Slither me timbers!

Stampeder Tony Stallings holds his two pet snakes, Omega, a reticulated python, left, and Miracle,...

Stampeder Tony Stallings holds his two pet snakes, Omega, a reticulated python, left, and Miracle, an Albino Green Patternless Burmese Python who only has one eye. His teammates were a little shy around them. (Calgary Sun/Stuard Dryden)

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:10 AM ET

Few things strike fear into the hearts of 300-lb. athletes, causing a shockwave of high steppin' out of harm's way.

They tend to be too tough for that, earning their money by putting their bodies on the line in pro football's wild kingdom.

But adding a snake to the lineup like Stampeders running back Tony Stallings' three-metre-long python puts more than just the backfield in motion.

Hauling the impressive beast out of a bag in the locker-room the other day, Stallings sent every able-bodied Stampeder scrambling in a variety of routes.

For Stallings, who is an authority on exotic animals after working at the Louisville Zoo and appearing with a TV program on Discovery Channel's Animal Planet, the whole experience is a joy to behold.

While most players were backpedalling, like fleet-footed cornerback Ben Kelly (B.K.), a few moved in for a closer look, most notably hard-nosed defensive tackle Randy Chevrier.

"The room was divided, though," says Stallings. "Half couldn't stay away.

"We have to work on B.K. a little bit, though. He's going to be looking over his shoulder. He was terrified."

Stallings agreed to bring the beasts into the locker-room at the behest of teammates who were impressed by an initial viewing. Needless to say, the return engagement had the packed room buzzing with a combination of trepidation and excitement.

"Four or five of the guys who live in the building I live in kept asking me to bring them up to the stadium," says Stallings, 27, who prides himself in helping people overcome their fear of animals.

"That's why I get a kick out of what I do back home. Most people are afraid because they don't really know."

Stallings has a collection of 10 exotic animals, an interest that began as a youth in his hometown of Cleveland.

"When I was a kid, about 12 years old, I saw a guy who had an iguana sitting on his shoulder and I thought it was the coolest thing," Stallings recalls.

"So I wanted to work in a pet store and I ended up in the snake department. Everybody's always so fearful of snakes and I wanted to know why, so I started studying them and getting to know them and fell in love with them. I bought my first iguana and I fell in love with them, too. I'd study animals until I was blue in the face, all though college."

Stallings has since taken numerous courses and has even written an as-yet-unpublished book about his experiences. Although he studied sociology at the University of Louisville, he used his spare time to discover more about the animals he loves.

"Animals are nothing but an extension of ourselves," Stallings explains. "There's nothing you do that they don't do. You go to work every day, they go to work every day. A lion's got to get up and chase animals to feed his family. Cubs have to go to school, learn how to survive. They get mad, they get sad, they do everything we do.

"They show favouritism, fight, get angry. They've got to fight to survive just like we do. If you don't do anything wrong to them, they won't do anything wrong to you."

About 40 of Stallings' teammates weren't keen on testing that last theory but he has the experience to back up his claims.

Stallings also won Animal Planet's King of the Jungle 2 reality TV program last year, outlasting 12 other competitors from around the world in a competition much like Survivor. Events included physically demanding feats such as standing one-legged on a pole like a flamingo.

"I was on and ended up winning, then had a chance to film my own show down in Australia, an animal show about saving the koala," Stallings says.

Stallings owns three snakes, two lizards, (a Savannah Monitor and a Green Iguana), a Black African millepede, a Black Emperor scorpion (both are the world's largest), a boa constrictor and a huge tarantula.

Stealing the show in the Stampeders locker-room was the huge python, released from a deceptively small cotton bag for all to see. While players gathered around -- some closer than others -- the slithering monster also appeared to be casting a hungry eye at Stallings' teammates.

"That's why I get a kick out of what I do back home at the reptile exposition in Louisville," Stallings says.

"Most people are afraid because they don't really know and we're always afraid of what we don't know. They think all snakes are poisonous, all snakes are vicious and all snakes are mean. I get a kick out of teaching people not to be afraid."

Stallings hopes to one day stage animal shows for children in the Calgary area.


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