By Laura C. Morel
Times Staff Writer
Lance Gifford's magic show built to a familiar crescendo.
Often, he would perform a series of animal transformations — doves become rabbit becomes poodle. That would be followed by a version of Harry Houdini's famous "Metamorphosis" in which his chained assistant is locked in a box, only to reappear standing on top of it, replaced inside by Gifford himself.
But the "blow-your-mind ending," as Gifford calls it, had always been the Hindu Basket.
Gifford's assistant would crawl into a basket, his torso sticking out of the top. Gifford would drape a red cloth over him, which would then suddenly drop as if the body underneath had vanished. The magician would then ram four swords through the basket. Then he would extract the swords, reach inside and pull out a huge Burmese python.
He'd wiggle the cloth over the top, and his smiling, unbloodied assistant would jump out before Gifford would reach inside the basket again to pull out a second snake.
Gifford, who lives in Gibsonton, performed last month at the Hudson Valley Fair in Fishkill, N.Y. For the first time in decades, there was no Hindu Basket finale.
He still has the basket, his assistant, the swords and the red cloth. But the pythons are gone.
"It felt,'' he said, "like something's pulled away from me."
• • •
Gifford, 45, always wanted to be a magician. For his 12th birthday, he used cash presents to buy his first set of magic tricks.
"From that day on, I was hooked," he said.
As a teenager, he cluttered the cellar of his parents' home in Billerica, Mass., with magic props, purchased with money from odd jobs, including a newspaper route and selling candy from his home.
At age 16, Gifford bought his first snake, a 2-foot python that became another magic prop. He performed at high school functions, birthday parties and corporate events.
As his magical endeavors grew, so did his snakes.
Gifford created the Magic of Lance Gifford and Company. In his 53-foot trailer that opens up to reveal a hand-painted stage, he has traveled the country with two assistants and an array of animals: four white doves, three dogs, two blue and gold macaws and a rabbit.
But his two 10-foot-long Burmese pythons, Abra and Cadabra, always stole the show.
Gifford doesn't remember where he bought the pythons, but he'd had Abra, an albino, for 10 years, and Cadabra, whose scales are varying shades of green, for about eight years.
The pythons usually took turns sharing the limelight. While one digested its food — UPS-shipped frozen rats fed to them every three to four weeks — the other performed.
"You don't want to pick them up for seven days," Gifford explained. "They can regurgitate what you feed them."
The pythons were kept in one cage with a plexiglass front and ate in another. Gifford always took care of the snakes, which he referred to as his "babies."
"I've been bitten twice," Gifford admitted, but quickly added, "both times, it was my fault."
When his snakes got too large, Gifford would find suitable homes for them at zoos and wildlife refuges. "They're still part of my family," he said, "so I want to make sure that they're going to be cared for."
Other people, however, who had similar problems with oversized reptiles made less responsible disposal choices, which is how over the past couple of decades the population of Burmese pythons exploded in the Everglades. Between 30,000 and 100,000 pythons are reportedly living there, according to the Nature Conservancy.
The massive snakes have ravaged nearly all raccoons, opossums and bobcats in the Everglades, according to an eight-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey. No foxes or cottontail or marsh rabbits were found, but researchers spotted pythons more than 16 feet long.
Late last year, Abra died after a lengthy illness that no amount of veterinary care could cure.
Then in March, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service banned the Burmese python, along with the northern and southern African pythons and the yellow anaconda. The ban makes it illegal to import Burmese pythons or travel with them across state lines without a federal permit.
• • •
This spring when Gifford packed his magic props for this year's tour, he reviewed the new ban restrictions.
At first he thought he could avoid it and apply for a permit. But when he read the rules more closely he realized he had to give up Cadabra, who would have to remain in a "double escape-proof containment" for the rest of his life, according to the law.
Gifford wept as he headed to meet with Vernon Yates, director of Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation, last month. They met along Gandy Boulevard in Tampa on the side of the road.
Cadabra, coiled in a bag, was in the back of the car. Gifford kissed him on the head one last time and handed him to Yates.
Without his python, Gifford is struggling. He has more than $20,000 in custom-made props — including a long box used to make pythons disappear — that he says are useless.
"They don't understand," Gifford said of federal officials. "They sit in an office. They have no idea, well, why would anybody possibly need to have a Burmese python? … There should be a special circumstance for somebody like me."
Susan Jewell, a wildlife coordinator at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said pythons grow quickly and can become a hazard to the environment. Gifford "can find a different snake," she said. "He can find a constrictor that is one we haven't listed. He's got some options there."
But Gifford said his options are limited. Reticulated pythons are aggressive and banned in several states. Boa constrictors curl up, making them harder to handle. "So basically on stage, what you're going to pull out is a big ball," the magician said.
Gifford is now touring the country, visiting Illinois, Massachusetts and New York. When spectators ask him what happened to the snakes, he explains the federal ban.
"The end of an era."
• • •
Cadabra is staying at the Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation in Seminole in a stainless steel cage. Yates said he plans to showcase him during school presentations.
"We'll try to find it a home where it will be used for education, donate it to a facility that's open to the public," he said.
So Cadabra will keep performing, just not in the Hindu Basket.
Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected]