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Reptilian Relationships

10/2/2000
October 2, 2000

It's 2 p.m., and Sherry Koontz-Howell decides she needs a stress break. But instead of pouring a cup of tea, she reaches into the pink pillowcase lying knotted and crumpled in her lap.

“Hello-o-o,” she croons, undoing the knot and peering inside. “Want to come out and play?” Reaching into the case, she lifts out a 20-inch ribbon of reptile. “Hey, Peppermint,” she says to the cream-and-coral-pink snake. “Hey, pretty lady.”

A stroke or two and Peppermint is content to drape herself gracefully over Koontz Howell's shoulder as the agriculture department secretary resumes her chores.

“It's very soothing,” Koontz-Howell says of the reptile's presence. “Snakes are great stress relievers.” Well, with a collection of 110 snakes, Koontz-Howell must be very relaxed.

Snakes are repugnant to most of us. The stuff of horror movies and nightmares. And Koontz-Howell understands that point of view perfectly.

“Until a year and a half ago I was terrified of snakes,” she admits. “I couldn't even look at them on TV. “

Then one day a student brought a red-tail snake in. “I threw a fit,” Koontz-Howell says. “But after a month, I touched her. And it wasn't at all what I expected. I thought she'd be cold and slimy. But she was warm and soft.

“It took me weeks to get the nerve to try to hold her. And she snubbed me! Turned completely away! I said, ‘I'm not going to be outdone by a two-foot worm.' I took her in my hand. And you know what? It wasn't gross. It very soothing to hold her.”

Thus the love affair with reptiles began.

Koontz-Howell's first acquisition was Peppermint, a rosy boa. “My husband Donnie, wanted a ball python, but I was still intimated by that,” she says. “So the pet store owner showed me this tiny, pretty thing, and she left with me.”

A few days later, Donnie's much-desired ball python joined the family and, Koontz Howell says, “it just exploded from there.”

Today their reptilian menagerie includes Blackie, a 22-year-old, five-foot-long ball python, and Arthur, a gray-banded king. And of course there's Taz, a diamond x jungle carpet python who thinks she's a hair ornament. “

If I put my hair up in a clip, Taz will get up there and wrap around it and sleep for hours,” Koont-Howell says. “I've been known to forget she was there,” she adds with a wry smile that promises a story.

“One day Donnie and I decided to go to Jewelry World. And as we were standing at the counter I heard a lady say “Oh, look. Isn't that a neat bow in her hair.” Well, about that time Taz raised her head. The lady shrieked and ran from the store.

"I'd forgotten she was there!” she says with a chagrined laugh.

Rescuing Abused Reptiles
In addition to their purchased pets, the Koontz-Howells have several that are “adopted.” Like Lincoln, a Burmese who at five feet long is less than one-third his mature size.

“We were asked to babysit Lincoln while his owners moved,” Koontz-Howell says. “They promised to come by and feed him.

“We never heard from them again.”

Lincoln, it seems, had a Jekyll-Hyde personality. “One minute he'd be loving. The next he'd viciously attack,” Koontz-Howell says. “And Burmese are usually gentle. Well, it turned out his previous owners thought it was fun to blow marijuana smoke in his face and get him stoned.”

Lincoln's new parents followed their vet's advice and gave Lincoln 45 days of “rehab,” essentially leaving him alone while the drug worked its way out of his system. Then they started handling him again.

“Now he's a loving Burmese,” she says.

Shakespearean Snakes
One of Koontz-Howell's favorites are what she calls her “darling little hog-nosed snakes.”

“They're so funny,” she says. Hog-nosed snakes, who look like they ran into a wall nose first, are known as the great pretenders.

“When they're scared, they imitate the cobra. They flatten out, stand straight up and strike. But they do it with their mouths closed, and they strike around the target.”

If that doesn't frighten away potential predators, “their Shakespearean side comes out,” Koontz-Howell says. “They writhe around, let their tongues hang out, roll over on their backs and convulse, even throw up. And finally, they go still. If you pick them up and put them back on their belly, they do it all again.”

Hog-noses aren't the only characters in the Koontz-Howell house. There's also Uri, a lizard whose species--mali uromastyx--brings to mind his prehistoric aunties and uncles. Koontz Howell cuddles the critter--who looks like a turtle wearing nothing but a big smile--to her face, and he promptly gives her cheek a quick flick with his tongue.

“Sweet boy,” she says. And he does it again.

Uri loves hand-to-tummy contact. “Rub his belly and his paws convulse just like a dog with a tickle spot,” Koontz-Howell says. He apparently has a distaste for order however. “Clean his cage and he'll spend the next hour ‘rearranging' it to his specifications,” Koontz-Howell says.

Never Sneak Up on a Snake
Clearly reptiles have some of the same amusing and endearing quirks that make their furry counterparts so popular. But are they really good pets?

Absolutely, says Koontz-Howell. “They don't yelp to be let out. They don't bark and annoy the neighbors. They don't make a mess. You just feed them once a week, clean their tank, and give them water, heat and light, and they're fine.”

Okay, so they're low maintenance. But don't they bite?

Yes, Koontz-Howell says, they occasionally do. Just as a dog will nip or a cat will scratch. But with non-poisonous snakes the bites aren't life-threatening, and they're almost always because the owner did something wrong. Take the case of Goldie.

Goldie was a Burmese that sometimes resided in a tank in the classroom near Koontz-Howell's office. (“She'd recognized students who paid attention to her and bang on her lid as if to say ‘Come and see me!'” says Koontz-Howell.).

One day Donnie was about to feed Goldie, and instead of suspending her food in front of her, he approached her from behind. “She went for the food, missed and got my hand,” Donnie reports.

The bite itself didn't hurt. Burmese have 150 teeth, but they're small, Donnie explains. The problem is in the saliva, which is extremely acidic. “If you don't wash the bite immediately it will burn like fire. I didn't, and it did,” he says.

Learning to Love ‘Em
Besides the occasional bite, reptile ownership presents two additional challenges. The first is a big public relations problem. (Word associate with snake and you're likely to get adjectives like creepy, crawly, slimy, sneaky.) All of which can make the snake owner a bit of a social outcast.

“My mom won't come near my house,” Koontz-Howell says. “In fact, we almost never have company.”

Then there's the feeding situation--which is both expensive and, let's see, how does one put this delicately? Snakes eat rats. Which is kind of disgusting. Koontz-Howell gets past that dilemma by buying frozen, parasite-free rodents for her brood. It's also expensive. Cheaper than Fancy Feast maybe. But a whole lot more than dog chow.

“Fortunately, snakes only have to eat every week or so,” Koontz-Howell says in defense of her mouse-swallowing babies.

And those babies are beginning to have babies of their own. Just this month Koontz Howell's Mexican rosy gave birth to five live babies. “I called work and said ‘I might be late. Mamacita is giving birth,'” Koontz-Howell recalls.

But the more the merrier, as she and Donnie recently turned their hobby into a business: Reptiliacs (“for reptile maniacs, which we turned out to be,” she says of the name).

A more important part of the plan is to open a reptile “showroom” where people can come to see and learn about these maligned and useful creatures. “A lot of people are afraid of snakes. They kill snakes that are not only harmless but beneficial. I want to help them overcome that prejudice.”