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KIDS & FAMILY

Let's see what comes slithering out

June 26, 2008|Brenda Rees

This summer, families can do more than admire the pretty flowers, butterflies and ducks at Descanso Gardens -- they can observe colorful snakes up close, see exotic hawks fly free overhead and join in a drum jam session when the La Canada Flintridge arboretum hosts its annual Family Fun for Nature Nuts program.

Held on five consecutive Tuesday evenings, the program features educational and hands-on shows that bring families face-to-face with critters not normally seen in SoCal backyards.

Kicking off the series on Tuesday is the Reptile Family, a family-owned operation headed up by Joe and Chrissy Martin who will come to Descanso with baskets full of reptiles (the preferred mode of transportation for the cold-blooded set).

"It's always so fun to watch the faces of both the kids and adults during the shows when the baskets are opened," says Chrissy, who estimates she's done about 10,000 shows since the Reptile Family started its educational presentations in 1991. "The adults become kids again and the children can be so wonderfully unpredictable."

It's hard to say which critters will be appearing on the Descanso stage because the Martins rotate their animals to avoid over-handling. But sharing their Woodland Hills home with more than 80 critters, the Martins can choose from red-footed tortoises, boa constrictors, tree frogs, a tegu (South American lizard) and even a Chinese water dragon. Insects -- such as the giant black African millipede -- are also lurking among their reptilian menagerie.

Chrissy, however, is determined to bring Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers (a.k.a., a pair of blue-tongued skinks) to Descanso. "They are one of the few reptiles that have live births; they're not hatched from eggs," she says of the Australian skinks. "That tongue signals danger to predators and they can even scare away dingoes with it."

From slithering to soaring, the final show of the Nature Nut series features Joe Suffredini of Avian Entertainment, who will display his birds of prey, including Dextor, an 18-year-old cinereous vulture with a 10-foot wingspan. "It's the third largest flying bird in the world," says Suffredini. You may even recognize the species from the latest "Indiana Jones" movie.

While Dextor will just "hop around and flap; he's impressive just by sitting there," Suffredini says his other birds will put on a high-flying show. "We usually get the hawks and falcons to show how they can catch their prey," he says about the demonstration in which birds reach speeds up to 100 mph.

Later, Suffredini will offer children the chance to pet a Eurasian eagle owl named Periwinkle. "You got to give the kids something to touch," he says.

An animal trainer for 15 years, Suffredini has always seen birds as "perfect little creations with feathers in just the right place; they are truly built for hunting and flying. Like everything in nature, they are real works of art."

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theguide@latimes.com

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FAMILY FUN FOR NATURE NUTS

WHERE: Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada Flintridge

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. gates open for picnicking; show begins at 6:30 p.m. Series runs Tuesdays through July 29.

PRICE: $12 per show, $45 for series

INFO: (818) 949-7980; www.descansogardens.org

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