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Charmed Into Loving Snakes

At breeders conference, the death of Steve Irwin, who spawned passion for reptiles, is still felt.

September 24, 2006|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

Snakes terrified John Silva until the day he turned on the TV and saw Steve "The Crocodile Hunter" Irwin sidling right up to them, undaunted. So a couple of years back he bought a Burmese python, Nefertiti, and "it's just been love ever since."

Now, besides owning 15 snakes, the 40-year-old Fresno man builds and sells roomy, well-ventilated cages "to give the snakes the ultimate healthy lifestyle."

"I can go up to a snake and be one with that snake, just like the Crocodile Hunter," said Silva, narrowing his eyes to show how he stares them down. After conquering such a fear, he said, "not much in life intimidates you or frightens you." He added that he is "still grieving" over Irwin's recent death.

On Saturday, Silva was manning one of the 220 booths at the two-day North American Reptile Breeders Conference, which concludes today at the Anaheim Convention Center. Organizers expect to draw 7,500 professional breeders and enthusiasts, a big jump over the 5,000 attendees at the event's premiere three years ago.

Ask any of them what accounts for the burgeoning passion for reptiles, and it's Irwin's name you're most likely to hear. His death, still so fresh, lent a special pathos to this weekend's gathering of self-described "herpers," or herpetology fiends, here to buy and sell their wares. Silva, for his part, speaks as if he's lost a brother in "our beloved Crocodile Hunter" who was killed by a stingray earlier this month.

At a nearby booth, Brian Barczyk, a 37-year-old Detroit breeder, was displaying a pastel clown snake with a price tag of $25,000. It took him five years to breed. Irwin, he said, gave a significant boost to his business.

"He extended the passion that I think most of us feel," Barczyk said. "There are a lot of people who are in this room right now because of what he did 10 years ago. He's why they got into reptiles."

Barczyk, who fell in love with snakes at age 3 when he saw a python at the zoo, said he has spent more than $100,000 on several occasions for rare West African ball pythons to breed. "There's nothing like hatching the first one of something," Barczyk said. "You walk in that incubator and see that little head pop up. That's my adrenaline rush. I would assume it's like someone into speed."

Nigel Marven, an adventurer and frequent host of Discovery Channel nature shows, was roaming the convention center past caged mud turtles, blood dragons, boas and pythons, looking for a female gecko to breed with his male. "If you want a female, I'll give it to you for [$2,000]," said Steve "The Lizard King" Angeli, a Sacramento dealer.

The price was a little rich for Marven, who moved on without biting. A resident of Bristol, England, he has an upcoming show on Animal Planet called "Prehistoric Park," in which he jaunts around in a time machine rescuing animals.

Marven didn't know Irwin personally, but described him as "an amazing ambassador for reptiles" to whom he owes his job.

"I wouldn't have become a host if it weren't for Steve Irwin," Marven said. "They wanted a hands-on English host who did the same sort of thing he did." Today, in reptile circles, Marvin's is a famous face. "People come with photos and say, 'Would you sign this for my monitor lizard? He watches your show.'"

A few feet away, the proprietor of Monty's Traveling Reptile Show, Monty Krizan, was showing off a 250-pound American alligator named Albert, which he found at the Humane Society 30 years ago, then as small as "a skinny wrinkled old hot dog."

Krizan, 63, of San Luis Obispo, said he uses the gator as a pillow when relaxing in his yard.

He has mixed feelings about Irwin, particularly regarding whether the Crocodile Hunter's daredevil antics with venomous snakes set a good example for children. Still, Krizan said, "He was a great catalyst for interest in the reptilian. He brought us to grips with our fear a little bit."

Silva, the cage builder inspired by Irwin, said that some of his snakes have bitten him as they lunged for rats in his hands, but he doesn't blame the reptiles. After a stressful day, he said, there's no better relaxation than putting your python around your neck.

"It's like therapy," Silva said. "I talk baby talk to my snakes. They make me giggle; I think snakes are some of God's most beautiful artwork."

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