Grace Olive Wiley -The Snake Whisperer

A true pioneer in reptile keeping, rarely acknowledged in the same way as the likes of Steve Irwin. Born in 1883, Kansas USA, Grace grew up on a farm owned by her parents and her love of nature and wildlife grew from there. Grace had a passion for snakes in particular and had the uncanny ability to calm even the most aggressive and dangerous venomous snakes in the world in order to free handle them herself and spectators participation, without fear.

 She became the first ever person to breed rattlesnakes in captivity in 1922, and soon became curator of reptiles in her own private collection of venomous snakes on display. In 1927 she applied to Brookfield zoo in Illinois for the job of reptile curator there, but was declined (most likely due to the fact of being a woman) – which was further clarified when she was offered the job upon a second application along with the offer of her own hand made reptile enclosures, accompanied by her entire personal collection of circa 115 species, 330 individuals in total. However she only had the role for a total of 2 years. She was fired because of placing her own safety below that of the snakes, but also the cost to cover her insurance to do such things was higher than her won salary.

Though controversial as her venomous snake handling was to many, attracting negative connotations to the zoo in which she worked, many of her methods and findings, we still use today, not to mention she created a new generation of reptile lovers. For example, she figured out the balance between humidity and temperature for incubation, as well as developed many methods of husbandry that are still used to this day, things including sloughing boxes for shedding. One of the most important observation she made, which is still an issue today for poorly cared for reptiles, she powdered up calcium in order to prevent softened and deformed bones – what we now know as metabolic bone disease.

She eventually gained a wide media interest in what she did and as a result, was involved in many films that involved snakes on set. And soon hired a photographer by the name of Daniel Pratt Mannix IV, who you may know as the author of The Fox and the Hound, which went on to be adapted as a Disney film. 

Throughout her life Grace was only bitten twice, once when trying to break up a fight between two snakes, and the second was the one that ended her life. A flash from Daniel’s camera scared the Indian cobra she was handling and it lunged towards him, and as Grace tried to restrain she was bitten on the finger. The only vial of anti-venom she had with her had been cracked without her notice and she died in hospital an hour and a half later. The cobra that had bitten her went to a friend of hers and was used for snake talks in Arizona and appeared to have a G shaped marking on its hood, sparking rumours that, that was the snake that had been destined to end Grace’s life. 

Though fascinating, inspiring and influential as Grace’s work was, it is extremely dangerous to handle a venomous snake at all, let alone free handling. It is not recommended, even to the most experienced keepers.

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