Friday, July 6, 2012

Cleopatra's Snake

When Melody Bates steps onto stage next week as Cleopatra in the Opera House Arts production of "Antony and Cleopatra," she will at some point have with her Figgs, a three-foot, pound-and-a-half ball python. Eventually -- spoiler alert! -- the snake will be Cleopatra's undoing in what is surely the most famous snakebite suicide in literary history.  Bates has been tracking her experience as Cleopatra in her blog, including an entry about Figgs and his provenance. It's no surprise that the OHA creative team -- known for its derring-do -- wanted a live snake onstage for the dramatic finale. But what did surprise me is that OHA artistic director Judith Jerome found the snake in Maine in the Herp Lab of 7th-grade life science teacher Doug Kranich at Millinocket Middle School. Kranich's classroom is filled with reptiles -- teaching tools for a man who loves all things living. Figgs is a recent addition to the collection -- adopted by Kranich from a former student who was moving and couldn't take the snake along. I caught up with Kranich by phone in Texas, where he and another friend were rattle-snake hunting. "How do you hunt for rattle snakes?" I asked Kranich. "In a car," he answered. He and his snake-handling companion have only one thing in mind with the rattle snakes: taking pictures. Krannich and his wife will attend the closing night performance of "Antony and Cleopatra" and escort Figgs back to Millinocket. The following is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Kranich.

What did you think when you received the request for a snake to be in a theatrical production?
It’s not like any request I’ve ever had. It truly caught my attention. My name is listed on the Maine Herpetological Society website, and we get a lot of strange calls. But this is something I had never heard of before. Judith [Jerome] told me what she wanted, and I had just been given the ball python. I thought: This just might work because these snakes are noted for their docile behavior.

Had you heard of Cleopatra and her dramatic death by snakebite?
Well, sure. Yes, I have. But as far as somebody using a live snake in a play, no, I had never heard of that.

When I saw the pictures of the snake around Melody’s neck, I got a little scared. Tell me why I shouldn’t be scared.
It’s a matter of faith. You’ve got to trust their demeanor. If we wanted to we could find a ball python that might not fit the mold, but generally they’re extremely docile and inoffensive. If anything, they want to hide their heads most of the time. Generally they are very reliable. You know people whose personalities are such that you know they’re not going to bite your head off. This snake is the same way. I know that’s a kind of strange connection, but it’s true.

Isn’t it also true that some animals – a snake or a pit bull – get a bad rap, that if we really understood their breed or were better informed than just from the media, we wouldn’t be afraid of them?
Everything you hear about these animals in the media is negative. Everything. They are represented as evil, as something to create fear, as a mystery, as danger – and it’s totally false in most cases. That’s what we have been conditioned to believe. We always hear about the pit-bull attacks. Nobody cares about them when they’re nice. It paints a bad picture for all of them – it’s the same way with snakes.

How did you prepare the snake for his debut at the Stonington Opera House?
Ball pythons are known for their fasting ability. I know of ball pythons that didn’t eat for a year. That’s hard to believe but they’re fairly heavy-bodied snakes. They have a lot of fat reserves. Having a month without any food is not a problem. I gave Judith all the basic housing he needed and said she didn’t have to worry about feeding because he’s been extra fed for the month. The only mistake you can ever make in picking one up is if you had held mice, and the snake would be misled by the stimulus of a food item because of the scent on your hand.

Why would someone want a snake for a pet? 
When I was a kid, I didn't have dogs and cats. But I loved everything under the sun that was alive. That probably has a lot to do with my teaching because I love life science and everything about it. I liked snakes because they were different. Most people like dogs and cats for their human characteristics--affection, answering to calls, loyalty. Reptiles and snakes in particular don't follow any of that. They don't hear. Even though some people will stake their lives on it, snakes are not affectionate. They don't create bonds with their owners like dogs do -- although that's a very controversial statement. I love them because of their different characteristics. That's what motivated me.

Opera House Arts presents "Antony and Cleopatra" July 12-22 at the Burnt Cove Church on Deer Isle in Stonington, Maine. For tickets, click here. Snake photos courtesy Melody Bates. Doug Kranich photo used by permission of Doug Kranich.