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‘Snake Wrangler’ brings stars to the big screen

Herpetologist provides creepy-crawlies for movies like ‘Snakes on a Plane’
/ Source: The Associated Press

The sign reads “Trespassers will be poisoned.”

Outside the front door, more than 100 black grasshoppers, each the size of a small rat, are pinned onto a plastic foam sheet, drying in the sun. Inside, hundreds of snakes, scorpions, lizards, leeches, tarantulas, beetles and cockroaches crawl about in clear plastic cages.

This is the office of Jules Sylvester, Hollywood snake wrangler and behind-the-scenes star of the upcoming movie “Snakes on a Plane.”

A professional animal trainer for 27 years, Sylvester has done more than 330 movies, plus countless commercials and photo shoots.

“Vermin wranglers is what we are,” says the jovial 55-year-old herpetologist, owner of Reptile Rentals. “Everything nobody likes, we’ve got it.”

“Snakes on a Plane,” starring Samuel L. Jackson and wriggling into theaters Aug. 18, called for 450 slithery stars. Sylvester rounded up his best performers — including a 22-foot-long Burmese python — and carted them to the set in Canada in plastic jars and picnic coolers.

It was one of the biggest projects yet for the snake wrangler, who started catching reptiles as a kid growing up in Kenya. As a teen, he got a job at the Nairobi snake park and fell in love with the work.

‘Reptile management’What’s his secret for training the crawly creatures?

“You can’t make a snake do anything they don’t want to do,” he admits. “They’re not that smart and I’m not that clever. This is more like reptile management.”

Sylvester knows how to coax snakes into camera-ready behavior by allowing them to do what they do naturally. They want to climb, he says, and they tend to move from warm to cool and light to dark.

“We just figure out what they want and readjust the set to that,” he says.

“Snakes” director David Ellis says hiring Sylvester was a “no-brainer.”

“He’s probably the best at what he does,” Ellis says. “Plus it was crucial to include real snakes in the film. Computer-generated snakes are awesome but a live, real snake is a live, real snake.”

Though not all the human actors were fans of their animal co-stars, it was great to have the set crawling with snakes, Ellis says.

“It actually helped with their performances because they were terrified,” he says, noting that all the “radical snake action” and snake fatalities involved computer-generated reptiles.

Sylvester and the folks at American Humane, which oversees animal safety on the set, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My big criteria on this movie was do not hurt my snakes,” says Sylvester, who names all his animals but then affectionately calls them “sweetheart.” No snakes were injured during the production, he says — but Jackson “flogged the snot” out of the rubber stand-ins.

Dream job
Though snakes are Sylvester’s specialty, his animal experience extends beyond the reptile kingdom.

“I’ve trained just about every animal you can think of,” he says. “Except I haven’t trained a walrus and I don’t really care to.”

Besides hundreds of snakes and a freezer full of dead mice for feedings (“Sylvester’s frozen zoo,” he quips), Sylvester keeps wolves, chickens and turtles at his sprawling Reptile Rentals ranch. All were raised in captivity.

He earns $500 to $1,000 a day for his work, which he calls “the kind of dream job no one tells you actually exists.” Sylvester is a lifelong movie buff and animal lover, but he’s not a vegetarian.

“I like animals inside and out,” he says with a smile.

Even after nearly four decades handling dangerous snakes, Sylvester says he’s never had a serious close call.

“I’m the only professional snake handler in the business that has not been nailed by a venomous snake,” he says, “and that’s worldwide.”

Besides, if he was to be killed by a snake, he would prefer to be squeezed rather than bitten.

“A constrictor is the way to go,” he says. “You get grabbed and literally you’re unconscious in 15 seconds max, which is a lot faster than any venom will kill you.”

Besides making him feel peaceful, Sylvester’s work with snakes has taught him an important lesson about life.

“We’re all (animals) and we all have basically the same rules,” he says. “Be nice.”