Grace Olive Wiley was a pioneer in the field of herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. Born in in Chanute, Kansas in 1883, she attended the University of Kansas at a time when few women went to college. She got a degree in entomology, the study of insects, but after a failed marriage, she switched her interest to reptiles.
Reptiles are not the most lovable creatures. Their scaly, multicolored skin and impassive eyes set them apart from other animals. Folk tales throughout history have portrayed reptiles as sly and evil, using hypnotism to lure their prey to their deaths. The Torah, the Bible and the Koran all include the story of Adam and Eve, in which a snake entices Eve, the first female, to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, thus messing up humanity forever.
Snakes have been used as a metaphor of evil and death, even though out of more than eight-thousand species of reptiles, only two-hundred-fifty have the ability to kill a human. Still, the sight of a reptile causes a primeval fear in humans that has little to do with reality.
Before Grace Wiley, widespread beliefs about reptiles in the scientific world held that reptiles are primordial creatures that have no emotion and cannot be trained or tamed. Grace Wiley’s lifetime of work with reptiles disproved many of those beliefs.
In 1923, Wiley was named curator of the Minneapolis Public Library‘s now-defunct natural history museum, making her one of the first female zoo curators in the world. She got the job by offering to donate her enormous private collection, which consisted of one-hundred-fifteen species and three-hundred-thirty individuals to the zoo. Wiley already had a reputation among the zoological world as a reptile expert, as a few years earlier she was the first person to successfully breed rattlesnakes in captivity.
Wiley believed in treating her reptiles kindly, and she thought deadly snakes could be tamed. She believed that she could convey her sympathy to the reptiles. Refusing to use hooks or other safety devices used to handle poisonous snakes, Wiley would gently speak to them, even though snakes are deaf, and slowly and carefully stroke them until they became used to her and other human contact. Except for Gaboon Vipers, which didn’t like to be stroked, most of her poisonous snakes got used to being held and handled. Still, Wiley’s unorthodox methods did not go over well with the Zoo’s administrators, who demanded that she stop handling the snakes.
Wiley used the attention to try to change the public’s negative attitude about venomous snakes. Reporters rushed to interview her, and photographers loved taking photos of the matronly Wiley calmly knitting with a rattlesnake on her lap. She made “good copy” on slow news days for newspapers and magazines. Despite the publicity for the museum and the fact that Wiley was never bitten while working at the Minneapolis Public Library Natural History Museum, administrators gave her an ultimatum: Use safety equipment or leave. Wiley left, taking her reptilian friends with her to her new job at the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago.
When it opened in 1934, the Brookfield Zoo, also known as Chicago Zoological Park, was one of the first zoos to shun cages for their animals. The animals were put in natural settings with animals of other species that generally live with them in the wild as companions. Moats and walls separated the animals from the human sightseers. Before then, zoo animals were locked into small steel cages without any activity to keep the poor animals from going crazy. The Brookfield Zoo welcomed the farsighted herpetologist Grace Wiley during its inaugural year.
Wiley’s casual attitude about safety made her tenure at the Brookfield Zoo brief. Wiley rarely closed the reptiles’ cases and cages, and the press had a field day with sensational headlines about deadly snakes escaping the zoo. Acting Director Robert Bean fired her after the nineteenth venomous snake escaped.
Wiley packed up her reptiles and moved, along with her mother, to Long Beach, California, where she set up a roadside zoo. Her snakes appeared in the films The Jungle Book, Trade Wind and of course, Cobra Woman. Wiley was always on set when her animals were used, and she even appeared onscreen as a snake charmer in the 1940 film, Moon Over Burma, starring Dorothy Lamour.
The zoo’s collection grew as Wiley acquired more dangerous and exotic reptiles, and some of the species were the only ones found outside of their normal territories. The menagerie included Sand Vipers, Asps, Diamond Back Rattlesnakes, Coral Snakes, Cottonmouths, Black Mambas, Water Moccasins, Sand Snakes, Horned Vipers, African Spiny Tailed, Dabbs and Monitor Lizards. Wiley carried around deadly Indian, King, Siamese and Egyptian Cobras were carried around like kittens. Even her mother, eighty-seven-year-old Molly Gough, handled the deadly snakes. Along with Giant Tortoises, crocodiles and alligators, the zoo also housed a Komodo Dragon, which had only been discovered by zoologists two decades before.
As a testament to Wiley’s taming techniques, she was able to pet her pair of King Cobras, King and Queen. The King Cobra is the world’s longest venomous snake and can grow up to eighteen feet. The massive snake eats other snakes and will not eat anything that it does not want to. Although there is no description of the feat, Wiley had to force-feed them to keep them alive. Its venom can kill an Asian Elephant in three hours if it is bit on the trunk. Wiley first used a small stick with some cloth on the end to gently pet the snakes from a safe distance. Eventually King and Queen allowed her to pet the back of their heads and rarely extended their famous hoods.
“This is a good example of what kindness can do for mankind,” she told a reporter. “What a powerful thing it must be, when even the world’s most deadly reptiles respond to kindness.”
Her roadside reptile exhibit charged twenty-five cents, and for that small sum, Wiley would personally take the visitors through the property, even allowing children to handle the rattlesnakes, Gila Monsters and cobras. Complaints from neighbors forced her to move twice, and she eventfully moved the entire exhibit across the L.A. County line to the town of Cypress, in snake-friendly Orange County.
Although Wiley’s interactions with the poisonous creatures seemed careless, she rarely let her guard down when she handled them. She had been bitten many times and she lost two fingers to her Komodo Dragon’s jaws, but she always blamed herself when the animals attacked her.
Wiley was made a Fellow of the Herpetologist League, the highest award given by the society. She regularly published scientific papers about her assessments of various reptiles and could pick up a rattlesnake as if it were a pet. Instead of getting a watchdog, Wiley trained her alligators to come when she called them and let them and various species of crocodiles and tortoises have free range of her compound.
Renowned freelance journalist Daniel Mannix was at Grace Wiley’s reptile zoo on July 20, 1948 to finish an interview and take some photos. Wiley took off her eyeglasses for the photo session. While posing with one of her recently arrived Indian Cobras, she was bitten on her middle finger while she was trying to get it to open its hood. Cobras have short fangs and have to chew to get their venom into their victim. The snake chewed on the sixty-four-year-old, one-hundred-pound woman’s finger for thirty seconds before she was able to gently pry it off gently. She calmly got up, walked back to the barn and put the snake back in its cage.
Asking Mannix to get her snakebite kit, Wiley laid down while Mannix’s companion ran for the telephone. To Mannix’s dismay, the emergency kit was at least twenty years old. The syringes were corroded and the antidote serums bottles were either broken or evaporated. Even the rubber tourniquet was rotted. Wiley lapsed into a coma shortly after she was put into the ambulance and died sixty-five minutes later in Long Beach Municipal Hospital. The hospital could do nothing to help her as they only had anti-venom serum for North American snakes.
At the time of her death, Grace Wiley wanted to retire and was in informal negotiations to sell her massive reptile collection to the Griffith Park Zoo. Her estate tried to find a buyer for the entire collection, but could not. The exotic animals were auctioned off piecemeal to the highest bidders. Her lifetime of work was worth only three-thousand dollars. The Indian Cobra that ended Wiley’s life was bought by a man who displayed it as the “Lady-Killing Cobra” at a tourist spot in Arizona.