Rolling a Brazilian rainbow boa back and forth between his hands, Alex Curry soaked up the spectacle inside the Reptile Zone Saturday afternoon.
Tortoises, some with balloons taped to their shell, roamed slowly through the corridors. Throngs pressed their noses against glass to peer in at dozing, venomous lizards, and everywhere, small children wandered to and fro with fat pythons curled around their necks.
“It's the ice cream” Curry said. “You tell people there will be snakes and ice cream, people will come.”
Today is the first day of the Chinese “Year of the Snake,” but Saturday was the fifth anniversary for the Reptile Zone, Central Oregon's headquarters for all things cold-blooded. To mark the occasion, the shop on Greenwood Avenue threw a party for the community, inviting the public to get up close and personal with some of the world's most misunderstood creatures.
Curry said reptile owners have a tendency to immerse themselves in the subject. Like him, many spend hours upon hours volunteering at the shop, studying the animals and conversing with their fellow enthusiasts.
“Some of the little kids in here know more about snakes and reptiles than the owner,” Curry said.
Owner Jeff Jensen does know his reptiles. A former science teacher, he opened the shop with his own collection of snakes and lizards and has been expanding ever since.
Jensen's teaching background informs the way he runs his shop. Seeing anyone — especially kids — get over their fears of snakes and lizards is the best part of the job, he said.
Cradling “Sunshine,” a golden-colored bearded dragon, nine-year-old Leja Colman pondered the question of whether any animal scared her. Alligators? No. Bears? No.
“I have two snakes at home, and I've been holding snakes since I was two,” Leja said, adding that along with the snakes, there are six lizards, six dogs, two cats, two birds, a hamster, a hedgehog and a spider at the apartment she shares with her mother and grandmother.
Seven-year-old SkyeLynn Hornbeck said she found it a bit odd when she first learned of Leja's unusual collection of pets. With help from her friend, she's grown comfortable around snakes, and though her only pets are cats and dogs, she's keen to have a snake of her own.
Leja said her favorite snake story comes from before she was born.
Leja's mother, Kerry Mickel, was driving back to Bend one night, with a couple of dogs in the back seat, and a snake looped around her neck. Getting tired, she noticed herself swerving a bit, but before she could pull over for a nap, an Oregon State Police trooper's red and blue lights began flashing in her rear-view mirror.
When the trooper shined a flashlight in at Mickel, the snake instinctively moved toward the light, poking its head out the window to investigate.
“He jumped six feet back!” Leja said.
Mickel confirmed her daughters account, and insisted she's been cutting back on the animals — when she was a child growing up on a ranch, she counted more than 1,000 animals among her pets.
Kids have a natural curiosity about all animals, Mickel said, even those that make many adults a bit uneasy.
“I'm one of those that says the younger you get them into things that are spooky or scary, the better,” she said.