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Snake Charmers

Cold-blooded critters woo warm-hearted friends

by Carrie Madren

Show-and-tell usually bans nine-foot pythons and angry snapping turtles. But Brian Kristal’s pythons and snapping turtles — plus cornsnakes, monitor lizards and tortoises — got an exception at Shady Side Elementary.

Reptile Wonders’ wildlife expert Kristal brought his reptilian troupe to the elementary school to teach lessons in nature — starting with the lesson that reptiles are cool but should be left alone in the wild.

Whoa! echoed through the all-purpose room as students shook hands with a 75-pound tortoise from Africa and petted a 35-pound black-throat monitor lizard. Hagrid the monitor lizard could crush a hand, warned Reptile Man, who wore wrist braces as he grasped the powerful lizard. In turn, the monitor clung to Kristal’s arm and shirt like a clamp as kids reached for him.

“He had a whole bunch of bumps,” said fourth grader Morgan Foster after stroking the monitor’s back.

Kristal showed cornsnakes by grasping four of them in one hand, gracefully winding them around each other like a rope. Then, with a handful of Medusa’s hair, he made rounds of introductions to the students.

He dangled Petunia, a grey-banded kingsnake, like a long piece of delicate ribbon as he shared the species’ secret: It’s non-venomous but can eat venomous foes. Then he gently folded up Petunia like a piece of rope and returned her to her ventilated, shoebox-sized plastic container.

From a large black Rubbermaid bin — with secure lid lock and wheels — Kristal extracted a feisty snapping turtle named Miss Hiss.

“She wakes up in a bad mood everyday,” he told the students. Miss Hiss’s shell cracked when she was run over by a truck. The driver stopped to pick her up, and Kristal glued her shell back together. Now she tours with him.

To gain prime viewing of the scaly visitors, kids gathered around three long, green, lizard-printed fabric rectangles duct-taped to the floor. Kristal toured his reptilian creatures up and down the three runways so students could get an up-close glimpse — or reach out and touch. When Kristal walked past with his snakes, turtles and lizards, children shrieked, giggled and exclaimed amazement. Some scooted in closer or retreated farther, depending on their comfort with scaly, slithering friends.

This was the second year for the reptilian rendezvous. The Reptile Man became last year’s favorite event. Second graders, at the beginning of the school year, had encouraged incoming first graders with promises of a first-grade highlight: Reptile Man.

A similar school gathering inspired Reptile Man to his career. Kristal — a tall, thin, fast-talking animal handler with a goatee — found his calling in kindergarten, 25 years ago, when a reptile expert came to his elementary school to give a live presentation. Now he’s handled reptiles full time for 14 years, rescuing unwanted reptiles and pets seized by animal control or taken to animal shelters. He acquired the tortoise after prison guards found it wandering outside a penitentiary.

“People get them as cute pets, then can’t afford them,” Kristal says. Or reptilian pets grow larger than their owners expect.

Two of his larger creatures made for a grand finale. Like a good ringmaster, Kristal built up suspense before reaching into a large Rubbermaid bin and pulling out two Burmese pythons — to the sound of excited gasps. Five lucky fourth and fifth graders helped carry the python pair — one brown and one albino — around the cafeteria, holding up the smooth, scaly, seven-foot-plus giants while Kristal held onto their spade-shaped heads.

“It was scaly and heavy,” reported fourth grader Jason Trott, one of the bearers.

As kids learned what to do if they see a reptile in the wild — don’t touch it — a final lesson helped make the 45-minute show-and-tell a safe one.

“What’s the most important thing after you touch a cool animal?” Kristal asked the primary schoolers sitting cross-legged on the floor.

“Wash your hands!” they shouted in unison. Hand sanitizer flowed throughout the room, and snakes didn’t seem quite so scary.

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