A number of readers have responded with positive comments about my recent “alligator” essay. While writing that, I was reminded of another piece I had done about slithering creatures. Around eight or nine years ago I was on assignment to cover a traveling reptile show. As a journalist, I’ve done worse. A lot worse – I’ve had to cover politicians. The reptile show assignment was at once surreal and paradoxically rational. I had many preconceptions about the people I would meet there. Most of them turned out to be wrong. As you’ll see in the tale below, this was no troop of conniving carnies. It was a family operation driven by the sincere desire to entertain. Before telling that tale, I would be remiss if I didn’t make one thing clear: I hate snakes. I mean I really hate snakes. I’m not all that fond of lizards, newts or any other crawly little nightmare. If this show had a target audience, I wasn’t anywhere near the bullseye.
It’s one of those unavoidable things, but then again that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be: A hundred feet long, bright yellow paint, beaming floodlights, oversized colorful graphics of alligators and snakes. It’s not subtle. If you drive down Olive Street in Pine Bluff this week, you can’t miss it. Danny England’s International Attractions, traveling reptile show is in town until August 7th.
Why would a man quit a solid job with the telephone company just so he could haul a snake show around the country? Moreover, what must that first breakfast table conversation have been like when the epiphany struck? Is there any good way to tuck “Think I’m gonna go buy a live King Cobra and drive him all over the country” in between bites of toast?
After ten minutes of hearing Danny England of Cassville, Missouri talk about it, the logic unfolds. “The last year I worked for the phone company, I started visiting state fairs. I struck up friendships at the fairs. They were very helpful. I learned from successful people,” he says between sips of a shaved ice. “I had a reptile show in Branson [Missouri] but it was on leased land. The owner died and I had to relocate.”
Thus, the traveling reptile show was born. England began with one trailer. There are now three. His exhibit is different than most shows of this kind. “I put together the kind of show I wanted to see,” he said. “I met a guy that had three snakes in the back of a truck. He could stay in a town about two or three days before folks figured it was a rip. We stay in a place a week or more. Parents bring their kids. Then the grandparents have to bring them back… I’ve had people come see it as teenagers who now bring their kids,” he said, pausing to direct a gathered throng of customers.
“I try to give people their money’s worth… it’s a quality show,” England observed.
“Quality” it’s word England used again and again as he pointed out the features of his show, “doubled panes of glass… double and triple locked boxes… it’s clean, the signs are clear… we put out the plants… it looks like something… it’s inviting… people will feel comfortable bringing their kids here.”
It looks like a guy with a metal stick and the meanest snake you’ve ever seen lurching at him.
While England spoke, his daughter, Angie Hall, collected admissions. Hall has traveled with her father since she was twelve (thirty-three years). “Oh, I’ve done other things. I was a waitress. I worked at the chicken plant…” Hall said.
When asked about the division of duties, England said, “Oh, it’s a family business. Everybody does a little bit of everything.” Hall and England’s girlfriend, Sandy Summers — also on board for several years — nodded.
England’s statement that “everybody does a little bit of everything” turned out to be not quite true. Proof of this was seen at feeding time. When it was time to give “the King” (a very large King Cobra) a chicken breast, one guy got that job: England.
As Hall said, “I worry Daddy’s going die someday and then I have to figure out how I’m going to get the King out of his box.”
It seems the King and England have reached a certain understanding of one another’s habits. This in itself begs a few questions. Where does one learn the craft of snake wrangling?
“I’m self-taught,” England says. “I just try to put myself in their place. I have no fear of them. They present no danger because of the way I handle them,” he continued.
To the untrained eye, it doesn’t look that way. It looks like a guy with a metal stick and the meanest snake you’ve ever seen lurching at him. “Oh, I’ve been bitten very rarely. The worst time, I just got my hand too close. It wasn’t really a bite. I got the poison out quickly,” he said with a marked nonchalance.
England likewise dispels what he takes to be undeserved maligning of his charges, “They are not aggressive… that’s more myth… I like to say they’re very defensive… just imagine a great big thing had you cornered with its hand out.”
Maybe so, but Hall and Summers, seem less convinced. Hall related her introduction to the world of traveling reptile entertainment, “Danny came to town [Minden, LA]. They setup next to the Chinese restaurant where I was a waitress. I’d just graduated [from high school]. I was just drawn to him.” Love at first sight? “Yeah, I’d say so. My mom about had a fit when I told her I was going with the show,” Summers says with a chuckle, “Oh, my family all loves Danny now.”
Summers also told about the early days on the road, “I bunked with Angie for the first year. One night I was asleep and I heard a terrible noise. The trailer shook. There was all this banging… Angie just looked up and said, ‘oh that’s just the gators growling.’”
Asked what he’d do if he couldn’t do this, England drew quiet. Looking off into the distance he said, “I don’t know. There isn’t any other business of which I am capable that would bring the same results. I love to see people’s fascination, their pleasure… it doesn’t get any better than this.”