put Mr. Happy on his face!" one child yells.
"You guys are absolutely sadistic!" Sprout responds. (I know this dialog only because my tape recorder captures it. In the moment, my hearing is muffled by albino python earplugs.)
Thankfully, Mr. Happy stays locked away. But today's special snake-on-a-bed-of-Corey salad is topped it off with Eve, a 65-lb. Burmese python. Fortunately, my body evenly distributes the extra weight and I manage to continue breathing.
More disturbing is the couple of the snakes who are curious to know what exactly I am. I've had tongues flicking in my ear before, but they weren't forked.
"Man, I've never done this to anybody!" Sprout says. "Is this an adventure or what?"
On the drive home, I check myself fastidiously for overlooked puncture marks.
I don't know whether I'm less afraid of snakes now. But I'm definitely more afraid of challenging animal trainers to freak me out.
Snake trainer Daryl Sprout can be contacted at www.snakeshow.com. The Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana is at www.discoverycube.org.
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