The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences celebrates the plants, animals and ecosystems of the state, but one of the most popular exhibits in the museum’s history featured a Burmese python from the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Her name was George (it wasn’t until she became ill before she died in 1989 that her gender was confirmed), and a good part of her renown came from the story of how a U.S. Special Forces soldier saved her from being eaten by Cambodian mercenaries, then managed to bring her home with him to Fort Bragg in 1964.
The tale is the subject of a new graphic novel, “An Unlikely Refugee: The Story of a Python Named George,” by a husband and wife team from the Triangle. Writer Morrow Dowdle and her illustrator husband, Max, will appear at the science museum’s Reptile and Amphibian Day this Saturday.
Joining them will be the Green Beret who was responsible for George’s improbable journey to Raleigh. Dewey Simpson, now 87, can still tell the story as if it happened last year, and still marvels a bit about how well-known George became.
“I was not only surprised, but a little frightened,” Simpson said by phone from his home near Shallotte along the North Carolina coast. “Not much was said about how he got in there. I was afraid that they’d get me for smuggling.”
(Simpson still thinks of George as the male snake everyone thought he was for 25 years, and, like most people, including the Dowdles in their book, refers to George as “him.”)
Simpson was among the first Army soldiers in Vietnam in the early 1960s, as the U.S. was starting to get involved in the war there. He led a Special Forces unit based at a camp near Chau Lang in the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border.
Simpson, then a master sergeant, met George in 1963 while on patrol with Cambodian civilians that served with the unit. They had spotted a 10-foot-long Burmese python in a tree and stopped to capture it, with the idea of eating it.
Instead, Simpson ordered the snake brought back to camp, where it became a sort of pet and mascot. A friend suggested the name George, and Simpson had a teak wood enclosure made for her. She ate rats, rabbits and chickens that the soldiers brought to her, and Simpson had to make sure she wasn’t overfed.
“My troops enjoyed him,” he said. “They liked to see George eat. That was a big occasion.”
The soldiers were so fond of George that when she was wounded by a piece of shrapnel during a Viet Cong attack, Special Forces medics patched her up, and she was awarded an honorary Purple Heart. The scar remained visible for the rest of her life.
I never thought that he would become a celebrity. It’s an honor to him.
Dewey Simpson, speaking about George the python.
When it came time to go home, Simpson knew he couldn’t leave George behind; the Cambodians still had designs on eating her, he says. So under the guise that the snake would become a “training aid” back at Bragg, Simpson talked George’s way onto various planes and through customs to get the python home.
But it wasn’t long before Simpson realized he couldn’t keep George; for starters, a python that eats small animals wouldn’t be a good fit with Simpson’s Chihuahua. So he began looking around for a new home for her.
He found an eager taker in James Chambers, the director of Raleigh’s recreation department, who considered the python a good foundation for the city zoo he hoped the establish. In the meantime, George could live at the science museum.
The zoo never happened, and meanwhile George grew in his new home, to about 16 feet long and about 120 pounds. In 1978, George was moved into a new glass-enclosed exhibit with a radiant-heated floor, a small pool and a climbing tree.
Simpson visited George when he could, and was there to help move her into her new home.
George remained a fixture at the museum until 1989, after she developed glandular cancer in her jaws. Unable to eat, she was euthanized at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, where her skeleton became part of the collection.
In 2012, Max Dowdle heard the story of George’s journey from Vietnam to Raleigh on WKNC, the student radio station at N.C. State University. Someone from the museum was promoting the annual reptile and amphibian day. He and his wife, Morrow, had recently moved to North Carolina and were looking for a project to work on together.
They decided to tell the story from George’s point of view, and through the format of a graphic novel that would appeal to adults and children. They used a Kickstarter campaign to raise $10,000 for the project and published 1,000 copies themselves.
A key to the project was tracking down Simpson, now long retired, and hearing the story from him. They brought a 90-minute cassette tape to record the conversation, but ended up talking for hours.
“He spoke very passionately and affectionately about the snake,” Max Dowdle said. “He’s a warrior through and through, but he has a very tender side.”
The Dowdles’ book is the second about George. Mary Ann Brittain, a science educator at the museum, wrote a slimmer paperback version, “A Snake Called George,” that’s sold in the gift shop next to the Dowdles’.
After his years in Vietnam, Simpson went on to travel around the world in a 30-year Army career. In 2005, while at the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, he wrote a book called “The Arab and His Faith” to give to soldiers on their way to the Middle East that sought to counter the vilification of Muslims following the Sept. 11 attacks.
But for all he has seen and accomplished in life, Simpson acknowledges that he may be best remembered for the snake he brought back from Vietnam.
“I didn’t think much about it when I brought him over. I never thought that he would become a celebrity,” he said. “It’s an honor to him.”
More about George
Dewey Simpson and authors Morrow and Max Dowdle will appear at Reptile and Amphibian Day at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Their appearance is part of a full day of reptile and amphibian events, including live snake feeding and a live virtual tour of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, go to naturalsciences.org.