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On Safari For Productive Playhouse

Clinging to the side of the mountain, the air undulated in waves of heat. The temperature had soared to 110 degrees, and all around us were creatures in the underbrush slithering and crawling. A one-foot long centipede darts across my sneaker and the African guide, Jules Sylvester, clad in kaki shorts with a ruddy tan, raises an eyebrow. “Careful with that one. That’s a trip to the hospital for sure. Most dangerous creature up here. Don’t wanna have to carry you out.”

Were we high above the Serengeti? Or somewhere deep in the African Veldt? Actually we were in Thousand Oaks California, on the mountain-topped location of Jules Sylvester’s company “Reptile Rentals.” Here Jules cares for and provides a variety of venomous snakes, alligators, insects, lizards, mice, rats, spiders, tortoises and butterflies to the film and television industry, and today he was kindly opening his farm to Productive Playhouse for our “Your Child Can Read” series.

We chose to illustrate vocabulary words with live footage of these wild and dangerous creatures, to thrill kids into learning the words. It seemed like a smart plan until I set down my gear inside the python house. I always thought snakes moved slowly, but it’s a good thing I learned otherwise through the bars of a cage, because the 14 foot white python laid silently, then snapped like a bear-trap around an unsuspecting mouse. Not footage I would include in the series. A tarantula creeping silently through the grass I caught earlier was thrilling enough.

Jules has been training animals for the film industry for twenty years and he’s had his share of serious bites, scratches and near misses. But today the only creature that makes him nervous is the centipede. He uses a long mechanical stick to chase down the lightning fast animal and get him back in his cage. Nearby, a tree starts to move in a strange fashion, and I realize it’s a stick bug, which looks as much like a tree as any tree I’ve seen.

After three hours of capturing every form of creature, we wrap up the shoot. As I put my gear in the trunk I notice a four foot snake working his way across the parking gravel. “One of ‘em get out?” I ask. Jules shakes his head. “He’s a new one. Haven’t seen him before.”

When I get down the mountain, I drink two quarts of water in a convenience store and think to myself: “Yup, this is the kind of class I always wanted to learn from when I was a kid.” And so it is…

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