October 05, 1987 12:00 PM

It was an eclectic crowd that gathered for the charity luncheon attended by the Duke and Duchess of York during their “private visit” to Greenwich, Conn. Karen, the baby elephant, was on the guest list, and others in attendance included an eagle and a hawk as well as a couple of hundred U.S. and British aristocrats. But no one seems to have warned Sarah Ferguson about Jim Fowler’s 12-foot python.

The luncheon was a benefit for the World Wildlife Fund, and a spokesman had expressed hopes that the royals would “interact with the animals.” Fergie, ever the good sport, had laughed dutifully when Karen kneeled and sprayed water from her trunk, but all bets were off once the 100-lb. Burmese python showed up, wrapped around Fowler, of TV’s Wild Kingdom. No sooner had the reptile appeared than Fergie bolted for the nearest tent, only to be coaxed back by her husband, Prince Andrew, and her mother, Susan Barrantes. Terrified, she hid behind them, weeping into her gloves and refusing to lift her head. “Sarah and I don’t like snakes,” Andrew said firmly. “I’m not going anywhere near one!”

Fortunately Fergie’s showing of the white feather only briefly marred the royal couple’s first U.S. visit as husband and wife. They were the featured attractions at a luncheon, an art auction and a ball to benefit charities concerned with wildlife and art. As for the unseemly incident with the python, William Reilly, president of the World Wildlife Fund, said afterward that there was a simple explanation. “The Duchess said she had some encounters earlier with snakes in Canada,” he reported. “Someone had come up behind her with one.”

Fergie rallied after the snake was removed. “She had a couple of drinks and that helped,” one witness explained. Meanwhile a member of the British Embassy broke the news that the entire Ferguson family suffered from ophidiophobia, fear of snakes. Maj. Ronald Ferguson, Fergie’s father, seemed to bear that out when he snapped at the press after lunch, “None of us like snakes, do we?”

Well, not none of us. “Fear is a lack of knowledge,” said Fowler, though not in Ferguson’s hearing. “A snake is a symbol of how we misunderstand wildlife.” As for Fergie, he observed, “She’ll recover.”

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