Grace Olive Wiley
Grace Olive Wiley started her career as an entomologist earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas where she was employed after graduation. The Kansas University Science Bulletin published Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae Hemiptera Found in Kansas written by Wiley in 1922. Around the same time she became the curator of the Minneapolis Public Library’s Natural History Museum making her one of the first female zoo curators in the world.
As successful as she was working with insects her passions soon turned to reptiles especially venomous snakes. She began building a large personal collection including cobras and mambas even becoming the first person to successfully breed rattlesnakes in captivity. At the time it was seen as strange that a woman would have a large collection of deadly reptiles and she tried to use that fame to change perceptions of snakes stating that “the fear of snakes is cultivated. We are not born with it. Children love snakes as naturally as they love dogs and cats.”
Wiley felt that if handled and trained correctly even venomous snakes were harmless and she refused to use any special handling instruments. Pressured by colleagues fearing for both Wiley’s and their own safety she was given the choice to change her handling methods or leave. She chose the latter leaving the library in 1933 but was quickly hired as a curator of reptiles at the newly opened Brookfield Zoo. As she still didn’t change her handling methods, she had many of the same conflicts with her new coworkers and after she allowed 19 venomous snakes to roam freely, she was fired in 1935.
Moving to California she became a snake trainer and reptile consultant for the film industry including working on Moon over Burma, The Jungle Book, and the Tarzan series. Also operating a reptile zoo she invited a journalist to document a newly acquired Indian cobra. The flash from the camera spooked the snake and Wiley was bitten and it was discovered that her vial of anti-venom was broken. She passed away two hours after her bite.
Suggested by Vicky Goad
Written by Angela Goad