Henry Rollins has been front man for the bands Black Flag and the Rollins Band, a record producer, a poet, a journalist, a non-fiction author, a solo performer and a staple of recent USO tours for the armed forces. As himself, he hosted THE HENRY ROLLINS SHOW. As an actor, his credits include JOHNNY MNEMONIC, HEAT, LOST HIGHWAY, BAD BOYS II, THE DEVIL’S TOMB and SONS OF ANARCHY. He hosts a radio show on KCRW – tune in Saturday night April 30 for his tribute to the late Poly Styrene.
As if that’s not enough, Rollins is something of an expert on snakes, having owned a number of sizable serpents in the past. This makes him an ideal host for National Geographic Wild’s WILD ABOUT SNAKES: SNAKE UNDERWORLD, airing tonight at 7 PM and repeating at 10 PM. The program explores individuals who own dangerous snakes, including some owners who may not be up to the demands of caring safely for their rare pets. In this exclusive interview, Rollins talks about the program, the people he encountered and his own personal fascination with the subject.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did you become involved in this program?
HENRY ROLLINS: Years ago, I was at MIPCOM, shamelessly promoting my IFC show, trying to get people to buy it for their territories. I met with my manager there, and we met with someone from Nat Geo – “Wow, National Geographic, you guys are cool, I’m a big fan” – and he said, “Well, maybe you’d like to do something with us.” I said, “I’m ready now. Let’s go.” That was three years ago. And so I met Juliet Blake [National Geographic Wild senior vice president of production], who’s now my boss, and she said, “Yeah, I know who you are and I’ve seen some of your documentaries on IFC and yeah, let’s keep talking.”
And so the years went along and schedules kind of shook themselves out, and last year, they said, “What do you reckon?” And I said, “I’m in, I’m ready.” And I was at their office, talking about, “What can we do with Henry?” And Jeff [Daniel, head of programming] from Nat Geo Wild walks in and he said, “We’re going to do this thing on snake keepers. Are you afraid of snakes? Because we like you, and we’ve been looking for a place to put you. What do you think about snakes?” I said, “Actually, I’m one of those snake guys, since I was a kid.” He went, “You want to do this?” I went, “Oh, sure.” And that’s how it happened.
AX: Do you have a personal preference between the constrictor snakes and the fanged snakes?
ROLLINS: Oh, sure. My favorite field of study, if I could be in a room full of them and get to work with them, would be cobras, a snake I don’t have a whole lot of hands-on experience with. I’ve kept a lot of non-poisonous snakes in my life, but as far as a species of snake that fascinates me, it would be the cobra and the king cobra, which is a different species.
AX: Why cobras?
ROLLINS: As a kid, you see them in movies, and the fact that they hood up and it’s that crazy-looking shape. I have handled some of them before and they’re smarter than you think. They’re amazing survivalists. A lot of them are omnivorous – they’ll eat anything. They eat snakes, lizards, rodents, just to stay alive. They’ve figured it out – that’s why they’re still with us. I just find them really interesting. I also have a great interest in reticulated pythons. I’ve kept quite a few of those. They all get big, and in two years, all of a sudden, you have this eleven-foot, forty/fifty-pound thing that not only inhales expensive food items, but can rip your arm open and give you nerve damage if it bites your hand and is quite a bit to handle. And I’ve had a few of those at a time, and it’s like keeping horses in your house. It’s a lot of animal, it’s a lot of work. And you have this freezer of rodents outside, and friends don’t come by [laughs].
AX: What is the thrust of SNAKE UNDERWORLD? Is the emphasis on, “If you’re going to have this animal in your household, here’s what you need to know?” or is it more, “Here are different types of snakes, and this is what’s cool about them”?
ROLLINS: It looks at the keeper as much as the kept. We hang out with people who are professionals who have huge enclosures, acres and acres, where they’re breeding animals outside, like iguanas and crocodilians. Then we meet the guy who’s buying a rattlesnake with money. He’s paying cash for the most toxic rattlesnake in America, the Mojave. So we’re basically getting into the keepers who are keeping rattlesnakes in their homes in a residential neighborhood, and they haven’t told the neighbors, who will find out [when they see this program]. So it’s as much about the person who’s geeked on the critter as it is about the critter itself. It’s a look at a part of America, a facet of us and our freedom.
AX: What are some common snake-owner mistakes?
ROLLINS: Someone who buys a cheap reticulated python, because a normal reticulated python is a cheap snake. Pythons breed prodigiously, could kick out up to seventy eggs. And it’s a low-ball item. You want a snake? Thirty-five bucks, you have a reticulated python. “Pit’s going to get pretty big …” “Eh, I’ll cross that bridge.” That bridge comes sooner than you think, and all of a sudden, in your two-bedroom apartment, you have this thing that takes up the master bedroom. We’re talking about an animal that you can barely pick up. I could make a python get [about twelve feet long] in maybe less than fourteen months, that’s how quick they grow if you keep them warm and well fed. So the common thing is, you have someone who has an animal that is all of a sudden wildly beyond their control or it’s way more pet than they want. You’re in Manhattan, New York, with this fourteen-foot thing. Who wants this? You put an ad in the paper – “Anyone want a fourteen-foot python? No? Hunh.” What do you do with it? You can’t flush it down the toilet, you can’t leave it on the subway. And that’s when people go, “I’m screwed. I’ve got this huge, rabbit-inhaling monster and no one wants it.” And so that’s a thing that happens quite a bit. Basically, with the size of the animal and the responsibility of it gets way bigger quicker than the person thought. It’s not like a dog.
To keep a venomous animal, the first advice I would give is, “Don’t.” That’s what I would suggest. “Watch the TV. Go to a zoo. Don’t own one.” Because if you make a mistake, the bite is more catastrophic than you could ever imagine. You could lose the hand; it could kill you. And so I would recommend that you don’t do that. The one state in America where I think they do it right is Florida. If you want to keep a venomous animal in Florida, they make you get a thousand hours of training, they make you go intern with someone. And that’s a real deterrent. Because after about ten hours, you’re just like, “Can’t I just have the snake? I have nine hundred and ninety hours to go?” Most people don’t make it. And good – they don’t get to keep the snake.
AX: Are the people who keep extremely dangerous snakes antisocial in other ways?
ROLLINS: It’s such a rarefied group of people who would keep a hot snake, as they call it, I don’t think you can generalize. It’s too rarefied a person to go, “Oh, they’re all …” I think it’s someone who’s usually insanely interested or obsessed – quite often, you’ll find that they know way more about snakes than you thought they would, they’re really into it. They’re probably very careful in all aspects of their lives.
AX: At what point and why did you decide to stop keeping snakes yourself?
ROLLINS: They are high-maintenance, if you want to be a good keeper, and so it was a combination of traveling more and more and more and more, getting more busy. I’m a work slut. I never say no to work. I want to do stuff. So I got more opportunities, I started traveling more. My critter sitter, he’s with my animals more than I am, and I went, “I’m spending a lot of money every year on rats and rabbits to hang out with animals I see every other semester.” And so I gave them all away for free. I gave really expensive snakes that I have thrown thousands of dollars of food down their throats – I gave them and the caging all away.
AX: You were talking about a gentleman who is shooting himself up with snake venom. What is the purpose of this?
ROLLINS: He is using himself, his body, as a guinea pig. He is seeing if he can build his blood to have enough antibodies to where he can just be resistant to snake venom. It’s not a precautionary measure. As far as I know, he only owns three snakes, and they are three he extracts venom from to inject himself with. He works in a building that has tons of pythons. That’s what he does for a living. He maintains pythons for a breeder/vendor. He has a little room inside this big building, full of high-dollar snakes where he keeps his three specimens and does his research on himself. Otherwise, he’s the most normal, cool Midwestern guy, nice kids, nice wife – and he injects black mamba venom, by the way. That’s how he treats it – “Oh, I’m doing this thing. Otherwise, I’m just a dad.”
AX: Speaking of metaphorical snakes, to make an awkward segue, what are you doing politically in the current political environment?
ROLLINS: Politically, I do what I have been doing for quite a long time, using my First Amendment rights to never shut up. All I can say is, I voted in the midterms, like a lot of Americans didn’t. Here’s a great generalization that you can disagree or agree with – I think every country gets the government they deserve, in that if you don’t like where your House of Representatives is [at present], you should have gotten thirty of your friends to show up and vote, because if you don’t like John Boehner, if you’re not in love with the Tan Man, you should have voted louder. Basically, Democrats abdicated. They should have showed up like they did for the last election. And so 2011 and 2012, are going to be some pretty rough water for where this House of Representatives wants to take this country, in my opinion. I want to be wrong, because I’d like this country to do well. What they seem to have planned I think is just a bunch of time-wasting obstruction. And politically, I say things like that. In VANITY FAIR, on KCRW, on my website, on stage or in front of Walkmans anywhere [laughs].
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about SNAKE UNDERWORLD?
ROLLINS: I think people should watch the special. I think it’s really cool, and I hope other people do.