AN OBSESSION WITH REPTILES
J John Cheetham’s magnificent obsession with reptiles began when he was a schoolboy in his hometown of Oldham, Lancashire. A glimpse from the top of a bus of alligators basking in the sun at Manchester’s famous Belle Vue Zoo set his imagination racing. He took every opportunity of visiting the zoo, and the more he saw of the creatures that seemed to have stepped out of the remote past, the more his fascination grew, until it embraced all reptiles. When he was 11, he bought a baby alligator from a local pet shop.
It was the first step to becoming the only private collector of giant reptiles in Britain. It was also to lead to John’s appearing with his own alligators and pythons in films and on television. And that same pet alligator is still with John, although he’s grown a little during the 27 years they’ve been together. Big Boy, a magnificent specimen of Alligator Mississippiansis, found in the southern states of North America, is now 10 ft. long and weighs 19 stone.
Big Boy and John have appeared with Roger Moore in Live and Let Die and Moonraker. Big Boy has also featured in Clash of the Titans and on TV advertisements. James Bond fans have seen quite a bit of John without realising it. It was his legs that did the spectacular dash to safety over the backs of alligators in Live and Let Die. Among John’s other pet reptiles to star in films are Aristotle, a 14-ft-long reticulated python aged six, and Pythagoras, a 14-ft Indian 4 python who, at eighteen, is the grand old man among the snakes.
Aristotle and Pythagoras both featured in the underwater wrestling scene in Moonraker with John in a friendly tussle, although the eventual result on film looks deadly serious. John’s collection also includes a giant tortoise, snapping turtles, the c largest legless lizards or slowworms found in the world, and Nile crocodiles. Most of the giant reptiles in John’s collection are housed at Beaver Water World, Tatsfield, which is owned by Jeff Wheeler, his friend and partner. Collecting giant reptiles might seem a strange hobby for John, a teacher at Dorton House School for the Blind at Seal, near Sevenoaks. £ But John often introduces pupils to his pet snakes, letting them touch and hold them. John lets blind children and anyone else handle the pythons without any fear that they will attack.
They are benign creatures. “All they want is a quiet life,” he said.