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Snakes alive!

December 19, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - In a mellow, melodic tone, a khaki-clad Michael Shwedick told a crowd of about 70 children and adults watching him handle an opened jaw alligator at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday that "alligators almost never eat people."

Shwedick, 50, who is with Reptile World Inc., headlined the museum's Children's Holiday Reception, which also included a visit from Santa Claus. The program was funded through a grant from The Bowman Board of The Washington County Historical and Fine Arts Trust Inc.

On a stage set with coffinlike boxes and a single table, Shwedick peeled the skin from an Indian cobra, dangled a rattling timber rattlesnake and uncoiled an 18-foot-long and 228-pound albino Indian rock python. Shwedick gingerly handled each reptile as he talked about their lives and the dilemmas they face.

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"Some people say we have too many alligators," he said as he turned his back to place an alligator back in his box. "Some say we have too many people."

Shwedick told the audience that crocodiles sometimes think people crouching by a riverbank are animals and "make a terrible mistake."

"This will be her last visit to this museum," Shwedick said of the crocodile in his hands. "She keeps getting stronger and I keep getting older."

Children in the audience seemed to enjoy the program. Oohs and wows blurted out from the rows of chairs as each reptile made its appearance.

Alison Leathery, 10, of Jefferson, Md., said she liked learning about how big crocodiles can get. A snake named Lipstick, which was red with stripes, made her think of Christmas, she said.

Alison, who said she has two snakes of her own, was not afraid during the program, even as a cobra slithered out of a woven box and fanned its hood.

Miles Culbertson, 8, said he liked learning about the length of crocodiles, too. Culbertson, of Greencastle, Pa., tried to make a connection between Christmas and the reptiles, but ultimately decided, "It wasn't really a Christmas thing."

Barbara Boyd, 37, said she thought the gift at the reception was the education children received.

"I just think (Shwedick) does a wonderful job with the kids," she said. "He does such a great job of narrating."

Shwedick explained after the program that he talks slowly and uses "kindergarten humor" during his program because children "process information at a different rate."

Reptiles "can be a frightening subject," he said. "By adding subtle humor, it can help them feel more comfortable."

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