Of all the world's snakes, one of the most beautiful is the sluggish yet deadly Gaboon viper, also known as the butterfly adder for the delicate pink, brown, and purple patterns that stipple its skin. It's the favourite photogenic snake of Hollywood reptile wrangler to the stars Julian (Jules) Sylvester, who grew up in Kenya catching creepy-crawlies from the age of four. Now, more than 300 movie sets and fun challenges later, Sylvester has parlayed a deep knowledge and love for all slithery creatures great and small into a professional niche, which might find him providing maggots to a CSI set or taking 10,000 flies to Paramount's Stage 17 for a horror movie; more than 20 years ago, he worked on the Toronto set of The Freshman, starring Marlon Brando, training Malaysian monitor lizards (which doubled as Komodo dragons) to walk on a leash.
A good son, Sylvester credits his mom, Okanagan-based author Margaret Hayes, not only with hauling him out to Africa as a boy but also with subduing her own apprehension of snakes and remaining cool while observing how much their beauty appealed to him."Still, I'm 61, and she still tells me to be careful," he quips, his bubbling sense of humour belying an unblemished safety record of more than 30 years. Motherly advice coupled with Sylvester's mirth diffuses an innate human antipathy to reptiles, standing him in good stead during early summer jobs that ranged from cleaning out cages at the Nairobi Snake Park to "banking" cash on the Kenyan set of the TV series Born Free by placing money in a drawer full of puff adders, where, unsurprisingly, it remained safe.
Later, Hollywood beckoned, and now Sylvester and his wife, Sue, work from their ranch in California. In addition to myriad colourful, non-venomous snakes such as the rainbow boas, other ranch residents include personalities like Moffie, a voracious three-horned Caribbean rhinoceros iguana whose gastronomic idiosyncrasies mean that "she will eat anything, and I mean anything-chocolate, marshmallows, Brussels sprouts, you name it," says Sylvester fondly.
At Reptile Rentals, Sylvester's company, the employees are snakes that feast on rodents-previously frozen but gently defrosted in the California sunshine.
This excerpt is from the spring 2012 issue of NUVO.