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Fair-Goers Cozy Up to Crawly Critters

A new reptile exhibit in Ventura County is fun and educational, though children prove to have fewer reservations than the grown-ups.

August 08, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

In another lifetime, this green anaconda lurked in the Amazon's lush jungles. As one of the largest snakes in the world, it sat at the top of the food chain, preying on fish, deer and small crocodiles and enduring live births averaging 40 to 60 babies.

But on Thursday afternoon, as small children pointed in awe and a group of nuns in white habits peered into its tank at the Ventura County Fair, it was obvious how far from home the anaconda had come.

The snake is one of about 50 reptiles on display at Brad's World Reptiles, a new attraction at this year's fair.

Visitors young and old -- some engrossed, others grossed out -- gathered under a large white tent to peek at exotic green iguanas, tokay geckos, an alligator snapping turtle and boa constrictors, among other slithery creatures.

"This is just an outing for all of us," said Sister Esther Avalos of Mary Health of the Sick Convalescent Home in Newbury Park. "It's a nice day off from our duties, but I'm a little scared of all the snakes."

Exhibit operators stressed that there was nothing to fear. For more than 20 years, Brad's World Reptiles has worked to educate the public about the misunderstood class of animals, said Kris Tabor, animal manager for the exhibit. The organization has about 3,000 animals in its breeding and research programs. The animals are all born or hatched in captivity, she said.

"We're here to help people understand the role that these animals play in nature and help people learn that there is such a thing as a good snake," Tabor said. A few days ago, a woman came in and had her picture taken with a snake. It was a big deal for someone who had feared such creatures all her life, Tabor said.

"She was the sweetest lady."

Fair organizers had had their eyes on Brad's World Reptiles for the last several years, but never had the room to accommodate the exhibit, fair spokesman Devlin Raley said.

But this year, the Orange County Fair, which coincided with Ventura's event, got the racing pigs and the reptiles suddenly had a new home.

"The exhibit has been extremely successful," Raley said. "We'll certainly make every attempt to get them back next year."

On Thursday, the group had set up chairs where children could get eye to eye with tarantulas, giant cockroaches and exotic Australian lizards as caretaker Kira Lebsack held the animals. The children didn't need much prodding and at some points were tripping over each another to touch Sydney, the blue tongue skink.

"Do you guys want to feel its skin, it just peeled?" Lebsack asked cheerfully. Judging from the enthusiastic response, lizards shedding their own skin are quite the draw.

Lebsack said she usually has no problem getting kids to pet the snakes. The adults are another story.

"The parents will tell their kids, 'Don't be scared,' and will try to convince their kids that they're harmless, but it's funny because they won't go near them."

"It looks like something in 'Fear Factor,' " said a reluctant Anna Davis of North Hollywood. Her 6-year-old son Steven, on the other hand, was jumping up and down and could barely contain his excitement.

Three-year-old Carl Saraceni dragged his father, Mark, all over the exhibit, pointing to the animals as they both made amusing observations.

Carl got within an inch of a lizard's mouth as his father winced just a little.

"It's slippery and bumpy," he said, showing no hesitation with the creature whose tongue was, in fact, blue.

"It's red!" the little boy said after examining his own tongue.

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