When Kevin and Alison Lankford met, the two didn’t imagine that 28 years later, they would live together in Alaska with an albino alligator, 30 baby anacondas and four adult snakes ranging from 7 to 22 feet in length. Together, the two work with their reptiles to stoke their personal love for slithery creatures and to educate others.
When Kevin was born, he sustained a brain injury that resulted in cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a lifelong condition that can affect each person differently, and can have both muscular and cognitive symptoms. For Kevin, cerebral palsy causes severe muscle rigidity in all four limbs, which causes his limbs to shake and stiffen, a symptom called hypertonia.
Lankford was not diagnosed until he was 3 years old. He first exhibited symptoms, however, as a newborn. His muscles were so stiff that he was able to lift his head shortly after birth. Around 6 months old, his father could balance Kevin’s standing, stiff body on one hand.
He does not have cognitive impairments but has occasionally had to prove himself to educators who assumed the twitching of his limbs and his inability to write — Kevin does not have the fine motor function needed to write by hand — meant he was unable to participate in a classroom of neurotypical students. A sharp student, he proved them wrong.
Kevin’s obsession began when he was around 7 years old, at a summer camp for children with special needs. A man showed the kids different animals, including a relatively small black snake. As the pair passed Lankford, the snake came eye-level with him.
“I was mesmerized,” he said, “That feeling never left me.”
Lankford’s family settled in Hartsville, Tennessee, just as he was starting high school. Although his mother was initially “dead-set” against snakes, Lankford said she eventually came around to one named Samson. She even did the dishes with the snake draped around her shoulders.
Kevin met his wife while the two were in graduate school at Austin Peay University. Because Kevin cannot write by hand, he often borrowed or photocopied notes from his peers. In some cases, fellow students would take their notes and give him a carbon copy. When he first saw Alison, he immediately wanted to borrow her notes.
“Oh my gosh, she’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” he said he thought at the time.
Soon, Alison was tasked with helping Kevin in the classroom, not just by sharing notes, but also by assisting with the manipulation of testing materials in their assessment course. The two found that “the two of us together were better,” Alison said. Each worked in a different way but did well as a team.
It took Alison some time to soften to the idea of dating him. She did, eventually, conceding that he was “the smartest, most interesting person” interested in her. She loved that he, like her father, never used notes. She liked his sense of humor.
More than that, she said, their shared Christian faith was an important foundation to their union. Long before asking for her notes, Kevin struck up a conversation with Alison in the library over her Bible. A year later, after spending so much time together over their notes, the two started to fall in love.
After they started to date, she said, Alison never considered anyone else.
Like Kevin’s mother, Alison didn’t come around to the idea of having snakes right away. “I was a dog girl,” she said. She was first exposed to the creatures up close while studying for her biology minor at Austin Peay, where one of her professors kept a snake. She thought it was fascinating.
Once they’d been married a couple of years, Alison picked up her first snake, a 9-foot Burmese python. She described it as gentle and slow moving. “It was the perfect exposure,” she said.
The Lankfords started their snake ownership with Ruth, a Burmese python. A few years after they moved to Alaska, they got Lidia, a 22-foot reticulated python, then Jasmine, a Colombian red-tailed boa constrictor, and finally, Yukon Jack and McKinley — two green anacondas.
They also purchased Max, a rare albino alligator. He’s only 2 years old and is tame enough that he knows certain commands and Alison can scratch him under the chin without worrying about her fingers.
The 30 baby anacondas were born Oct. 15. Being able to breed Yukon Jack and McKinley was a triumph for Kevin, who says breeding snakes in Alaska is particularly difficult. It took a long time to coax the two anacondas into breeding, requiring careful adjustments to feeding, temperature and housing.
Learning that McKinley was gravid, or pregnant, was a moment of triumph for Kevin, who said breeding snakes is a sign that “you have mastered husbandry.” He wants to help propagate these animals he loves and feels that captive breeding can be an asset to their species, as their natural habitats are destroyed. The couple plans to sell most of the anaconda hatchlings.
While the couple takes care not to handle the animals when alone, Keven accepts that there is a risk to owning large snakes. “Anybody who has dealt with snakes knows you’re going to get bit,” he said.
Kevin says his disability is an asset when socializing the snakes. He said he holds the animals while they’re young and allows them to bite him with gloves on. Once they stop, he says they never bite again, because they are now acclimated to his movement.
While Kevin enjoys his job conducting psychological testing, it isn’t his passion. He thinks it’s important for those who do work like his to compartmentalize their lives. Interacting with the snakes and Max help him to gain some separation from what can be stressful and emotionally taxing work.
Now the couple is working with local schools on education programs with Max. Much like when they were in college, Alison manipulates Max while Kevin gives information about him. It’s an arrangement they both enjoy.
Both feel that educating Alaskan children about reptiles, when there are so few available at Alaskan zoos, is an important way for them to give back. They’ll do it together.
“We’re a team,” Alison said.
Contact staff writer Cheryl Upshaw at 459-7572 or find her on Twitter @FDNMcity.