Reptile educator brings jungle, desert life to the classroom

Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Shwedick (right), with the help of staff of Pointer Ridge, displays the full length of a 17-foot-long, 218 pound Indian rock python named Banana Boy, during a reptile presentation for kids at the school on Tuesday.

Click here to enlarge this photo
Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Michael Shwedick, the director of Reptile World, shows off a snapping turtle to students of Pointer Ridge Elementary on Tuesday.

In Michael Shwedick’s line of work, it is imperative that he disarms his audience. So he talks softly, slowly, and makes no sudden movements.

That’s because behind him are seven crates – one contains an alligator snapping turtle, one contains an American alligator. And one contains a 9-year-old, 17-foot-long, 218-pound Indian rock python named Banana Boy.

‘‘Three weeks ago, he swallowed a 24-pound pig,” Shwedick tells his audience, giving them a little insight into Banana Boy’s life, as always speaking softly, slowly, before enlisting the help of five teachers to help extract the python from its crate.

Early Tuesday, Shwedick and his menagerie of reptiles were at Pointer Ridge Elementary School. And as usual, Shwedick used the opportunity to allay any fears students might have about reptiles, and to teach them about animals they might otherwise ignore.

Shwedick, 51, a former Bowie resident, has since high school cultivated what is by his estimate one of the largest private reptile collections in the country. Now in Annapolis, the founder of Reptile World is in his 35th year of presenting and sharing the animals he adores with others. He calls them wonderful, he calls them beautiful – but he doesn’t give audiences a falsely cuddly picture of them.

‘‘He will never know you the way your dog or cat or bird knows you,” Shwedick told Pointer Ridge students Tuesday, holding an alligator snapping turtle in his arms like a baby. He explained that reptiles have small brains, and that they will not even recognize him, though he tends to them on a daily basis.

‘‘I think that audiences are genuinely surprised at their beauty,” Shwedick said last week, in a phone interview following a cluster of presentations in Atlanta, Ga. ‘‘Seeing them without glass in front, seeing them right there.”

The reptile expert has a goal. That goal is not for his audience members to go out and start amassing reptiles as pets, as he has. That goal is just for them to understand and appreciate them, and overcome their reptile fears. Shwedick has done this for more than 10,000 audiences from Miami to Boston, many in Prince George’s County, where he grew up.

Pointer Ridge principal Mary Stephenson said she had been trying to book Shwedick’s act for a couple years, but had trouble due to some staff members’ fear of reptiles. Stephenson, though, loves the animals, and canceled her Tuesday morning doctor’s appointment to attend the presentation. In the end, when Shwedick unveiled his prize python and the children could no longer sit still and jumped out of their seats, Stephenson got to help pry to python from his box.

‘‘It’s excellent,” she said of Shwedick’s shows, which he delivers in a full beige explorer outfit.

Shwedick has since childhood been drawn to reptiles, particularly snakes, even though some of his early experiences could have easily deterred him.

His first serious contact with a poisonous snake was at Crossland High School, for instance, and left him in the hospital. It was his junior year, and his pet copperhead had jabbed one fang into his finger during an impromptu showing. The encounter destroyed the tip of his finger.

Then there was the Egyptian cobra bite in 1976. Then the Siamese cobra wound in 1979. And, the coup de grace ...

‘‘I’m still the only person ever bitten by a giant anaconda at Reagan National Airport,” Shwedick said.

Don’t ask.

Besides, Shwedick’s unshakeable affection toward reptiles was beginning to be established before he received his first bite. Growing up in Camp Springs, his parents stood by their fear of reptiles, and so his biology teacher at Crossland permitted him to store his pets in class, in exchange for oral reports on the critters.

Shwedick and his brother Bruce began to compile their collection through the mail. A baby anaconda, he said, was $4 at the time. Boa constrictors, turtles and lizards were all shipped to his doorstep. During and after high school, he took his collection and began giving presentations throughout the Prince George’s County school system, and for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. It quickly became his career.

Today, that collection, from all parts of the world, consists of about 60 reptiles, including anacondas, African tortoises, Gila monsters, cobras and pit vipers.

Shwedick arrives at their habitat, which is near his Annapolis home, every day to care for them, and collect the ones he will use for presentations. The animals eat infrequently, but he still prepares and plans a menu - on any given week, that could include rats, mice, whole goats, whole pigs, chicken parts and other delicacies.

‘‘Reptiles are always wild animals ... that really doesn’t change,” said Shwedick, who does not try to pass off the animals as the scaly equivalent of a cat or dog. He just wants to teach.

‘‘Most people have limited knowledge of reptiles, but great interest,” Shwedick said, ‘‘whether it’s because they’re frightened of them, or fascinated by them.”

E-mail Judson Berger at