February 6th, 2011:

My Vermin Wrangler Neighbor

Jules Sylvester & Sinaloan Milk Snake

Some years ago, I had a fascinating neighbor, Jules Sylvester, who owns and still operates Reptile Rentals. He and his wife Sue lived above me in a very nice apartment complex in Agoura Hills. The complex was built on a hillside, right at the edge of the Santa Monica Mountains, a great location for nature lovers, especially someone like Jules.

If a wandering snake slithered down from the hills during warm weather, many of us might try to avoid it since rattlesnakes don’t make good friends, but not Jules. He’d add it to his creature collection in a temperature-controlled trailer he owned. He probably still has a freezer for what he laughingly called “ratsicles” and “micesicles” –frozen rats and mice to be thawed for snake food.  He also kept four species of cockroaches (movies require all sorts of props) that got fed dog food and lettuce.

Even insects have preferences about what they consume, and apparently don’t like too much sugar. Jules once fed stale Twinkies to his cockroaches. “They stared at it for three weeks before they finally ate it,” he said.

That was years ago, but I imagine he has a similar setup since he’s still in business providing various creatures for movies and TV. Jules grew up on a farm in Kenya where he was exposed to and collected all kinds of animals and insects, 10-inch wood scorpions, spiders and giant lizards, for instance. He remembers his school’s football field was so close to the forest that occasional leopards would run across part of it, even if games were being played.  At 16 he was already working as a student helper at Nairobi Snake Park.

In the mid 1970s, Jules met his mentor, Hubert Wells, the owner of Animal Actors. Wells was training lions for a television series based on Joy Adams book, BORN FREE. Adams was Jules’ Kenyan neighbor, and he was hired to handle lions, despite his lack of experience.

Jules came to the States soon after, lured by the circus, not Hollywood. He spent three years on the circus circuit before he got a job as assistant trainer for the television series, “B.J. and the Bear.” His business has grown ever since. He handled the snakes on the film Snakes on a Plane, for instance, and frequently brings creatures to Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

My kids and I got to know Jules, a very tall and amiable fellow who loves his work with critters like snakes, alligators, crocodiles, frogs, toads, crabs, lobsters, insects, lizards, mice, rats, scorpions, spiders, tortoises, turtles, etc.

As he told me in one of several interviews I did with him, he was a vermin wrangler, which meant he handled anything most people didn’t want inside their home. “I love it. You couldn’t give me a better lifestyle. This is my consuming passion,” he declared.

More about Jules on future posts.

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