“I’ll always have the image etched in my brain from when I looked down and saw her mouth around me and felt the impact and thought ‘oh shit, there’s a crocodile attached to my leg’!”
And now for something completely different…
Usually at MG we’re talking about leather and latex or somebody’s photography or burlesque performance. Not this time. This time we’re talking about snakes, animals, taxidermy and cockroach racing (which involves actual cockroaches and isn’t in any shape or form some kind of kinky Ben-Hur style salesman racing).
Grace Dickinson, aka Good Gracious, runs Snakes and Ladies, which provides trained snakes and beautifully attired ladies for events and performances. The clue is in the title! Along with her snake charming and animal handling skills, Grace also runs DHP Curiosities, which is where the taxidermy and cockroaches come in.
Quite frankly, Grace is an absolute gas! Gorgeous, charming and captivating, Grace is the type of person that makes you feel like you’re five years old and inquisitive about everything and anything all over again. Which is a good place to be these days.
Grace is perfect for an independent and inquisitive magazine like MG. We like good people. And we like excitement. So we hope you enjoy reading about Grace, too.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Grace Dickinson…
How did you first become involved with snakes? And how many do you have?
I was born obsessed with snakes! There’s no explanation or story behind it why – I can’t even remember first seeing a snake or having a life changing moment! I was born that way! My family liked animals and we did move onto a farm when I was about three years old, but I wasn’t born in a zoo or anything. I just had this fascination with the outdoors, with nature, and like every kid, dinosaurs and bones, but reptiles were always there, and unlike most folks, I just never grew out of it.
For my seventh birthday they got a bat stuffed for me that my dad had seen hit by a truck. So that was my seventh birthday, and even before then I had National Geographic videos about Komodo dragons and I always used to watch them again and again. I collected plastic snakes and I was just really, really focussed from a young age on wanting to work with animals and reptiles particularly.
Every time I went to the zoo I stopped a zoo keeper and asked how I could get their job. I’d go to the library and come home with piles and piles of books. I’d just read anything I could get my hands on about snakes. I joined a herpetology club – the study of reptiles – so I could go to nerdy days out, and this is before I was even a teenager!
I got my first snake from a shop called Ron’s Reptiles in Norwich, of course there was no internet then and getting hold of snakes was really difficult, so if you were interested in snakes, you were a proper weirdo. Reptiles are a lot more easy to get hold of now, you can get them from pet shops, the internet, everywhere, but back then you couldn’t. So my mum taught me how to wire electrics and work with wood and I had to build my own enclosure for the snake.
My mum was like, ‘you’ve already proven you’ve read all the books and you’ve joined the club, now you have to build the cage’. The idea being if I could prove all of that I could look after the animal that she wasn’t really keen on. I got my first snake when I was twelve and it all went from there.
How many have I got now? I’ve currently got nine. Which is actually not that many for me! For most of my career I’ve been a professional zoo keeper, which is kind of where my obsession went further.
I volunteered at lots of different wildlife parks and zoos and I ended up in my first full-time career as an animal wrangler for TV and film, while I was studying at animal college. I’ve worked on and off for the company for the last thirteen years. But I was looking after a reptile unit there where I learned how to handle venomous snakes, crocodiles and anacondas, it was a dream! And I just started as a work experience kid and they liked me and I just never went home. I lived in the zoo in their caravan, surrounded by animals.
When you have a lifestyle like that, animals find you or people give you their unwanted animals presuming they can be accommodated for. I ended up just taking in all the snakes that got dumped at the zoo, so I was constantly have things coming in. I’d sort their health out, re-home them, but then inevitably you fall in love with some of them as well. And for many years my average was about thirteen, so my collection is quite refined now, and there are other animals as well, but snake wise it’s just nine.
How do you go about charming them and incorporating them into your work?
In some cases I would choose a snake especially for its body, size, shape, temperament, but every species is different, just the same as how a Labrador has a breed typical temperament that would be different from a Staffie or a Poodle, snake breeds are exactly the same. But within that there’s a lot of different personalities as well, so it’s the luck of the draw.
When your snakes are rescued, many of them come in either very aggressive or very scared. Neither of which are ideal personalities to be with the public, and of course it’s not very nice for the snake either. So when a snake comes into me, I just spend a lot of time observing, handling and assessing it. If I’ve got a snake and it’s aggressive and it’s biting-which is rare, actually. It’s just a case of keep on handling and then it soon realises you’re not going to hurt it. It involves really gentle handling and judging their behaviour so they don’t feel threatened, and with time you can build up a really trusting relationship.
All my really big snakes are tap trained. Snakes aren’t very smart, but they’re smart enough to do basic training so every time I go into the enclosure that they live in, I have a big metal hook and it always goes in before my hand. You can’t tell when a snake is asleep because it doesn’t have eyelids, so imagine being suddenly accosted in your sleep, you’d probably right hook the intruder wouldn’t you? A snake may do the same if you startle it. But a ten foot snake with a hundred and thirty teeth, it’s going to be a memorable day. So I always use the hook and the snakes always learn that if I touch them gently with the hook first or I pull them out with the hook, then I’m either going to handle them or change a bowl or clean them. The only time I don’t use the hook is when I’m feeding. And then they learn the difference. So if I forget to use the hook and they bite me, it’s a fair cop!
So that’s how that works. Basically I just handle them at home and I get some friends round to meet the animal and be like a small crowd. I start with some low-key jobs. So the first ideal job would be a photo shoot because it’s a really controlled environment. There’s a few people but it’s not overwhelming. And then I build it up, small parties and such.
Going to a school is a really good environment to train a snake in as well. There’s lots going on, but it’s a lot more controlled than in say a club. For dancing with the snakes as well it’s just practising because sudden movements can stimulate certain snakes and make them a bit excited.
The animals’ mental and physical well-being is paramount at all times, not only in their home environment but most importantly when out and about meeting and greeting people on the job, so advancing a snake’s work in baby steps is a great way to be sure they are properly accustomed to what they’re doing and ensuring they are comfortable at all times.
We have very strict rules to protect the welfare of the animals when working as well. Such as time limits for handling/walkabout, and I avoid situations with very heavy bass or loud music. We always request quieter areas to work in, and the snakes get plenty of rest breaks when they need them, and they have a huge range of subtle behavioural queues to let me know how they feel.
I had one snake at home – he was really cheeky, really outgoing, but as soon as you took him into a walkabout situation, he would wrap himself around you and stick himself in your armpit. He really hated it. So I just stopped using him and only used him for photo shoots because he made it very clear he didn’t like being around crowds and loud noises and stuff so if I carried on doing it with him someone could of got bitten because it would of pushed him out of his comfort zone. I often take more than one snake out at events, so if one doesn’t want to work at all, or needs a break, I have a stand in. You just have to judge their behaviour on any given day and in general. If there’s anything they don’t like doing then you can’t force them. It’s unethical and it’s also quite dangerous.
It’s funny how these animals have their own little personalities and temperaments.
So much you wouldn’t believe, because people think of snakes as just a giant worm or a big piece of rope. But their personalities are so different aside from the species typical stuff. The snake I had at the Halloween Neon Moon Club, that was actually his first job and he did so well, and seemed to really enjoy it. But the reason he looked so great and was going up high and exploring is because he’s a species of snake that lives in the trees, so he’s ideal for that kind of job because he goes nice and high so nobody’s going to bump into him by accident.
Even so, at home I practice the snakes with small crowds and being in close proximity with people so they’re bomb proof. Tree snakes are great because they are nice and high up, but also when they’re really big, they’re quite lightweight. But not very many people use tree snakes.
There’s a genus called Morelia and they’ve got a bad reputation and people think they’re really aggressive, but it’s actually because they’ve got super senses compared to the other big snakes, which means they’re actually more sensitive to their environment and they’re more reactive because they can see heat through their lips. And they eat bats that they catch in pitch black as they fly past. Imagine in a club where there are hot bodies moving around, they can be high risk snakes. But all of mine are spot on. They’ve just had loads of practice and they’re really, really reliable.
The only reason I got the albino Burmese python is because I got so many requests for it – I guess people think they look more glamorous. But the problem with a Burmese python is that they grow bloody fast! And for a female they max out at about twenty feet. I’m quite strong because I have a physical job but I have to spend a lot of time working out too so I know I can handle the snake. But you give a twenty kilo snake to your average model and they won’t even be able to stand up with it. Or not for a long period of time. Especially when you’re in heels!
What kind of creative work do you and your snakes get involved with?
Everything really from music videos whether I’m in them with the snakes of whether I’m just providing them as props. So quite a bit of that over the years for the animal training company I worked with and now I’m freelance as well. I’ve done live catwalk fashion events, where we’re just there to add atmosphere.
Weddings! You’d be amazed. Weddings like jungle themed weddings and you’re there in a hula skirt. Private parties, all sorts. Not just the club walkabout. May balls are really popular as well.
In fact, even photo shoots for things you wouldn’t expect like technology and gadgets and toiletries or jewellery. All that kind of stuff. The snake is just being used to give a hint of the exotic. It’s wherever you get something where they want a hint of durability or a bit of danger. Because people have this misconception about snakes. They’re an iconic image that can conjure up so many feelings and emotions for people and I think that’s why it’s so popular and why people find it so compelling as an image or as a live experience. I love steam punk as well, it all ties in with that classic nostalgic sideshow thing that I adore.
I’ve got a couple of great acts I’m planning out at the moment that will combine steampunk themes with some magic and illusion which I’m really excited about. Hopefully soon we’ll also be getting involved with a new multimedia arts project called the Electric Rodeo – I can’t say too much at the moment but we have been having some really exciting talks with the creative team!
How do you use your snakes for your fear and phobia coaching?
This all came about as when I was originally working in the film industry. You’d get called with a big snake to do a big job. The models might be naked or half-naked, already feeling pretty vulnerable and you realise that they’re shit scared. And you put a twelve foot snake on them … so just out of necessity you have to do the psychology and learn how to get people over it fast. It turned out I was quite good at it. Most people think that their phobias are irrational. They’re not. Your phobias are usually your inner caveman trying to protect you, it’s an evolution thing. And those instincts are stronger in some than in others.
I don’t do hypnotherapy or anything like that. I’m just interested in psychology and behaviour and I use a technique call flooding. Now that doesn’t mean I throw lots of snakes on someone and lock them in a room! [laughs] it’s a lot more sensitive than that. It’s lots of secret tricks. So we’ll sit in a room, the snake is nowhere to be seen, and we’ll just talk about the phobia. A lot of people have a story or have an idea why they’re afraid, and a cup of tea is really important because what do we associate cups of tea with? It’s a comfort thing isn’t it. So when you’re having a cup of tea I’m already subliminally giving someone nice associations to help them feel more relaxed. Sometimes we’ll look at pictures. Sometimes I’ll get a fluffy toy snake out. Some people can’t even look at pictures so it’s quite important to do it little bit by little bit.
Even if you’re thinking about a snake and you’re scared, your heartbeat will race, you’ll feel panicky, out of breath, sweating, ready to fight or flee. Sometimes just looking at a picture can do that to someone. And when you expose that to someone for a period of time, all of those vital sight reactions start to dissipate as nothing bad is happening.
Each time you get a step closer to the real thing, the heart is racing again and then it slowly comes down so it’s just bit by bit building up the confidence. The reason for using fluffy toys is because when people stroke and squeeze something fluffy it releases lots of endorphins and positive hormones in the brain and it helps to relax as well. So it’s another little trick and then we’ll handle a snakes shed skin and finally you’ll look at the snake in the box, and with the person’s consent I’ll put my hand in the box and touch the snake, because sometimes that’s scary for a phobic person to watch, then eventually you work up to either touching or handling the animal on their own. And I can do all of that in two hours. It’s a case of reading the person and knowing how far you can push and when you can push. And making someone feel really comfortable.
We had a lady at Halloween that was really scared of snakes and I made the point of spending about 20-30 minutes with her. And she came back at the end at the end and said thank you. I had a really good chat with her and it made my night to have helped her out. The only thing that’s going to stop someone getting over a phobia of anything is if they don’t want to. That’s the only condition. That’s the only decision you have to make in overcoming that fear. Not everyone goes about it the same way, but I’ve found it to be the most effective. I’ve mostly done it with spiders, tarantulas and house spiders even.
A lot of people are worried about house spiders than they are about tarantulas because tarantulas look like a fluffy animal and are a bit more slow moving. I used to have a collection of house spiders for the very purpose of doing the phobia training. Things like how to get it into a tub and putting a bit of cardboard underneath it, or cupping them in their hands so you can chuck it outside. It’s quite exciting because they do move so fast!
What has been the best reaction to your snakes and your stall?
Last year at the 2014 Neon Moon Halloween I was in a dusk till dawn outfit so I was wearing a really small bikini, a massive feather headdress and a big yellow snake and I was in the entrance and people’s eyes were popping out! They were just standing there, their jaws dropping going ‘whaaaaa!’.
That just makes my day. For a reptile nerd, taking a room full of people who might not want to go to the zoo or watch a documentary, people are a bit scared, and then to be surrounded by those same people who are just gushing with questions and saying ‘oh, my god, this snake is beautiful’ and sharing my love, is just the most rewarding thing and getting a good reaction like that just never fails, and that’s what does it for me.
How do you go about taxidermy and finding dead animals?
I’ve been collecting for a really long time so I’ve got a lot in my freezer! Luckily having loads of giant snakes, they have their own chest freezer anyway for all their food, so I have the space the store it all now. When I was a kid and I was living at home with my mum, there were a few incidents. The first biggest thing I ever dissected was a badger that I found when I was out riding my horses. I went back with my car and slung it in the back. When I cut it open on the back porch it had gotten all bloated in the sun and it stank so bad! My mum was not best pleased and the story is often dredged up!
I’m self-taught so even as a kid I was fascinated. I remember once when we were in Wales and we came across a dead lamb, and I’d be poking it with a stick and be turning it over, while my Granny grimaced in the background. I used to collect teeth and bones and have a little museum, so I was a big enthusiast and it just went from there. I was probably born a hundred years too late. I’ve got this real nostalgia for the early years of the natural history museum and the Darwinian period.
When you work outside with animals, romping around in the woods or across the fields, you come across dead birds. And living in the country there is always road kill around. The cats used to bring things in sometimes. And people give me dead animals as well! I get phone calls all the time from people who know me or have met me once and they’re saying, ‘my neighbour’s gerbil died, do you want it?’ Even my mum has been presented twice with dead animals in the pub.
One of my things that I really want to stick by is working with animals artefacts and skins and dead animals that are all ethically sourced. I wouldn’t ever kill something specifically to be made into a piece of art, because that doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve been keeping exotic animals for years. When something dies, unless I’ve got a particular attachment to it and I feel it deserves a burial, it will go in the freezer. They come from all over, really. I have found some quite nice stuff. A lot of the time I will virtually be doing hand brake turns on the side of the road if I spot something nice!
What oddities and knick-knacks have you got and what has been your most exciting piece?
All sorts of bits and pieces. At the moment the highlights of my freezer include a bearded dragon, a chinchilla, a few moles in there. I’ve been making costumed steam punk army moles and people are crazy about them. My best finds recently, I’ve got a woodpecker in there, which will be my third one. I’ve also got a couple of birds of prey, but I won’t be able to sell those because a lot of birds of prey are protected by wildlife legislature, so without a particular certificate I can’t sell them. So things like that are going to end up on the mantelpiece. I’ve got a Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk in there.
Tell us about cockroach racing. Are you able to train them? And what makes a thoroughbred cockroach?
Breeding! That idea, well that came about from needing to have something for the 2015 Neon Moon Halloween show. This year I was a little bit tighter on budget in terms of we needed to come up with – so it to be something simple but awesome, rather than some huge installation or detailed set up with tons and tons going on. Catherine, who runs Neon Moon, said she was thinking about having snail racing. Normally she’ll throw loads of ideas at me and I’ll send her a reply saying what will work and what won’t, in terms of logistics and welfare. I’ve done a few snail races for film jobs and it’s a real pain to train and they’re slow as well. And I didn’t currently have any snails or particularly like them.
I’d previously trained Beetles to race for a TV program called Atlantis on BBC. I trained Scarab beetles to race then, so I thought I’ll work with insects because I know how it will work. I already had pet cockroaches so I thought, ‘fantastic, let’s try racing those’. So I suggested my ideas to Catherine and she went wild for it. Luckily my colony is fairly young and I hadn’t handled them all that much.
Cockroaches can get silly tame and they’ll just sit there like inanimate objects, but I needed mine to be a bit frisky. So the trick was practising them enough to for them to know what they were doing, but not so much that they got really lazy. So they had to want to move. We built the track and I made it far too short, I really didn’t think they were going to be as fast as they were! These cockroaches just sprinted. I used a slightly smaller sub-species than the ones that get used at displays and these smaller ones are a little bit faster than the bigger ones.
So I practised them at home and introduced the sounds and the loud hailer. The first time they heard the loud hailer they were quite startled. Just like snakes, getting them used to the sounds and smells and moving around they were going to have to do. It worked amazingly well. We had a real laugh training them at home because I had to wait until I had a few friends over as I had to do to clapping and cheering so they got used to it. You couldn’t appreciate it on the night, but when there isn’t that extra sound, you can actually hear their feet scuttle as they run down!
These ones come from Madagascar, and they’re up the creek as much as lemurs basically. People think they can survive nuclear fallout, but the Madagascar ones are quite sensitive and you’ve got to have just the right conditions for them, and when they travel or work away they have specially kitted out enclosures to provide the right temperature, humidity and hiding places for them. They’re not like the hardcore American and Australian ones that you get infesting restaurants. There are thousands of species of cockroach around the world and only a handful of them are regarded as pest species. The rest are all 100% beneficial to the environment.
(MG: Having seen cockroach racing in the flesh, it’s something that needs to be seen by everyone. It’s really fun!)
I’m dying to ask you about the jarred piranha you had for sale on your stall at the Neon Moon Halloween show. You sold it at the end of the night, didn’t you?
Yeah, I did! Which I really didn’t expect. I’ve got quite a lot of wet specimens because I had a pickling phase, as you do. And the piranha was never actually finished. I was in a rush before that particular event and I wanted to bring a few samples of my work so people would get chatting and I go oh, I’ve actually got this at home. The piranha was destined to be filled with big red chilli peppers and garlic and herbs and I wanted to make a nice culinary label for it that said ‘hot sauce, with bite’ [laughs] so it was destined to be something beautiful and artistic but I think it actually ended up in a six year old’s bedroom.
A chap at the end of the night came up and said, ‘is this actually a piranha?’ and I said yes. He said he didn’t like it but his son will love it. So maybe that kid is like a six year old version of me! And will be pickling his own piranhas in many years time!
I’ve heard you have a crocodile bite … please tell us about it!
Haha yes, my most badass scars. I was bitten about three years ago by a Morelet’s crocodile in a zoo that I worked at. She was almost 5 foot long at the time and I’d raised her and her three sisters – collectively named ‘The Four Trixies’ – from little and they were well trained. They would touch their noses to a stick, come when I called them and all that, and we had to do a catch up for a scheduled educational display … anyway long story short I caught her and then she caught me! All human error of course.
Lucky for me she was only telling me off – I could have lost my leg from the knee down if she’d clamped on and death rolled, but she just bit me below the knee and then let go. I’ll always have the image etched in my brain from when I looked down and saw her mouth around me and felt the impact and thought ‘oh shit, there’s a crocodile attached to my leg’!
All in a split second, but time seemed to stand still, it was a memorable moment! I was off my legs for a few weeks in order to get properly back to normal, but I did a shark dive a couple of months after that and the leg was fine for it. And yes I still love to handle crocodiles, though I’ll admit a little while after when I had to handle the same animal afterwards for a very tricky piece of filming I was a bit nervous!
We shot footage for a Kanye West concert, filmed in the dark in a rather small space with just a spotlight, the cameramen and crew were all behind safety cages so it was just me and Trixie, and she had to bite and swing at me so they could get all these action shots, it was a bit hairy but awesome fun!
Finally, tell us a bit about your involvement with Inspired Life:
Inspired Life is a company run by a guy called Richard Harpham and his wife, and basically they’re a community based organisation and they run on lottery grants and things like that as well as being hired in by schools, community service centres, etc.
Their main ethos is ‘your future is not defined by your past’. Which I really like. They’ve got a bunch of people who haven’t done a kind of standard, stereotypical, life. So mostly people that are following vocations and they’ll get a team of us together on any given day and we’ll spend a whole day doing workshops, going ‘hey guys, when you go to your careers class, don’t feel like you have actually have to pick whether to be a nurse, a fireman or shop keeper.’
Because school is like that, and there is so much pressure on young people from such an early age to pick a job or pick a career there or then and it’s do or die and life isn’t like that is it. Especially for people who are creative, or not just creative in an art sense. People who want to be a computer programmer or a mechanic, or work outdoors or be TV presenter, basically anyone with a real passion for anything. It can be really discouraging and disheartening getting through the school system, but it’s getting easier because there are so many vocational courses on offer now.
On the Role Models programme there are people like myself, and Olympic athletes, writers, signed rock stars, or man powered adventurers, which is the most inspirational thing ever. We show the kids our life stories in a pictorial chart, even the bad bits like when you get bullied out of a job or have a car crash or told you’re never going to be able to physical work again. Richard broke his back and his leg twice and was going to be a pro rugby player. Somehow I’m one of those!
It’s especially useful for kids that have a rough background, or the cool kids that don’t even want to talk to you and it actually it turns out that their family have been telling them they’re stupid for fifteen years. They can see that you can do something a bit different because I’ve said to myself ‘if it’s not fun, why should I be doing it?’ And just being focussed and following your dream and just exploring whatever you enjoy. You see so many lightbulb moments and it’s like we’re helping to open doors for these children. We go out and cook outdoors and do bush craft or animal workshops. Or even stuff about protecting and helping the environment. It’s really cool and I love doing it.