Snakes on the Coney Island Boardwalk

A woman with two large snakes draped over her shoulders, with the beach in the background.
An impromptu petting zoo has sprung up on the Coney Island boardwalk.

By Michael Wilson/ Aug. 30, 2023

When a 13-year-old girl drapes a huge snake over your shoulders in front of hundreds of people on the Coney Island boardwalk, the obvious questions — What is her deal? Why am I doing this? — fall away.

Its grim weight and unnervingly cool, undulating mass ripple along your arms and across your neck. It is, in a way, clarifying: gone are your troubles, your worries and dreams. There is only you and the snake.

This has been the Summer of the Snake at Coney Island, the latest of countless come-and-go pop-up spectacles along the rickety and uneven boards. For a mere $5, you, too, can take a selfie with a 40-pound boa constrictor that eats live rats and dislikes the sort of sudden jerking movements that naturally follow having a heavy rat-eating thing placed upon you.

The variety of wildlife available for photographs at Coney Island made headlines this month when a young man’s pet wallaby, that kangaroo-adjacent animal native to Australia, was seized on the boardwalk by the police. The man, Mike Gibbons, 23, who lives nearby, was told that he needed a permit to own a wallaby, and his pet was delivered to an animal shelter on Long Island.

This incident, on Aug. 19, surprised no one who has visited Coney Island in recent weeks and observed the gantlet of creatures on display a few feet from where people sit to eat Nathan’s Famous. In fact, in a place where every 12 feet or so someone is openly selling beer and shots of liquor from their personal coolers, the wallaby wouldn’t seem like the most obvious thing lacking a permit.

A teenage girl with two large snakes draped over her shoulders and encircling her at the waist.
Elias Cabrera, 13, has carved out a strange summer job.

“They’re really not for anyone having an animal unless it’s a dog or a cat,” said Mr. Gibbons, standing on the boardwalk Sunday, undeterred, with a parrot on his head. He misses his other pet: “I did quite a lot of research. Wallabies fit in my living space. He just hops around. I give him toys to play with.” He added, “I know my limit. I’m not one of these people that wants to get a tiger.”

The incident cooled the beachfront’s transformation to Noah’s Ark, but not entirely. Past four different D.J.s blasting salsa and hip-hop on Sunday evening, past Spider-Man posing on the sand, past the flag advertising a rent-a-clown for baby showers or “shows adultos,” there was Elias Cabrera, 13, with two boas wrapped around her narrow waist and shoulders.

“I’m smaller than the snakes,” she correctly observed. “My friends think it’s cool.” Well, sure, but her family? “They’re impressed.” She showed up at the boardwalk two months ago with a bearded dragon and made a disappointing $15. When she switched to a snake later that same day, she pulled in $200. The rest of her strange summer Sundays quickly took shape.

When a paying customer steps up, she unfurls a snake from her body and guides it over his or her shoulders. One little girl with a snake hugging her torso saw her bravery flee her, and she closed her eyes and screamed.

A man stares into the middle distance with a parrot on his head.
“I know my limits,” said Mike Gibbons, whose wallaby was confiscated by the authorities. “I’m not one of these people that wants to get a tiger.”

Cabrera, who is in middle school, only models the snakes; she doesn’t own them. The reptiles live in the crowded Crown Heights home of Robert Johnson, 56, where they were born and bred along with about 30 other snakes. He has been bringing a few to the boardwalk on the weekends for years, he said, and can bring home up to $500 a day from the selfies.

“My neighbors love them because I keep the rats out,” he said. “The snakes have a smell that rats don’t like.” And that is not all they don’t like. Twice a month, Mr. Johnson buys a bunch of “jumbo rats” from a store and feeds two apiece to his boas.

He met Mr. Gibbons and Ms. Cabrera, who are neighbors, earlier this summer. He said he pays them a generous share of the donations. For his snakes, the boardwalk is a side hustle. “I do music videos,” Mr. Johnson said. “I do models. I do kids’ birthday parties.”

The two boas he brought along Sunday were named Trinity and Morpheus. “I love ‘The Matrix,’” he explained.

As the sun approached its magic hour before setting, small crowds formed and squealed at the sight of the girl carrying 80 pounds of snake. Police officers in an electric cart politely beeped as they passed, uninterested in the spectacle.

Another man arrived with two snakes of his own. Pythons. The elder, 3 years old, eats rats, while the younger, 1, is still on mice. But lacking the energy of the boas a few feet away, they lay listlessly on the hot boards and people passed them by. “They’re friendly,” their owner, Prince Taylor, 23, of Canarsie, insisted. “I trained them.”

A man holds a large snake strung across his hands, with a Ferris wheel behind him in the distance.
Prince Taylor, 23, also brings his pet snake to the boardwalk.

In past weeks, competition among snake handlers thinned “since everything went down with the wallaby,” Mr. Johnson observed. And so the wad of cash in his pocket fattened on Sunday, thanks to Ms. Cabrera, his secret weapon, greeting the gawking families.

“When they see her, a girl doing it,” he said, “they’re not scared.”

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