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On Bluebonnets, The Bluebird Festival, and Snakes with The Blues.

April 13th, 2011

It’s springtime in Texas and the highways are awash in the blue and white of our State Flower, peppered with the occasional red of Indian Paintbrush making an early debut.

So after shows for a school in Katy on Friday, it’s a quick trip back North to head East to Wills Point on Saturday for my second annual appearance at the Bluebird Festival, shows at 11 and 1 on the main stage. It’s a fun little festival in a fun little East Texas town, and it’ll give me a chance to refill my 5 gal glass carboys on the way back at the Artesian well West of Canton – with pristine drinking water that predates chlorine, fluoride, pesticides and fertilizers.

While smaller snakes often fall prey to Bluebirds, Texas Rat Snakes would represent the next step up on the food chain. It’s the circle of life, folks. Good news is, here in Texas, if the snake is way up in the trees going after the birds, it’s not venomous. No tree vipers here.

Snakes get the blues when they are nearing shedding time. The outer layer becomes cloudy, which obscures the color and pattern of the snake. Only the otherwise clear scale covering each eye makes the hue easily identifiable, and it’s usually best described as a pale shade of blue. It tends to make many of them irritable at this time, as their already less than impressive eyesight becomes far worse, until just before the actual time to begin climbing out of their skin as if it were a big tube sock. The outer layer goes clear, having separated from the layer below sufficiently to shed, which also happens to make it easier to find appropriate surfaces against and between which to maneuver to complete the process.

Nature’s cool.

Snake Removal

June 13th, 2010

The 800 number for Snake Removal Inc. that was in place for years was down for a while, but I now handle field work within 150 miles of Dallas (and much farther if the size of the job justifies the travel) and can still do online photo ID’s and one-on-one consultations on appropriate prevention strategies (very inexpensive) all under the umbrella of Snake Encounters.  Just call 1-800-339-9470.  I’ll call you back.   I also still have much of our nationwide network of the best of the best in this field available, depending on where you are and the size of the job.  BTW, snake repellents do not work, so save your money if you’re considering using one. But there are things you can do that absolutely do work, and I have over 25 years in the field under my belt.

Python Ban

December 19th, 2009

I oppose S.373, the so-called “Python Ban” as it is ill conceived, politically contrived, and based on the shakiest of “science”. A better word would be “baloney.” Not to mention, it could functionally legislate me out of existence.

Here’s a copy of the letter I wrote to my two Senators.

December 17, 2009
Dear Senator Cornyn,
Dear Senator Hutchison,

Please oppose S. 373 aka ‘The Python Ban’. It would bypass the accepted USFWS process for amending the Lacey Act and legislatively add 9 species of boas and pythons to the Injurious Wildlife list. If passed as written it would threaten a viable US industry producing high quality captive bred reptiles for hobbyists, research, zoos, TV & film, museums, schools, scouting organizations and the fashion industry. Senator Hutchison, we’ve met and you’ve seen my show at a kid’s party in Dallas.

The USGS report being used as justification for these draconian measures has been characterized by independent scientists as “unscientific” and “not suitable as the basis for legislative or regulatory policies”. I appreciate the difficulties Burmese Pythons may pose to South Florida, but it is a problem that is endemic ONLY to South Florida and should be dealt with at the state level. S. 373 encompasses far more than Burmese pythons, including animals that couldn’t hurt a human if they tried (and almost never do) and with proper husbandry and handling, Burmese pythons can be among nature’s most compelling and effective ambassadors. Released anywhere but South Florida, there is nowhere in the US where they could survive a single winter.

S. 373 will hurt my family and my business. It does not address the underlying problems proponents claim. S. 373 makes no provisions for the disposition of over 2 million snakes already in captivity in the US. It will create a situation where thousands of Americans are in possession of “Injurious Wildlife” and subject to felony prosecution under the Lacey Act. This bill will be bad for our state, bad for jobs, and sets a terrible precedent by legislating science for the sake of political expedience. Please oppose S. 373. Thank You for your time and consideration.

Daryl Sprout

Will this help? Does my voice mean anything here? I dunno. I called both offices and offered to meet with them in person, which of course a secretary jotted down and said would pass along.

Can I do my show without pythons? Yes, but it will lose several facets of what makes it great. Besides, I have the best, most patient animals in the business for my little niche. What would become of them?

More catching up

December 18th, 2009

Ok, I’m typing again. The best thing about spacing, facing and tweeting is that it forces me to write, which I’ve always thought something should be doing.
June is the end of snake mating season so that traffic slows down a bit on the Snake Removal front, but then in August all the little babies begin to hatch (or gravid females of some species will give live birth) so Aug-Nov is the busiest time of the year for that.

It’s also the busiest time of the Snake Encounter year, with libraries, parties, fairs and festivals – and usually a museum here or there being among the possibilities. Libraries in particular have their Summer reading programs, and since I’m willing to travel farther than most, you never know what far flung Texas town I’ll be in next. Generally speaking, my library shows are usually rather significant violations of the fire code (room capacity) but Fire Marshals, men who aren’t afraid of burning buildings, are rarely as calm about snakes. Don’t think I’ve ever had one in my audience.

In late August I boarded the Carnival Conquest for a trip to Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. A buddy of mine (I was best man at his wedding) in Houston had a marriage that lasted less than two years, so I went along in her place (with her blessing) on what was supposed to be their 2nd Anniversary cruise. All in all it was amazing, and I befriended and hung out with a group of closeup magicians that were on board. Usually they only have one, but the other three were going from there to other ships the following week.

I also met the ship’s acupuncturist, who did a great workshop on intro to Chi Gong, and I had a session with him later. Pretty cool.

The timing was a challenge, being gone for a week during peak season, and cell time (and internet time) at sea both cost a fortune, but it was a worthy experience. In Cozumel we took an excursion and I swam with stingrays, and one big female was thrashing around when any of our group tried to hold her for a photo op (including the guides that knew her) but I gave her Reiki and she promptly went to sleep in my arms. She didn’t move a muscle for several minutes until I gently let her swim away, which she did VERY slowly as if in a trance. The guides were freaking out.

In Grand Cayman we snorkeled the wreck of the Cali, a ship that was a sailing vessel and later an engine driven ship, later unwisely converted to Diesel. This stressed the boat so bad during a full power attempt to beach her to escape an oncoming hurricane, that the seams began to give way and let water into her holds – which were filled with a huge shipment of rice. The rice met the water and expanded – making the Cali the only seagoing vessel ever sunk by rice. The port authority later declared it a hazard and ordered it destroyed, but the military types who brought the explosives got it wrong by a decimal point, and blew her to smithereens. It blew out almost every window facing the port, and impaled her mast deep in the ground quite a ways onshore. Very interesting wreck to explore, and the sea life there is gorgeous.

All in all the Snake Removal season continued a decline that has pretty much mirrored the economic news, with more and more people deciding that if it costs money to fix, maybe that snake problem isn’t so bad after all, or being duped into cheaper alternatives like snake repellents, which do not work – but have a powerful placebo effect. You rarely see a snake in the same place twice anyway (from his point of view, you’re HUGE) so you put out a smelly powder and don’t see him there again – and you think it worked. Usually, your footsteps (he can feel them through the ground) are what drove him off instead – if indeed he was even still around when you did it.

Meanwhile, some members of our government are trying to legislate people like me out of existence, proposing a ban on what is apparently a growing list of constrictors that would make it illegal for me to transport my animals to many of the places where I do my shows. The day may come when I’ll have to decide upon a venue to work for and put down roots. That’ll be sad for a lot of clients who have booked me year after year because, they say, I’m their most requested performer. I’ll create an alternative show with more magic, more stories, more media and fewer snakes, but some cities are so clueless about all of this that bans on “all constrictor snakes” are being considered or even enacted. The smallest baby corn snakes that couldn’t constrict your pinkie hard enough to turn it pink – are constrictors.

October I was performing almost every Friday and Saturday night at Screams, the Halloween park in Waxahachie on the grounds of the Scarborough Faire Renaissance Festival. I was the new kid on the block and was strictly busking, but the response was good enough that I expect bigger things for next year.

November is birthday month for Julie, my son Daryl, Julie’s dad, several of my friends – and me.

And December, my usual slowest month, did at least have Discovery Science Place the first weekend. There’s a day camp show in late Dec, and I did walkaround at a couple of parties. At least, for now, everyone is still eating.

October and other hot topics.

December 10th, 2009

Dear me. Four months without a post? Scandalous. Lots of catching up to do, so I’ll start with a few smaller items and we’ll see where it goes.

Wow. What a ride October was. Screams is the world’s largest Halloween theme park, and General Manager Coy Sevier contacted me about a building they had made into a mostly enclosed restaurant, which he proposed could have a stage and heating so a Snake Encounters show would be possible on October nights. I had been invited before, but the temps were just too cold to do outdoor shows that time of year. I would be an experimental new idea for the park, so I could either charge a separate admission, or I’d be busking. I chose the latter for several reasons, and I have to say that it was a learning experience all around.

With four propane heaters provided by the park, and one by me, I barely managed to keep everyone up to temp on a couple of those nights. Part of the problem was the building’s roof was designed to let heat OUT during the summer, and closing off all of the upper level vents will be critical to doing this next year. Crowds were generally packed and responses were favorable, but passing the hat in a time of economic downturn is harder than it looks. My son Daryl and his girlfriend Dani helped with that most shows, and now they’ll have a real conversation starter listed on their resumes.

Of course, being booked for every Friday and Saturday evening in October meant I had to turn down a lot of Halloween parties so it literally cost me to do the gig in some ways. The only break in the action was the Grayson County Fair in Denison, which had been booked before Screams approached me. That was another set of complicated variables. Cold rain and swampy parking areas made doing that one a big challenge, but overall our efforts were successful and they want me back next year for a third visit.

Throw in a Scout show or two and you’ve got a reasonably busy month.

Snake Removal continued to struggle with more and more people with a snake problem in a time of economic stress deciding that perhaps the problem wasn’t so high priority after all. In ways other than financial, in some cases at least, that is a good thing.

I did get a SR call to go on in November – all because the client had hired a “competitor” instead. This guy had charged by the hour for wading the pond on the site of a large housing development. It was choked with Hydrilla so wading it would have been highly problematic, and any snake would have had a huge advantage over anyone trying to do it. No one saw him wade the pond, but he reported shooting SEVEN Water Moccasins, who were literally attacking him according to his verbal-only report. No carcasses, no photographs, no evidence whatsoever. He told several homeowners there that his diagnosis was that the entire property was infested with deadly Water Moccasins. He then quoted the client $22K to “treat” every house there with Snake Away.

Snake Away is a combination of mothballs and sulfur, neither of which is effective in repelling snakes unless applied so heavily that it would repel all of the humans. No “snake repellent” has ever been proven effective in actually altering snake traffic. And they chose this guy because his price for the inspection was cheaper.

I saw a picture of the only snake that had been seen (and of course subsequently killed) by ANY of the homeowners, and it was, without the slightest question, a harmless yearling Texas Rat snake.

I grieve to think how many other clients in the Metroplex might have actually paid this guy, an independent pest control operator who, “also does snakes,” which almost always means either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or does but lies and plays on people’s fears to ramp up the price.

Tubed at last.

July 23rd, 2009

Thanks to my son Alex taking up the challenge of learning how to edit and post video (he’s 16 so he has a natural advantage) I finally have a couple of clips on YouTube, with more to come.

The challenges of selecting clips to use were more involved than either of us anticipated.   First of all, audience members kept getting in front of the camera at important moments, severely limiting the number of possible vignettes available.  Each animal’s part in the show has a story, and it doesn’t work well if you don’t get the whole thing.

Sound levels are a challenge too, as are the differences that can creep in between what you edit and what you post.  Still trying to figure that one out.

So what you can see so far are two clips from my eighth visit to Columbus, Mississippi to perform at the famous Market Street Festival on behalf of my friends at CableOne.  The first is my introduction. The second is the bit I did with my Jungle Carpet python.

So check ‘em out, leave comments and let me know what you think.  I think they do give a decent idea of the look and feel of the show.

New Animals

June 28th, 2009

Doing what I do leads to a lot of folks asking me to adopt animals that, for various reasons, they can’t continue to care for.  I’ve always done what I could.  Sometimes that even means that new animals end up doing the show with me, as living ambassadors for their kind.

My latest additions to the Snake Encounters roster are both very unique snakes with distinct personalities.  They couldn’t be more different.

The first we have named Peter Piper – the Persnickety Pine snake.  He picked a peck of pinkie pups.   Actually, he’s too big even for rat pinkies – we’re talking jumbo mice or small rats for him, but they don’t begin with a P.  And he has a delightfully demonstrative attitude, including what may turn out to be the best hiss in my collection.  Distinctly patterned, unlike most Pine snakes – very impressive.  He may well be taking the place of the smaller (but more vocal) of the two Bull snakes I currently use in the show.

The other is from the opposite side of the planet, and he’s already in the show. He’s a big, short, stout, impressive Blood python.   His name is Vladamir.  Generally speaking, Blood pythons are very well named, but this one’s a total sweetheart.  The crowds seem to love him.  Check out the pic – that head can swallow something even a bit wider than his enormous middle.  The photo was done by the photography studio that was hired by Dr. Pepper/Snapple, along with me, to do their latest ad shoot – promo material for their two new flavors of the energy drink called Venom.

Posters and such with my Albino Burmese named Neon draped around a very pretty model (tough work to be sure) should be appearing now, mostly in independently owned convenience stores across the country that carry the product.

While we were at it the photography team took shots of Neon and Vladamir without the model, and DP/S gave me permission to use them.  HUGE files.  My computer didn’t want to be doing anything else when I opened them.  Wow – these guys work at outrageous resolutions.

The Pine snake shot, in sharp contrast, is my own work.  6.2 megapixels is a completely different world to say the least.  Sigh.  You should’ve seen the camera setup the studio pros were using.  Extremely cool.   Then again, I do get a lot of mileage out of my humble Canon Powershot.  Mounted on a monopod, it acts as my primary snake stick and lets me tell a much more specific tale about what exactly is the nature of someone’s snake problem and what needs to be done about it.

So here they are for the first time on the web, Peter Piper the Pine snake and Vladamir – the Blood python!



Jeff Dunham and Brian Haner

May 10th, 2009

Julie and I went to see Jeff Dunham at the American Airlines Center (home of the recently hapless Dallas Mavericks) on Friday.  I’ve been a fan for years and had begun to count him among my top four favorite performing comedians, but this show has me beginning to consider Jeff the funniest man alive.

He’s my age, so at about the same time in the same part of the country he and I were doing our first gigs at age 8.  Yep, I started out onstage at age 6 doing my first bit part in a musical (Mom was the director of the local high school theater department) but my first solo gig was as a ventriloquist.  I did mostly church crowds back then, plus my school of course.  It never occurred to me to look into getting paid for it.  Apparently it did to Jeff.   He was actually audited 5 years later.   I gave it up when my falsetto voice went away (never to completely return, and that was my character’s voice) but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for vent work.

Very few people realize what a combination of actor, comedian, puppeteer, singer and organized schizophrenic a good ventriloquist must be.  Not to mention the hours and hours of practice it takes just to develop the basic lip control.  Try this, part your lips slightly and try to say this sentence, “Badgers find many wonderful people vexing” without moving them.  Several consonants, normally created by lip movements, must be recreated with significant tongue gymnastics.

To Jeff’s list, add comedy writer and master craftsman.  I didn’t know this until I saw the live show (an absolutely inspired slide slow for people waiting in their seats showed facts and figures, pics from his past and a hilarious Q&A with Walter.  One of my favorites was Q: Ginger or Mary Ann?  A: Mrs. Howell).  Except for Peanut, his wisecracking, hyperactive purple alien character (the first one I saw him with) all of his now very famous ensemble, Walter, Jose Jalapeno, Bubba J and Achmed the Dead Terrorist were made by Jeff.  That’s HUGE.

I’ve thought many times about doing a snake puppet bit in my show, but Jeff and Terry Fator have raised the bar very high as to what would be good enough to warrant the weeks and weeks of practice it would take to regain my labial skills and develop a routine worthy of including.  I have the concept in mind, including the adaptation of a principle from magic that would make my figure completely unique, but also quite expensive.  We’ll see.  I’ve said it before.  With the right resources, I could be Snakefreid and Roy.

So as the show began, we were introduced to the opening act – Guitar Guy!  Yes, he speaks!  His show was standup and musical comedy, and it was absolutely wonderful.  His real name is Brian Haner and even though he’s currently playing straighter man to Jeff’s straight man (no mic – just take the abuse in silence, please) don’t be surprised to see Brian hitting the big time on his own soon.  His show rocked.   I’ve always loved a well-written comedy song, and this guy delivers.   He’s also one of the best solo guitarists I’ve ever seen.  His finale was breathtaking.  His son is Synyster Gates, lead guitarist of very successful band Avenged Sevenfold.  That apple didn’t fall two inches from the tree.  Talent out both ears.

As for Jeff, the new material was even better than I expected, interwoven seamlessly with bits the audience clearly knew as well as he did.  A good belly laugh is as medicinal as anything a doctor or a shaman can deliver, and the show was chock full of ‘em.  He started off with some standup of his own, and it was good to see Jeff getting the laughs directly for a change.  Then we were treated to everyone we wanted to see, Walter (who knows how to be topical in Jeff’s hometown) Achmed (Jeff’s simultaneous control of his voice, mouth, body, eyes, and eyebrows is just unbelievable) Peanut, Jose Jalapeno (on a Steek) Guitar Guy of course – and an encore with the redneck return of Bubba J!

Humornirvana. Two thumbs up.  Best performance I’ve seen this century.  Congrats, Jeff and Brian.  Well done.

And then?  Well, thanks to the perfect temperatures, out in the SUV were three road boxes.  We spent midnight to 4am shooting a creepy snake-in-the-bathroom scene for an upcoming indie film called “Love Thy Neighbor.”  Stay tuned for more on that.

Back to Mississippi!

May 6th, 2009

We love doing Market Street Festival for our friends at CableOne. It’s a great event that draws huge crowds of very fun people. The bands are always excellent, the food is a delightful slice of the South, and this year even the hotel knocked the ball out of the park.

CableOne put us up in a jacuzzi suite with a widescreen, and it was roomy and sumptuous. Just the place to recover from a ten hour drive.

We did shows at 10, noon and 2 on Saturday the 2nd and the crowds were wonderful. For some reason, the festival had rearranged the locations of several things, much farther away from our stage than any previous year (this was my eighth) but we pulled in enough for all the seats and lots of standing room.

Despite all this, the local paper barely mentioned it even though the festival itself dominated the front page. Apparently there is some kind of unhealthy media rivalry going on between the various agencies in Columbus.  Figures I guess.  Being the most popular festival in the area, there would be a few power plays involved.

Anyway, like I touched on in my post about Market Street last year, even though I have never lived there, Mississippi is in my blood.  My mother was born and raised in Jackson, and we visited often.  My aunt and several cousins live in Wesson.  Most years, that’s where we have Thanksgiving.

I recently learned something from Mom’s past that’s pretty funny.   When she was attending Jackson High, there was a sock hop that her friends were going to, and they asked her along.  The school had hired a garage band from Tupelo High.  Average copy tunes from the era, but a pretty decent band.  Her friends wanted to meet the band during a break, and Mom remembers thinking the lead singer came off a little full of himself.  But she did think that Elvis was a catchy name.

Sarcoxie High

April 12th, 2009

Alllrrighty then.  Back to snakes.  Pardon the detour through Arkansas.

So on Wednesday we were back in AR, this time in Fayetteville to stay with my good friend Rob Kenyon and his family so that we could be in Sarcoxie, MO on Thursday.  We really had a great time hanging with them, and Fayetteville was very enjoyable.  We’ll be back.

I was scheduled to perform for the whole school, grades 5-12, in advance of a day off before a big week of academic performance testing starting Monday.

First of all, let me say this about the students in Sarcoxie, Missouri.  We’ve done this show for thousands and thousands of kids of all ages across the country but this was a standout group.  Sharp as a tack (sometimes my humor can be a little hard to keep up with) and they went a couple of steps beyond any group we’ve seen.

One, they went on my site before we arrived and picked out their favorite snakes to actually make posters for.  I have the whole set.  Funny thing is, I get pretty focused once the show begins and while I could see people holding them up, they were a little hard to read at that distance up in the bleachers (my vision’s not what it used to be and I’ve been in a little bit of denial about it) and I didn’t really catch on to exactly what they had done until the end of the show.  I thought the guy cheering about Andy the Anaconda when I mentioned him, who was holding up a poster I couldn’t read, was saying his name was Andy too.   Momentary cluelessness.  Sorry ’bout that.

Even worse, three people picked Evie to make a poster about, which is entirely my bad.  She was a wonderful part of my show, but she passed quietly away a little over a year ago after a prolonged battle with recurring upper respiratory issues.  We miss her.  She was a great story too.  A friend of mine donated her to me after a roommate of his moved out and left her behind.  The roommate was, ahem, a dancer – and Evie worked for her.  I don’t know what her name was back then (I wasn’t there for her early career) but something just seemed appropriate about a large female serpent named Eve.

I shall henceforth endeavor to update my animal roster forthwith.  It doesn’t even mention Capone, and I know he’s a lot of folks’ favorite.

Second, I had more help getting the show loaded in and out than I’m used to, and it was entirely, well, helpful – if you know what I mean.

But best of all, and Julie was the one to notice this first, when we let quite a crowd of them interact with several of our animals at the end of the show, the level of care and gentleness they used in touching, holding and moving them from person to person was exceptional.  Usually we have to explain repeatedly that a snake will let you guide him with an open hand, but will dislike being gripped and controlled by a closed one.  The tongue is for tasting the air, not the fingers.  The back of the head or under the chin can be touched, but only gently and without sudden moves.

These kids already knew.  When Julie and I drove out of the parking lot, she said, “That group was awesome.  They actually gave me new hope for the future.”   I heartily agreed.  I love doing schools, but this one really stood out.

The underlying concept of this version of my show is relating the origins, side effects and cures of a learned fear like ophidiophobia to another one, the fear of taking academic performance tests.  I can seriously relate to that.  It happened to me.  Just like working with a venomous snake that needs to be safely removed and relocated, increases in my heart and respiratory rates and the moisture level in my palms all used to hit me come testing time back when I took them.

Today, the stakes are higher.  A school’s standings and available resources can also be affected by how well all of the students do on testing days.  Only attendance (stay in school!) has as much bearing on access to funding.  Just like seeing a grown man about to mow you down because he’s just seen a snake, it can all be very scary.  But fear is transmutable.

Fear can be, with surprisingly little effort, transformed into focus, clarity and insight.  Just like overcoming the fear of snakes, accurate information and a generous helping of humor can make a closely held phobia melt away like ice on a warm day.   For more on overcoming ophidiophobia, check out my blog entry from July ’08.  On the other side of the fear, power is waiting.

I remember back in my own school days, the test that intimidated me most was the IQ test, because here were a few pieces of paper that were literally going to judge me, relative to all other humans, as to how smart I was.

I later came up with a little trick that overcame both the fear and the focus problems with IQ tests.  Faced with a time deadline and all those questions to answer and problems to solve, I devised a system.  If I thought I knew the answer but wasn’t quite sure, I marked my best guess and put a check mark in the margin beside it.

If I didn’t have a clue as to the right answer, I took a wild guess and put a little circle (like a zero) in the margin next to it.  I made no extra marks next to answers I was sure of.  Then, when I finished the test and had minutes to spare, I was able to easily revisit the check marks first, to see if my mind, now freshly looking at problems I had waffled on before and no longer bogged down by the remainder of the test, could come up with new insight into the answers.  It often did.

Then, if I had the time after double checking the checks, I took another look at all the circles – problems I had been clueless about earlier.  Frequently even these became easier to work now that the entire test was behind me.  Sounds weird to say it, but this trick actually raised my IQ.

Come to think of it, if everyone in a school were to use the same system, the teachers grading the tests would be able to tell exactly how well it was working for each student.   Pretty cool.

So now we’re feeling completely involved in the efforts of this excellent bunch of students in the coming week.  Go Bears!  We’re rooting for you in Texas.

Take it easy on the Easter candy today so you get a good night’s sleep, but recent research says that gnawing the head off of that chocolate bunny tomorrow morning (after a good breakfast) will actually raise your scores.  You have a great school – one to be proud of.  Now – get in there and prove it to the rest of The Show Me State.sarcoxie