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Snake Bits

Anaconda
K.C. Bailey

Snake Pit: 'Anaconda' scales back the truth in favor of sensationalism.

Reptile expert Ken Howell sheds light on 'Anaconda'

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he visits fearless snake-keeper Ken Howell to discuss big reptiles and the new film Anaconda.

"THIS WAY!" Ken Howell threads his way through the cavernous foyer of San Francisco's venerable California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. He sidesteps a squealing throng of tourists, turns right at the Tyrannosaurus rex, and plummets down a staircase while I hurry to keep up. We rush through the museum's cafe, duck past a "staff only" sign, and descend another, noticeably darker, staircase. Only now does my guide slow down a bit, clearly relieved to be back in his own domain.

"So, is that a normal crowd for a weekday?" I ask, cocking my head upwards as Howell leads me past a series of offices and classroomlike work areas, stacks of rocks and tubing, and cages swarming with baby-pink rats.

"I wouldn't really know," he shrugs. "I seldom go up where the people are. I prefer to hang back with the reptiles."

Ken Howell, a muscular, soft-spoken yet wry-humored kind of guy, is the official snakekeeper here at the academy's renowned Steinhart Aquarium, where he's worked for over 18 years. His charges include rattlesnakes, boa constrictors, and pythons. He understands them; they understand that he feeds them. It is a mutually satisfying relationship.

Earlier this week, Howell ventured out to see the popular fright-flick Anaconda, a neat yarn about a ravenous 40-foot-long river snake with an appetite for clueless documentary makers (played by Jennifer Lopez, Eric Stoltz, and rapper Ice Cube). A gloriously evil snake hunter (Jon Voight) is involved, but the real star is the snake itself--Jaws without the fins--a critter so fond of killing, we are told, that it will regurgitate its prey just so it can put the squeeze on something else.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook ever since this movie appeared," Howell says, as we arrive at his office. He waves me to a seat beside an aquarium containing a dozen week-old baby boas, gently undulating in and out of knotlike sibling embraces. "People want to know if anacondas really get that big, which they can, and then they want to know if they really upchuck their food just so they can eat again, which, of course, is very false. But people seem to want to believe that."

I sit quietly a moment.

"So, snake bulimia is not a big problem, then?" I ask, attempting to hide my disappointment.

"No, not as such," he grins. "Sometimes when you know a little too much about natural history, it takes away some of the fun of the movie. Like in Tarzan movies: suddenly Tarzan is fighting piranhas or something. In Africa! Piranhas are a South American species. I try to roll with it.

"There are instances when an anaconda might regurgitate a prey item," he says, perhaps sensing that I'm not quite satisfied about this whole upchucking thing. "Particularly if the snake is disturbed right after it has eaten. If you start spooking them, often times they will regurgitate, simply because they know they can get away a lot faster without it. But they don't do it, you know, just for yucks."

Howell counts off the other bits of misinformation that made Anaconda fun--if not exactly factual. Included: snakes don't grab people with their tails, they don't snatch falling prey in midair, and they don't make dinosaur noises when they get peeved.

"Aaiieeeeeeeeeeee!" Howell squeals, accurately duplicating the movie snake's voice. "Snakes don't do that. They don't vocalize. Some might sound like they hiss, but all they're doing is exhaling air very quickly."

For years, the Steinhart had an anaconda on display upstairs; it was a popular site with the visitors. At a length of 13 feet, it was certainly much smaller than the King Kong­ sized critter in the film, but, as Howell recalls, it wasn't much friendlier.

"They tend to be very nasty," he admits. "They are a 'bitey' kind of snake. When you open the door, these are the kinds of animals that know that they are going to be fed, and they're right there in your face. He was not my favorite snake."

There is a knock at the door. "Excuse me, I've got a case of frozen mice," a delivery man announces. "Can someone sign for it?"

Howell pauses to take care of business, and returns to see me eyeing the baby boas. He asks if they, you know, scare me.

"Not especially," I reply. Growing up, we always had snakes, salamanders, rats, all those things.

"Me too," he enthusiastically nods. "My room was a zoo. Every jar in our house had a lid with holes punched in it. Young people don't do that anymore. I think most people have become a little too removed from natural history. That's why places like this," he waves his hand at the ceiling, "are so important."

"So, you're obviously not afraid of snakes," I note. "Is there anything that does scare you?" Tourists, perhaps?

"Oh no," he grins, stating firmly, "I never tell people what I'm afraid of." He pauses a minute. "Then again, there's not much I am afraid of. The world is a really very amazing place. Instead of fearing it, I'd rather just be fascinated."

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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