Brian Barczyk has a job that, for some, more closely resembles a nightmare: He is the proprietor of BHB Reptiles, a company that breeds and sells snakes. I used to have a terrible phobia of snakes as a kid: One of the earliest memories I have of snakes is a scene of King Kong fighting a monstrous snake in a late night movie. If I’m honest about it, gorillas kind of frightened me too – wonder why? With a little work, I got over my snake phobia and any lingering fears of apes (By the way, if you want to read a very cool book about the discover of the gorilla, an animal that people used to think was only a myth, check out Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm -available in March!.)
Anyway, Brian Barczyk’s adventures as a snake keeper inspired him to start SnakeBytes TV, a YouTube program that has millions of viewers. After watching Brian struggle to contain an enormous, ill-tempered python named “Satan”, I was hooked on the program, and thought I’d bring him in to answer a few questions about his crazy job and how science fiction and fantasy entertainment can do a better job of portraying these fascinating creatures.
When did you start getting into snakes? What was the largest amount you owned at one time before you got into this professionally?
I’ve been keeping snakes since I was fifteen, that’s when I convinced my mom to let me keep my first pet snake. It wasn’t long before I had over 250 snakes in her basement. (Understanding mom, huh?) When I was 19 years old I’d made enough money from breeding and selling baby snakes to buy my first house. By moving into that house and having the entire basement dedicated to snakes, it wasn’t long before I had thousands of snakes and actually became a business, but I often still look at it as a hobby as well. Although that was my first big step it’s certainly was a long way off from my facility now where up to 50,000 snakes preside.
Tell me about your work. What do you do? What’s a typical day like there?
As with any business owner I wear a lot of different hats, from being the leader of my 12 person crew of keepers, to serving as an animal caregiver myself, to working as our YouTube webshow producer, and even helping people with problem snakes (and of course selling our offspring to keep the light bill paid, which is WAY more then I’d like to admit). My day starts at seven AM. I’m not even out of my bed when I am checking my twitter and tweeting back to our loyal following. I get to my shop by Eight AM and start by checking the tens of thousands of snakes that we care for. You can say that my day literally starts out with poop. After the first few hours of delegating my crazy crew with their work, it’s returning phone calls and emails for a few hours. Then the fun starts: I feed snakes or switch males into females cages for breeding. Although I love all aspects of my life as a snake breeder, the best times are when I get to work with my animals. After all, that’s where my passion is. My normal work day ends about nine or ten PM. (Did I mention this is seven days a week?) This is my schedule when I am in town, which is not as often as I’d like – I travel all over the world in search of animal adventures, and also to give speeches and film various projects.
What kinds of snakes do you have there and how often do you get bitten?
Fortunately, I only work with non-venomous snakes, from cornsnakes and kingsnakes that only get 4-5 feet long all the way to boas and pythons that are as long as 18-plus feet and 250 pounds! Getting bit is a part of working with any large group of any kind of animal. I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve been bitten in the last 25 years, but it’s certainly in the hundreds of thousands of times. Let’s just say that if I get through one day without a snake bite, then I’m feeling pretty lucky! With that said, snake bites aren’t as bad as you think. They bleed a lot and look pretty nasty, but most of the time the pain is very slight. The only part I hate is when they leave a couple of teeth in there as a parting gift. I was in New York last weekend and my thumb was throbbing from a Python bite that I had gotten a few days earlier. It was so bad that I couldn’t sleep, so at two AM, I decided to start taking a closer look and, sure enough, after digging in with a pair of tweezers I found a nice, long tooth buried deep in the wound. In honesty, it was such a relief to pull it out – all part of the joys of being a “snake guy”.
I’m infatuated with “Satan”. I know a lot of people who have suggested that you…ahem…get rid of her, so I have to ask why do you keep her?
Satan is my 17-foo,t 170 pound Burmese Python that more then deserves her namesake. I hatched her out six years ago, and from the start she had an attitude that was far from placid. In honesty, I kept her for two reasons: first, I couldn’t sell a snake that was that mean, and secondly, I really believed that she would tame out as she got older. Almost all of them do. In her case, she not only kept the attitude, but it may have even gotten worst. I know this might sound strange, but she’s one of my favorite snakes. Although she is “always” ready to bite you – and trust me I’ve been on the end of those 200 sharp teeth more then once – she’s just a great animal. She’s very predictable and I always know what to expect from her. I’ll open her cage and can guarantee she’s going to strike between one and three times immediately, and seeing as she has a six-foot strike range you have to be pretty quick. I can’t imagine ever getting rid of her, or would even consider putting her down as some would suggest. She’ll be with me her entire life… she’s certainly one of BHB’s mascots! (Heck she even has her own Twitter page!)
How did SnakeBytesTV start? What kind of reception have you had?
My life has been dedicated to reptiles and to say we have an “interesting” job would be a understatement. Seeing some of the reality TV shows, I’ve always thought they wouldn’t have a thing on what happens here on a daily basis. I often say that I run more of a mental institution then a reptile breeding facility. You can only imagine the colorful people who would want to work with tens of thousands of snakes on a day in and day out basis, so while we were in search of a TV network to pick up the idea we decided to start a web show. I had no idea how to produce a show and what reception we’d have, but I thought that it would be good practice and that maybe we’d even have some fun. I figured we’d make between six and ten weekly shows and be done with it. Well, 262 weeks later we have not missed one week of production in putting a new show out. (Slightly longer then my original plan?) We’ve since shot a TV pilot for a major network, but unfortunately they decided to shelf the project. When I released the first web show almost five years ago, I wasn’t sure if ten people would watch or ten thousand. We now have over 1.5 million views a month and are always growing our audience. It’s pretty humbling to think that so many people follow what we do, and for me it’s been such an incredible experience: I get to help change people’s minds about the animals I care so much for. I hope I’ll be able to keep both our web show and eventually break into the traditional TV side to reach an even larger audience.
Let’s take a famous fictional character who is frightened by snakes: Indiana Jones. How would you help him get over their fear? Have you ever seen anyone like that lose their fear?
One of the things I pride myself on the most is helping people conquer their fear of snakes. Ironically enough, Harrison Ford actually likes snakes, but I certainly have met a lot of “Indiana Joneses” in the past. Although there are rare exceptions, most people can get over the irrational fear of snakes. You have to start slowly, first letting them observe a friendly, beautiful snake from a distance for a while. When they get comfortable with that, encourage then to touch it. This is when people start to change their mind about snakes; when they realize that snakes aren’t slimy, they feel soft and normally warm to the touch. In time you have them pick up the snake and talk about the reasons they feared them in the first place. It’s a process, but one that is relatively easy and almost always successful. The funny thing is that I have many great costumers that used to fear snakes, but now buy a lot of them. One of my good friends and great clients is Brent Burns from the San Jose Sharks NHL hockey team. He was terrified of snakes, so he decided to get one to get over his fear. He now has over 200 snakes! Trust me: Everyone can learn to appreciate these amazing animals..
Let’s talk about snakes in fiction. Do they get a bad rap? What are some of the worst depictions you’ve ever seen of snakes in movies or books? Did you ever see the first Conan film? What are your thoughts on the giant snake “god” in that movie?
The funny thing about this topic is that I’m not sure I can think of an example where snakes weren’t depicted as evil and bad in a movie, on TV or in a book. Don’t get me wrong, I get it: Entertainment is about sensationalism – that we need to have these things we are supposed to hate in order to keep people interested – but it’s a shame that such amazing creatures have had that role and I am on a quest to change that. When I think of the worst examples of Hollywood and negative snake representations, I can’t help but think of the movies Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane. In both cases the snakes were framed in a light that was so far over the top it was laughable. (Maybe in the case of Snakes on a Plane there was supposed to be a bit of humor?) Although I will admit I watched both those movies and actually enjoyed them, I do wish that there could be the occasional movie that shows snakes for what they are: relatively placid animals that would rather hide or flee from you. and certainly never chase you across the entire Amazon basin just so it could kill you, eat you and then regurgitate your remains so it has enough room in its stomach to eat your friends and their families. The Conan film was another example of playing into the negative stereotype that snakes have. Again, I understand and I can enjoy these films as much as anyone else, but I just wish that the general public realized as much as I do that this is entertainment and far from the truth. If I have to be asked one more time if my boas are going to eat me I might explode!
We have a lot of fantasy and science fiction writers here at Suvudu.com. What are some things about snakes that they should know in order to write about them more realistically?
As a writer, I realize the easiest way to use a snake in your story is to make it out to be a man-eater or a creature that will terrorize a community, but the truth is these animals are far from that: They don’t look at people as a food source and don’t want to waste their time or energy chasing a human. I’m not sure how to best use them in science fiction, but some of the fascinating things about snakes are the fact they have been around since the dinosaurs, they can survive and thrive without arms or legs and that, in many cases, they are the apex predator in their environemnts. They can still have a strong presence in any writing without having to eat little Johnny’s pet poodle or – even worse – little Johnny himself!
Where can people find you online? How can they sign up for SnakeBytesTV?
I live all over the interwebs, but I’m a twitterholic at www.twitter.com/SnakeBytesTV, a YouTuber at www.youtube.com/SnakeBytesTV, and I’m on FaceBook at www.FaceBook.com/SnakeBytesTV. You can also find my reptile shop at www.bhbreptiles.com. Thanks so much for having me a part of your site and make sure everyone knows I’m here to help with any questions that someone might have about reptiles!