“You can’t fake passion,” says Julian Clare, manager and Dangerous Wild Animal handler at Leighton’s new exotic pet shop, Wrigglies, and he’s certainly right.
There’s no questioning Julian’s love of reptiles, as the man with 27 years of experience working with venomous snakes has just opened a new training centre, based in the Hockliffe Street shop.
Located in the back of the store and heavily inspected by both local and central councils, The Dangerous Wild Animal (DWA) room is home to Julian’s personal collection of around 90 snakes, from beautiful Black Mambas (Dendroaspis Polylepis) to majestic King Cobras (Ophiophagus Hannah).
The wildlife-filled room brings Julian’s dream of educating the next generation to life, as he has begun to welcome students for special training sessions.
From field scientists and dissertation students, zoo keepers and vets to scientists with a venom and research perspective, a wide variety of trainees are visiting the town.
“One of my main reasons I wanted to set this up is because when I was younger it was very difficult to gain experience,” says Julian, 46.
“Before 1990 there was not a great deal of published literature, and if there was it was written from a natural history perspective rather than from one of captivity.
“We’re also going to be helping people who would like to gain a DWA licence from the council in order to keep a dangerous wild animal. It’s very difficult to get one without experience, and if people can’t get that experience, it encourages them to keep reptiles illegally.”
The DWA Act itself is designed to protect the public from species of animals capable of causing death or serious harm, and Julian’s course offers “the safest place to gain real practical experience” with venomous snakes, lizards, and crocodillia.
The course is taken in stages – introductory, intermediate and advanced, graded by both technique and species. Julian explains: “Our course content covers basic first aid, DWA animals behaviour, the emergency services, the role of the supporting person, venoms and how they work, how to use all associated equipment, full handling techniques and the safe management of DWA animals.
“There’s also health and safety, the DWA act, public liability insurance and bite protocols.”
Indeed, safety is something the Wrigglies team take extremely seriously, with the animals’ custom-built enclosures kept locked and secured at all times, the room itself having a triple-door entry system and covered by cameras sensitive to movement and temperature.
But how did the former Vandyke Upper School pupil who used to sweep the floors at British Bakeries end up running his own animal kingdom?
“My interest is really in animals, full stop,” explains Julian. “From a very young age my long-suffering parents were always afraid of opening a match box in fear of a spider crawling out and at Gilbert Inglefield school, I was the kid who looked after the class Garter Snake (Thamnophis Sirtalis ) in the summer.
“While other boys had posters of cars on their walls, I had animals. When they grew up, they took their hobby to the extreme and bought a Mercedes – I now have the DWA room.I see it is a life’s work, and I learn something new every day.”
Julian does not have any ‘official’ qualifications for working with reptiles because there simply weren’t any available when he left school, whereas now students can study Herpetology and Zoology at a few UK universities, as well as animal management programs at college, while there is also limited training to work in BIAZA-affiliated zoos.
So, as a determined youngster, Julian started working at Tropical World, Leighton Buzzard Garden Centre, as well as becoming assistant to a zoo keeper and a curator of reptiles, helping them both in a zoo environment and with the keepers’ own private collections.
However, back in the world of ‘nine to five’, Julian was learning how to make produce at British Bakeries before going on to work at Tesco as a bakery manager for 19 years and then at Dobbies as foodhall manager.
“I believe in fate to an extent; I was in the right place at the right time,” says Julian.
“I’d previously worked part time at Wrigglies, Dunstable, for eight years. The owners, Mark and Hazel Darton, were looking to open a new store last year, and when this site came up for sale, I was looking for a new job.”
But Julian’s new role has a bigger purpose, as the winner of The Reptile Report’s Venomous Personality of 2016, hopes to show reptiles’ importance within medicine and the eco-system.
Whilst thousands petitioned against badger culling, over in the United States, Rattlesnakes, seen as a danger, are being culled, brutally gassed in their burrows, or even worse – flooded with petrol and burned alive.
“It’s horrific – an example of how man is destroying delicate ecosystems,” says Julian. “But they are now experiencing crop failures too, because the snakes controlled the rodent population.”
And that’s not all. If you are taking ace inhibitors – as is Julian – you probably owe your health to a snake.
While if a Crossed Pit Viper (Bothrops Alternatus) bit you in the wild its venom could cause your capillaries to haemorrhage, when used in medicine, it can stop your body producing the specialised cells that strengthen the walls of the vascular system so they become more elastic, able to cope with high blood pressure.
“Around 40 million people a year are prescribed ace inhibitors,” says Julian.“If people knew their grandma was alive thanks to a snake, they might start to think about them differently.
“When I see snakes, I don’t think of taking lives – I think of saving them.”