By Victoria Giraud - People & Places Columnist
Printed in the Los Angeles Daily News
Jules Sylvester calls himself a vermin wrangler, which means in his definition, handling anything nobody else likes in their home.
Jules gets paid to make cockroaches, rats, scorpions, lizards, frogs, rattlesnakes, pythons and various other animals and bugs perform for the entertainment industry.
"I love it. You couldn't give me a better lifestyle. This is my consuming passion," this tall and amiable man declares, laughing enthusiastically.
With his own business, Reptile Rentals, or as a freelance out-trainer for Animal Actors of Hollywood, Jules is kept constantly busy on film projects all over the world.
An upcoming film project in Venezuela, tentatively entitled "Indian in the City" will involve bird and rat-eating spiders, the largest variety of tarantula. The hairy spiders measure 10 1/2 inches across, and they're the same species he used in the film "Arachnaphobia."
"They have a nasty bite, and I'm allergic to the hairs. I have to use gloves or a spatula and a cup," Jules explained with glee. He obviously enjoys the faces people make when he describes situations that would horrify many of us.
Not long ago he worked on the movie, "Congo," filmed in Costa Rica. Jules was in charge, among other things, of maintaining serpent control and "had an absolute blast." Each day Jules would catch poisonous snakes. One day it was a pit viper that had crawled under the make-up lady's bag.
The 200-person crew had to endure mud, rain, and a constantly active volcano, but ironically, Jules said the bad roads and fast drivers made driving in Costa Rica the biggest danger.
Keeping a sense of humor while working with his creatures is important to Jules, and he finds laughter everywhere. Since most of his work involves second unit filming, he can crack a lot of jokes. Like the time he was enticing his rat to crawl up the leg of a naked Kevin Bacon by using peanut butter and carob syrup in the movie, "Murder in the First." Bacon was a prisoner in solitary confinement.
Jules keeps his creatures in a special, temperature-controlled trailer at the Animal Actors site in Thousand Oaks. A deep freeze holds ratsicles and micesicles --frozen rats and mice, he says laughing-- which are thawed out for the snakes. Cockroaches, he has four species, get dog food and lettuce.
Jules chuckled remembering the stale Twinkies he tried to feed his cockroaches. "They stared at it for three weeks before they finally ate it."
One of his favorite creatures is the over 7-foot Brutus, a version of Komodo dragon, that was one of the stars of "The Freshman," a few years ago. Now Jules brings Brutus to the nursery school of sons Justin, 5, and Jonathan, 4, for photographs.
Besides vermin and reptiles, Jules loves working with chimpanzees and wolves. "Wolves have a very closed and complicated social system," Jules explained. The social graces are important to observe since wolves don't like strangers. It takes a trainer a great deal of time to develop a relationship. "The ideal thing is to be a non-person, to be calm and unobtrusive. Always keep moving. Don't indulge in the human trait of standing around staring."
Some years ago Jules took local wolves to Coldfoot, Alaska, in mid-winter for a Sears commercial, and was amazed at their adaptability. He had also managed wolves for the movie "Never Cry Wolf." The Alaskan site was 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The temperature, at minus 87 degrees was too cold to run any vehicles or fly out, and the crew were stuck there over two weeks.. They had to wait until it warmed up to minus 74. It was too cold to film, and Jules remembers finding six inches of ice under his bed in their trailer camp.
"The wolves, who were born and raised in Thousand Oaks, were totally ecstatic. It was wonderful to watch how magnificent wolves are, how adaptable, and how insignificant we are. They could adapt from minus 87 to 100 degrees."
Recently he took wolves from Thousand Oaks to Thailand for "The Phantom," a movie soon-to-be-released. Despite the dense, hot and humid jungle, once again the wolves loved the environment.
Born in Kenya and growing up on a farm, Jules 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.
Even wife Sue, who was born in Rhodesia which is now Zimbabwe, gets in the act occasionally. "Sue's not too keen on snakes," Jules commented. "She did some second unit work on one of the Freddie's Nightmare sequels."
"My business is rocketing," Jules said. "I get along with most people and that helps. In business you sell yourself, anybody could wrangle a cockroach, but I can do it with a lot more giggles."