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MANAUS, Brazil – Between the parents, the four kids, the dog, the two sloths, the python and the baby caiman, it's a tight fit in the Silva family's two-room floating home in the Amazon rainforest.
The exotic houseguests help 35-year-old fisherman Evandro Correia da Silva and his family eke out a living on their native Solimoes River, on the opposite bank from Manaus, a World Cup host city where the U.S., English and Italian teams will be among those battling it out.
Tourist boats dock on what effectively is the Silva family's front doorstep, and the family snaps into action, peeling the reluctant sloths from the legs of the plastic patio table, rousing the retiring snake from its hiding spot in the corner and offering up the snapping, 2-foot-long caiman to the cameras.
Everyone hugs the adorable three-toed sloths, whose sleepy eyes belie an unexpectedly potent grip, while only the boldest guests — and Silva's 3-year-old daughter — dare wear the snake draped around their shoulders or hold the alligator-like caiman. In return, the visitors purchase soft drinks out of the family fridge and perhaps also leave a cash donation.
With Manaus' environmental police out to shut down operations like his, Silva insists the animals aren't pets but just temporary guests: He said he returns the sloths to the forest after about two weeks, swapping them out for fresh ones; the snake, known as a "jiboia," in Portuguese, stays 10 days, while the caiman spends just 24 hours in its water-filled basin inside the house. To keep sentimental attachments in check, the family doesn't name the animals.
While it might bring in decent money, this sort of business is not for the faint of heart, Silva warned as he showed off multiple snakebite scars on his hands and forearms.
"You just have to wait till they open their mouths and remove the fangs on their own," he said, noting the pythons he captures aren't poisonous. "If you freak out and try to pull them off, you'll just tear up your own flesh."
Other star animal attractions in the area include a heart-melting array of monkeys, flesh-eating piranhas, and the "boto," a pink fresh water dolphin that's trained to swim with tourists and chopped up by locals into bait for the "piracatinga," or "vulture catfish."
Much has been made by the British tabloid press about the dangers posed by the local fauna in and around Manaus — the most exotic of Brazil's 12 World Cup host cities, where some 52,000 foreigners are expected to attend four matches after the monthlong tournament kicks off on June 12.
Giant tarantulas, poisonous snakes and malarial mosquitoes have featured prominently in the tabloids' coverage, but there are actually plenty of other creepy crawlies in the Amazon for the World Cup visitor to worry about: The region is home to the world's largest variety of insect life.
There's the "Titaneus giganteus," a long-horn beetle with jaws powerful enough to snip off the tip of a human finger; the "spider's hawk wasp," which paralyzes its spider prey to feed off at its leisure; and the "flying cobra cicada," which local superstition says can cause people's hands to rot upon contact.
Experts agree there's no scientific basis behind the superstition and insist there's little risk to visitors.
"Follow a few basic precautions, like using a mosquito net and avoiding the riverbanks at dusk, and you can really reduce the chances of contracting mosquito-borne diseases like dengue, malaria or yellow fever," said Marcio de Oliviera, a researcher specializing in rainforest bees at Brazil's INPA Amazon research institution. (Yellow fever vaccinations are encouraged for foreigners visiting the Amazon or other rural regions of Brazil, and people should get shots at least 10 days before the visit.)
"I've been here for many years and never got anything, except for this," Oliveira said, rubbing a mottled scar the size of a quarter on his skin — leishmaniasis, the result of a sandfly bite, which causes unsightly sores on the skin. "It's fine if you treat it early."