Pythons on Lower Broadway business raise safety, permit questions
Reporter records encounter with snake handlers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - Like many locals in my adopted town, I’m not out on Broadway much.
Mostly just when friends or family visit.
One night, after dropping my wife and her sisters off at a concert at Bridgestone, I met a college friend who was in from out of town, who promptly asked, “So why does Nashville allow giant snakes on Broadway?”
I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere about that question equating to the quality of the dating pool in the bars, but the best I could do was offer a confused eyebrow raise.
After giving my friend a walking tour of Broadway’s honky-tonks, there they were. As Instagram-ready as the Elvis statue, stood before me was one snake wrapped around the neck of a woman, and another being hauled around in a wagon.
Though I’m the son of a veterinarian, I’m quite lousy at identifying snakes. Boa constrictor? Python? I had no idea, but I got out my phone to gather some quality material for a few buddies.
But then, I heard the woman holding the snake say, “Twenty dollars to hold the snake.”
I watched as they placed the snake on a man’s shoulders, allowing it to wrap loosely around him. He grinned as his friends took pictures.
My friend, a graduate school classmate of mine, cued up our trained scrutiny and asked, “Do they have a permit to do that?”
I didn’t want to be a buzzkill, but you can’t turn off this reporter brain of mine.
“So, do you guys have a permit to do this?” I asked, recording the woman’s response.
“Yeah,” she said.
Days later, I got on Zoom with Jason Oldham with the Nashville Department of Transportation (NDOT), the metro agency that handles vendor permits for Lower Broadway.
“Did these people have a permit?” I asked.
“They do not have a permit,” Oldham said.
I had gotten that suspicion the first time I asked, so, like any good and annoying reporter, I repeated the question to the woman.
“What kind of permit do you have?”
She frowned, “I don’t appreciate you filming.”
“Well, I’m a journalist,” I said. “I’m just wondering, what’s your permit?”
“I’m OK, thank you for letting me…I would rather not be on camera,” she said, waving her hand in front of my phone.
In July, NDOT began oversight of vendors of Lower Broadway and worked with police to issue citations for permitless vendors.
The oversight began with concern for crowds after sidewalks clogged with vendors made passage difficult.
I asked Oldham if this further solidifies Broadway’s “anything goes” reputation (not sure if that hot-tub party bus is still in action).
“I think there are challenges, and there are evidence of those challenges,” Oldham said.
No one is perhaps more stunned by the video of the pythons amid the party crowd on Lower Broadway than Jac Menish, the curator of behavioral husbandry at the Nashville Zoo (after asking what exactly behavioral husbandry is, I learned it’s basically how animals interact with their social and physical environment. You can thank me on your next Trivia Night!)
Menish educates the public about animals by carefully selecting which species can be carried by or allowed around people.
And pythons, I learned, are pretty chill. You don’t have to have a permit to have one as a pet (but thoughts and prayers if you bring one home without consulting your spouse, roommate or dog first).
If pythons are raised from birth around humans, they are relaxed around their handlers, which is how the snakes appeared on Lower Broadway. (Fun fact: snakes can’t hear, but they can feel vibrations, so it’s best not to take them outside the Wildhorse Saloon when out-of-towners attempt line dancing.)
Menish knows the Lower Broadway crowd isn’t exactly known for its sobriety.
“Putting [a python] on a stranger, is that dangerous?” I asked.
“It could be because you never know how they’re going to react,” Menish said. “If they get around your neck, they can squeeze, and it could become very dangerous, very fast. Even if they’re not intending to harm you, it’s just them reacting to their environment. So it’s a risk.”
It was also very clear that the snakes were not tucked away in some dark corner; this was out in the middle for everyone, including police, to see.
I emailed the Metro Nashville Police Department to see if they had given these snake handlers citations or warnings in the past.
Kris Mumford, a long-time MNPD spokesperson, began her reply to my email with a “Yikes!” and then declined my offer to personally text her videos of the snakes.
But Mumford did reach out to the officers who patrol the entertainment district and emailed me to say, “Sergeant Paul Stein, the supervisor of the Entertainment District Unit, encountered both the woman you spoke to and another couple who have been on Broadway with a snake(s).”
Mumford continued, “The woman you encountered was warned, provided the restrictions on vending, and the prohibited areas for vending. On Friday night she left. She returned Saturday and advised that she was not vending, people were giving her tips to pet the snake. Sgt. Stein advised her of the criminal statute regarding obstruction of a passageway. She was mobile for a bit and then he didn’t see her again. The other couple Sgt. Stein has previously encountered were present and stated that they were not vending, only accepting tips or donations if people offered. He told them that the crowd was creating an obstruction and they needed to leave and they left.”
Bottom line: as long as the snake handlers aren’t charging, but rather just accepting tips and not blocking crowds, you can expect a side of live snakes with your main order of live music.
I can hear the squeals from the bachelorette parties now.
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