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  • Writer's pictureVeronika Bajnoková

The boy with the snakes who learned how to love life again

After a 14 hour bus ride from England back to the Netherlands, Keaton Bol was once again homeless. “I was on the verge of tears," he says. "I just felt so lost and panicked the whole time. I didn’t have anywhere to go." He'd been deported from England as an 'illegal' and was forced to return to his homeland while dealing with bipolar disorder and ADHD. “It was a very dark time and I just lost touch with reality. I was living in fantasy worlds."

Keaton’s favourite snake, Thalanil, peaking out of her terrarium © Veronika Bajnoková

That was all just eight years ago but it may as well have been a life-time. Keaton is now living in his own apartment in Assen with his partner, fourteen snakes, way too many rats, a gecko and a rabbit. He's sitting in the living room, his mass of dyed red curls beginning to fade, surrounded by two huge and two smaller rat cages, two snake terraria and one that appears to be empty but which he says is inhabited by the gecko. “My fascination with animals made my life better in every way possible,” he says as a slim brown-coloured snake is climbing his arm. “When I discovered these cool animals, I actually started loving real life again.”

Keaton carefully handles the snake slithering on his shoulders. It’s a Burmese python called Thalanil. She’s Keaton’s favourite. “She's the only one that’s going to get big enough to kill me. So, I want her to be nice,” he laughs. Snakes like Thalanil can grow up to two metres and weigh almost two hundred kilograms. But she’s still young and measures approximately one meter. “I want her to stay like this, otherwise it’s going to be scary.”

Keaton’s boyfriend Max keeps bringing more snakes into the living room. As he carries two baby ball pythons in his hands, their mother slowly starts wrapping around his neck. “You don’t want to have a snake around your neck,” Keaton explains as he frees Max from Rudania who looks similar to Thalanil in colour but differs in pattern. “She’s not going to constrict you, at least not on purpose. But if she holds on to your neck as a kind of warm tree branch, she doesn't really think about how you're trying to breathe through that.”

Keaton and Max started doing educational shows about snakes and reptiles called Reptielenshow Assen in their community centre almost three years ago. Max explains his job is to handle the snakes while Keaton is doing all the talking. “When we started dating, he said animals go first. I knew from the start if I don’t agree with something about the animals, I’m just going to get kicked out.”

Keaton’s favourite snake Thalanil is climbing his arm © Veronika Bajnoková

Before they met, Max who's twenty-six, a year younger than Keaton, struggled with drug addiction whilst Keaton had severe mental health issues. “I didn’t understand that at that time,” says Keaton. “I didn’t realize I was sick in my head back then.”

But going to see a doctor made matters even worse. “They did all the wrong things, they told me all the wrong stuff.” He already suspected he might have a bipolar disorder but was prescribed with antidepressants instead. “You cannot take those when you’re bipolar. It makes you go manic. I was completely off.”

At the time, he lived with his father in Meppel but Keaton says they didn’t get along well. “I didn't understand me, and neither did he.” As his mental state worsened, he thought he had no other option than to leave, and having nowhere to go, he ended up on the streets. He didn’t have friends as his peers bullied him for being different. “Looking back, I wouldn’t want to be friends with me either,” he jokes.

The only friend Keaton did have, lived in Norwich, a small city in the east of England. When his friend found out he was sleeping in a homeless shelter, he bought him a plane ticket and let him sleep in his student room. They shared a single-person bed for a couple of months before their roommates started to complain. Keaton asked Norwich city council for help as a homeless person, but instead they deported him. “I felt awful. I didn’t have anywhere to go.”

Trying to remember more from his early twenties, Keaton struggles to make sense of the memories in his head. His perception of time from this period is distorted. “Everything feels longer when you’re homeless. You don‘t have anything to do. During winter, you’re just sitting outside and you’re freezing.”

Max puts the snakes back in their terraria and picks up three white rats. “They’re not for the snakes,” he assures me and shows me framed pictures of their grand-grand-parents before Keaton tells me more about his life pre-menagerie.

Keaton and Max also have a bunny that freely runs around the apartment © Veronika Bajnoková

“This is the time where things are really blurry,” Keaton says. “I was also admitted to the mental hospital because I wasn’t doing very well.” The next thing he can remember is moving to assisted living and owning his very first house key. “At this point I realized I’m responsible for what’s going to happen next. It changed everything.”

Motivated by his newfound freedom, Keaton started to learn more about his bipolar disorder and ADHD. With plenty of time on his hands as he was unfit for employment, he indulged himself in educational videos about snakes. Before he even realized, he was already carrying his first snake curled up in a gift bag into his apartment.

“I was really nervous. She was bigger than I expected and she was hissing at me all the time,” he says. He now knows better than to buy a snake from a pet store. Soon he found out that the ball python named Urbosa had a big wound on her belly. He learned how to take care of her very quickly, but admits she wasn’t “a good snake to start with.”

Keaton's boyfriend holding up snake mother (brown) with her baby - a rare albino ball python © Veronika Bajnoková

Keaton says this challenge opened a whole new world for him. He realised he needed a bigger place if he wanted to take this seriously. When he moved into his first independent apartment in Assen, where he still lives today, he started rescuing abused snakes. It wasn't long before he had more snakes than working lightbulbs.

When he noticed a rat cage in a window of one of his neighbours, he couldn’t resist and knocked on the door. It was Max who answered. They've been inseparable since, helping each other to get back on their feet.

Keaton would have never believed he could organise reptile shows. Being bullied as a kid, he grew up with social anxiety. But his fascination with animals has helped him overcome the fear of public speaking. “I absolutely love doing it. But it’s the opposite of what people thought I could do. Keeping snakes was the best decision I ever made.”

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