â€œAnimals Love Me, I Donâ€™t Know Why,â€ Says Matthew Kelehan, Whose Dream Was To Be A Zoo-Keeper
By Charles Musisi
SMILING excitedly, eight-year-old Matthew Kelehan pointed at a legless, slithering, scaly creature in a cage at Pieces of Eights Pet Shop in Britain. The creature with beady, unblinking eyes fascinated him. It was a seven-foot long Burmese python. â€œHow could a creature without limbs survive?â€ he wondered. He pleaded to be allowed to keep it. His request was granted. His father bought it.
The small boy asked the shop assistant about the basics of keeping pet snakes: â€œHe told me the general husbandry,â€ recalls chatty Kelehan.
He strolled home with his new friendâ€” the reptile.
â€œDidnâ€™t keeping a snake seem weird?â€
â€œEngland is full of animal lovers. A lot of people keep snakes,â€ replies Kelehan. â€œEvery street has a pet shop.â€
Gradually, Kelehan developed an almost obsessive attraction to snakes. He relentlessly perused literature on reptiles: â€œA few months after buying my first snake, I bought others, at about $200 each. I had 15 different species from all over the world,â€ reveals Kelehan with great passion. â€œMost of them were boas and pythons, the biggest snakes. I like big snakesâ€.
Once his interest in snakes had been kindled, he cultivated a love for other wild creatures. By the time he was 12, he had raised Lizards and tarantulas (large hairy spiders)
â€œI had eight tarantulas and 12 Lizards,â€ says Kelehan.
â€œWhere did you keep them?â€
â€œThey lived in an enclosure, a sort of cage.â€
â€œWhat did they eat?â€
â€œI bought frozen rats, mice and rabbits from the pet shops.â€
At 15, Kelehan got part time work at a pet shop: â€œI saved some money,â€ says Kelehan. â€œI saved every penny I got, even money given to me for Christmas by my dad. I used the savings to buy feed for the creatures.â€
At 16, Kelehan joined Plumpton College in Sussex, South England, to study herpetology. He was disappointed. His tutors did not know much about reptiles. He packed his bags and left: â€œI wasnâ€™t taught what I wanted to learn because they didnâ€™t specialise in reptiles. I stayed there for a few months,â€ says Kelehan.
He resolved to learn about snakes by his own efforts. Kelehan read books and magazines on reptiles avidly.
â€œI read anything I could get on reptiles. I also watched videos on snakes.â€
Today Kelehan, 19, is a volunteer zoo-keeper at the Uganda Wild Life Education Centre in Entebbe. Part of his work involves tending snakes.
When he is not feeding them, he interacts with other creatures. He may scratch a lionâ€™s ears through an opening in the wire fence or feed a hyena. Caring for animals has cemented his relationship with them. He loves them and expects others to like them too: â€œAnimals love me. I donâ€™t know why,â€ says Kelehan. Soon he talks about his favourite petsâ€” snakes.
â€œThe guys are just misunderstood,â€ Kelehan explains.â€ They donâ€™t attack you unless they are provoked. They only bite you if you step on them, invade their space or harass them.â€
â€œHow do you know that a snake is happy?â€
He pauses before answering.
â€œUsually after it has eaten. It is difficult to tell whether it is happy or not because snakes have no facial expressions. You only know they are unhappy when they bite you,â€ Kelehan chuckles.
â€œHave you ever been bitten by a snake?â€
â€œLots of times. But it is like riding a bike. If you fall off you get straight back,â€ he says matter-of-factly. â€œI have not been bitten by venomous snakes.â€
â€œHow do you feel when a snake bites you?â€
â€œIt hurts,â€ replies Kelehan. â€œIf a venomous snake bites you, you must get treatment, otherwise you dieâ€.
Two weeks ago, Kelehan stunned on lookers when he rescued a snake. With a tinge of pride in his voice, he relates his daring exploit: â€œA python fell in a pit along Entebbe Road. I descended in the pit and put it in my bag,â€ says Kelehan. â€œAbout twenty 20 whistled and clapped as I got out of the pit.â€
To demonstrate his expertise, he walks to the snake cage at UWEC, and pulls out a python.
Kelehan expertly grabs the snake and holds it by the tail. As it twists and writhes, he smiles contentedly. He says a python is not venomous.
â€œSome snakes are venomous. The venom attacks the flesh and the blood. Puff adders have a poison that attacks the flesh,â€ says Kelehan.
Kelehan is the third born in a family of five. His father Austin Kelehan is a ramp agent at Gatwick Airport.
Kelehan was born and bred in Cuckfield, a small village south of England. His mother died when he was a small boy.
He went to cuckfield Holy Trinity School before proceeding to Harlands for his secondary education.
â€œAfter a year, I joined Abbottsford,â€ says Kelehan. â€œI left in 1995 and began working in a pet shop.â€
He keeps a wide variety of snakes at home and also breeds them: â€œSometimes I find them under my bed,â€ he says. â€œYou can make a hell of a lot of money from breeding snakes. I earn Â£3,000 yearly from selling baby snakes.â€
The young man has other passions: travelling, riding and jogging. Kelehan confesses he has no head for figures: â€œI canâ€™t remember numbers easily, but I know everything about animals.â€
In September, Kelehan flew to Uganda in a quest to learn more about animals. â€œThe trip cost Â£190 pounds. I relied on my savings. In England, I was working in a pet shop.â€
â€œMy childhood dream was to be a zoo keeper,â€ says Kelehan. â€œI never want to get stuck behind a desk. I want to be near animals. It is a lasting source of joy to me. I think I have realised my ambition.â€ Ends