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All Words: Jeff Jetton

Henry Rollins is a softy. Inside that aggro exterior is a sweet little man who loves animals and probably calls his mother to check on her several times a week and cries at Jennifer Aniston movies. Don’t let the pictures fool you. Or the video…

The guy probably has a room full of teddy bears that he swims in like Scrooge McDuck swims in his gold coins-filled money bin. Rollins is seriously that soft.

BYT and Henry Rollins go way back. Back to at least November of 2008 when he refused to answer our questions via email. It took as a while to get him to come around, but we finally got an interview last year (still via email). As well as creating a webcomic about his 50th birthday party.

It feels like each time we come into contact with Henry it gets a little bit less formal, a little bit more familiar. Perhaps next time we’ll have him over jazz and cocoa at the Tabard Inn. But for now we’ll have to be content with a chat via phone (at Smoothie King, though, which adds an element of cosiness to the interview). Henry sat down to talk about his new show that’s airing this weekend on National Geographic Wild…

BYT: Tell me a bit more about the show that you’re doing on National Geographic… it’s about snakes correct?

Henry Rollins: Yeah, it’s called “The Snake Underworld” on NatGeo Wild, and on the show we explore reptiles and the people who are obsessed with keeping them. We go to all different walks of snake enthusiasts, from people who keep venomous snakes illegally, those who breed them, those who were famous for importing them illegally and did time. So all of these different aspects are explored.

BYT: So people who were doing illegal things opened up to you guys for the show?

Henry Rollins: Yeah, we had one fellow who we had to blank out his face and all that.

BYT: You’ve owned snakes in the past, is that correct?

Henry Rollins: Yeah, years ago.

BYT: What’s your favorite species of snake?

Henry Rollins: My favorite species to study would be Cobras and King Cobras which are two different families. They’re very intelligent, and they’re beautiful looking animals. Where they come from are countries and regions which I spend a lot of time in—South East Asia and India, those are places I go to fairly often, and so the cobras are my main interest. It’s not a snake I can maintain, but when I see them in zoos and what not, I find them interesting.

BYT: You’re considered a pretty tough guy, was there ever a moment when dealing with snakes that you were afraid or scared?

Henry Rollins: No, I’ve never been in a situation where I had to run for my life, but I’ve been bitten by a lot of poisonous snakes where it was fairly painful. Pythons of size have a lot of teeth in that mouth, it’s a painful bite and those wounds get infected fairly easily. I’ve got snake wounds from these animals that have lasted quite a while where it’ll ache for several days. Having said that, I’ve been lucky; it’s not like I’m looking for trouble with these animals either. It’s not an envelope I’m willing to push.

BYT: How did the National Geographic partnership come about?

Henry Rollins: Well, I’d been wanting to work with them, and at some point they’d been looking to work with me—one thing led to another and all of a sudden we’re working together. I was at my boss’ office at one point in DC, at the NatGeo office, and one of the people from NatGeo Wild came into the room and said, “Um, oh; what’re you doing here? We’re gonna do this show on snakes, do you have an interest in snakes, do you fear them?” I said, “Actually, I know quite a bit about them.” And they said, “Well, do you want to do this special.” And I went, “Yeah, Okay!” So that’s how that came about; right place, right time.

BYT: Well, back in your weight-lifting days, did anyone ever compare your neck to an anaconda?

Henry Rollins: Uhh, I don’t think so… not that I can remember. (laughs)

BYT: So you grew up not to far from the National Geographic Headquarters here in DC, did you go there much as a kid?

Henry Rollins: Yeah, I used to live about four blocks from there, near Dupont Circle, I went there all-the time when I was with my mom.

BYT: Any memorable stories from there growing up?

Henry Rollins: Nope, not anything memorable about the National Geographic building, My mom always had a subscription to the magazine, though… it got me very interested in travel, and animals, and it was a magazine very rich with great photography. When you’re very young, images that you upload into your very young mind tend to stay with you. So when I was a kid looking at pictures of the Sphynx, and the Pyramids, and different tribes in Africa, all of that stuck with me, and I always wanted to see those things and meet those people. Now as an older guy, I have, to quite a great degree, checked those boxes off my to-do list.

BYT: What about the zoo, the National Zoo in DC, did you spend much time there as a kid?

Henry Rollins: Oh yeah, sure, I used to go there with my father when I was young. I would go there as I was older when I got a bicycle, I go down Rock Creek Parkway and take the bike path to the zoo, which I would do every once in a while. Really I’d go to see the reptiles; I was always quite unenthused with the Washington DC Zoo Reptile Department, I never thought it was all that amazing; not as great as other reptile departments I have seen in America.

BYT: Do you think your experiences maybe in the zoo, and with National Geographic, and Rock Creek Park, and the nature in the area is what shaped your interests in nature and snakes in particular?

Henry Rollins: Absolutely; I used to go into Rock Creek Park all the time looking for animals, watching the carp; in Rock Creek Park there’s that one season when the carp were just flying out of the water. I found all that to be really interesting; I would go to empty creek beds and find fossils—I spent a lot of time in that park looking for snakes, bats, anything I could find.

BYT: So would you consider yourself a naturalist or an environmentalist?

Henry Rollins: Well, an environmentalist in the sense that I recycle and try to be nice to the earth. But flora and fauna have always interested me, and it is because of so many years of summer camp and growing up in DC with Rock Creek Park fairly near me, or Glover Park; I lived in Glover Park for a while and that park was in my backyard.

BYT: Do you hike and do outdoor things today?

Henry Rollins: No not much; I do a lot of walking around in game parks, rain forests, places like that, but it’s not like I’m camping in them as much as my day walks. I’ve done that all over the world, not like with a backpack on my back living out in the woods for several days. When I travel abroad, it’s more the city that captures my interest.

BYT: Are people importing all types and species of snakes from around the world illegally?

Henry Rollins: Yeah, there’s an interest to any kind of snake you could imagine, someone wants to have one, like even a sea snake, someone would try to maintain one. A lot of these animals would be imported into America illegally; there are legal channels you can pursue, but the person interested in importing the animal probably could not get the legal clearance to do it, so they’ll do it illegally.

BYT: So you are encouraging people not to do that?

Henry Rollins: I don’t think it’s a good idea; the animal is the one that suffers. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s usually the animal that will bear the brunt of your ignorance.

BYT: But it’s not like a Cops-type show with Henry Rollins beating down peoples’ doors who are illegally importing snakes?

Henry Rollins: No, no, that’s not my department; quite often people will get an animal which is probably not a good idea for them to have. They get it out of enthusiasm, there is a genuine interest, but sometimes they’re not exactly prepared for what they’re getting themselves into.

Henry Rollins: They don’t know that the snake can strike with that kind of speed, and that kind of accuracy, and they might not know just how toxic the venom is; that it could really kill you or cause serious muscle and tissue damage. So I’ve seen a lot of people get in over their heads fairly quickly, and only out of being enthusiastic, where a bit of caution, which a lot of Americans don’t like to be talked to about, probably would have been the better way to go.

BYT: They might not know that giant anacondas and poodles don’t mix, huh?

Henry Rollins: Well, people who keep a large snake in their apartment building, which happens quite a bit, all of a sudden, within two summers, have a 14-foot animal that’s eating adult rabbits, and needs quite a bit of room and quite a bit of heat. That’s the animal that gets put in the back of a pick-up truck and dumped into the Florida Everglades or the city lake, or just left on a doorstep—again, it’s quite often the animal that suffers.

BYT: Did you go all over the country for this show?

Henry Rollins: We filmed in Florida and we filmed in Wisconsin for this particular show—and California as well.

BYT: Any future plans to do any more reptile shows?

Henry Rollins: Yeah, we’ve got three more that we’re gearing up to leave to go shoot in the next several days. It will be in America, then Vietnam and India, and I believe there’s a chance we might go to Mexico, then back to America for more shoots. So we’ll be doing Domestic, International, and then Domestic on the other end; and that goes from next month through June I believe.

BYT: So are you gearing up to be the next Steve Irwin?

Henry Rollins: Ah, no; that’s way more of a hands-on, exclusively animal thing he was doing. It’s just not exactly where my interests lie, but I think that it’s been done very well by people far more educated on the topic than me.

BYT: So have you learned a lot doing this?

Henry Rollins:Yeah, but a lot of this stuff I kind of knew; I grew up around these animals, I grew up with this interest. It kind of is an asset because I can [connect] with the snake people because I know a lot of the same stuff—so absolutely I learned some. It was quite the case what people said to me after the interview that they were impressed with how much I knew, because they just thought I was some rock guy who picked up a snake once.

BYT: Have you read a lot of books, or just been around snakes?

Henry Rollins: Absolutely; I used to inhale those books and I still have a few of them from my youth, but over the years I gave some of them away. When I was in high school, I used to really memorize every latin name, of every species of snake in America—I was really into it.

BYT: Ever thought about moving back to DC?

Henry Rollins: I think about it in a romantic sense, but practically, I don’t think it would work for me.

BYT: So Henry, your show is on April 29th correct?

Henry Rollins: I believe it is, on the NatGeo Wild Channel.

Check out a clip below!