Queenie the lemur has a ringed tail and black rings around her eyes, too, making her look startled. The teenage lemurs are in another enclosure because they are wild, like all teenagers, and easily riled up. Inside Kangaroo Crossing, Tyson hops over, eager for his silvery-tan ears to be stroked. Only a toddler, nowhere near his full kangaroo height, he has a sweetness about him that Devil Dog, the four-horned Jacob’s lamb, traded for orneriness long ago. The wallaby is napping; so are the bunnies.
Amidst this bucolic idyll, Michael Beran is cracking up because people saw an online photo of him getting taken down by the FBI and did not realize it was a film still. He plays a gun runner in Bermuda Island, one of fifty-seven films he has been involved with as actor, stunt man, or animal wrangler since he started Wildlife Command Center. His faves are the zombie films—but not supernatural zombies, he warns. Biological zombies, created by some sort of virus, with bonus points for a post-apocalyptic setting. “Why? Because I think we’re heading there.”
And yet, he is so calm. Hollywood is a side gig; mainly, Beran rescues wild animals, using those he keeps for education and entertainment, and rescues people from wild animals. Now he joins Rocky, a Eurasian eagle-owl of magnificent proportions with a diva’s temperament. The bird flaps huge wings in token protest.
“Rocky, we’re taking pictures,” Beran says quietly. “Look at me.” He kneels and holds out his arm, and Rocky steps up with dignified deliberation. “You just gotta get him in the mindset,” Beran says with a shrug.
Next door, Mama Lav, a twenty-foot python, is curled up inside a tire. Inside the Command Center is a baby barn owl (“You can fly, I know you can,” he coaxes); a team of “hero mice” who, protected by a cage, lure raptors down from high warehouse ceilings; a falcon named Mars (preoccupied with a snack, the corpse of a day-old chicken); and a wild-caught tegu, smartest of all the lizards. This one was rescued from south Florida, where they burrow under sidewalks and roads, infuriating officials who then vow to kill them.
Beran holds a green iguana, Mr. Cuddles, in his big, steady hands for a while, then moves on to Goldie, a sixteen-foot gold python; Arizona Blond, his only tarantula; and two black Asian Forest scorpions with a Hollywood résumé (most recently appearing in Bloodthirst, a postapocalyptic vampire film). The scorpions’ containers are surrounded by those of two alligators, a copperhead nestled in one of Beran’s old work boots, a Burmese python, a boa constrictor, and three diamondbacks. Beran has to raise his voice over all the hissing and rattling—yet only the scorpions awaken primal terror in me. Without realizing it, I take a step back. He takes out another one to show me, bringing it close. For a split second, I hate him.
He grins and puts the scorpion back. “I like that they’re creepy. I was never the white picket fence type.”
In the Navy, Beran spent years on submarines and worked on nuclear missiles. When he was in his early thirties, he had what he swears was “a full-out vision” that showed him his “expiration date”: August 30, 2065. “I want to believe that,” he says. “It helps me do stupid things, ’cause I honestly don’t think I’m going to die.” In the glow of near immortality, he has wrestled alligators, gotten 132 stitches from raccoons alone, suffered more than a dozen rabies shots. The tattoos on his arms do not hide the tracing of fine white scars—and a few bright red, brand-new scratches.
“Don’t be afraid to get bit” is the first thing he tells wannabe wranglers. “Not much can kill you. Just approach calmly—and let them know you’re coming in before you pick them up. Don’t make sudden movements. Don’t squeeze. Working with bare hands is easiest on the animal, because you know exactly how much pressure to put on or let off.”
His main strategy is to “use the animal’s natural inclinations against it to catch it.” A hawk will flip backwards in self-defense, because its talons can tear you up faster than its beak, so be ready. After watching Beran in action, I ask where his genius with animals came from, and he corrects me fast: “It’s not genius. More like operational, situational awareness.” And fearlessness.
His captures are legend, yet a pair of orphaned baby skunks is currently foiling him. The homeowner’s Ring camera keeps catching them playing, bouncing every which way, their tails fluffed straight up. Adult skunks are methodical creatures of habit, but these little guys were never taught to be predictable. Bare Hands Beran, the master wrangler, has laid ten traps. “They just keep bouncing around them,” he sighs. “We’re gonna use tenacity. Tenacity is a great tool.”
A more triumphant story: in Lafayette, Louisiana, a young widow once called him. Her husband had been killed offshore, and she was alone in a gorgeous new Spanish villa and swore there was a snake living in her downstairs guest bathroom. “It’s been there a year, and nobody believes me!” she wailed.
He almost turned down the job—“I don’t like to get involved with crazy”—but is kind, and so relented. She showed him to the powder room, which she had kept sealed with duct tape for a year. With a pocketknife, he slit the tape and slowly opened the door. The unused hinges squeaked, and something jumped into the toilet. She was right. Beran grabbed a sewer stop from his truck, and when he went back and peeked through the door, he saw a snake’s tail disappearing into a clothes hamper. After oiling the hinges, he went in fast and grabbed the snake—which sank its fangs into his arm.
“I was bleeding like a pig,” he says, “because they have an anticoagulant in their saliva. It was a green anaconda, six and a half feet long. I kept my hand down in the snake bucket, and finally the snake let loose. The woman was so grateful she was hysterical. She sent me Christmas cards for years.”
More and more people are plagued in this fashion, tormented by wildlife they cannot confront. “I could talk for hours about carrying capacity,” Beran says. “How many animals can an acre of land support? In the wild, two to three raccoons an acre. In the city, fifty an acre. They have artificial food, artificial clean water, artificial shelter. Drainage systems, sheds, attics, Domino’s boxes in the trash, Fluffy’s kibbles, all the birdseed the birds don’t finish…. And the only predators are cars and black rat snakes.”
Tucked away in Imperial, Missouri, he finds his near-desperate clients by using entertainment as marketing. His vehicle is painted up with snake markings, his Bare Hands Rescue reality tv show ran on Discovery+ and Animal Planet; and he has a YouTube channel and a videographer living on site. He also sells coffee. When New Orleans contracted with Beran to catch nutria (unusually large, whiskery rodents) in the canals, he brought fresh nutria to Chef Emeril Lagasse every morning (they are now on his menu) in exchange for cups of perfectly roasted fresh coffee. After a tasting marathon with Lagasse’s roaster, Beran created his own blend, all proceeds going to his Raptor Rescue LLC not-for-profit.
But set the marketing aside, because his real love is the solemn and ancient sport of falconry. “This is George,” he says, with the air of introducing someone beloved. A consummate athlete and hunter, George is a Harris hawk. “The wolves of the air,” they strategize and cooperate with extraordinary intelligence.
When he takes a pack of hawks out west—an alpha female and two smaller males—to hunt jackrabbits, his role “is to be a very good dog. I’m the alpha before I turn them loose, because I drove, but the minute I turn them loose, the female dictates the hunt. The males key in off her, and she keys in off me because she knows I’m a really good dog and I know where the rabbits are.” Though jackrabbits can run fifty miles an hour, outpacing the hawks’ flight speed, the hawks can outthink the rabbits, anticipating and intercepting the curve of their path.
“Audubon had a friend named Harris,” Beran says, stroking George. “This used to be called the Louisiana hawk.” Louisiana is where the four Beran boys grew up, on the edge of a Catahoula swamp. People would drop off injured snakes and birds at their house, and Michael would tend them. He also fostered a baby crow, naming her Rosemary. She learned to screech his name, MI-chael, and she followed him everywhere, flying from tree to tree behind him.
He saw what was possible.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.