Making It

HANDLE WITH CARE: Brian Kristal's business is a hit with children. Here, he holds a corn snake.
HANDLE WITH CARE: Brian Kristal's business is a hit with children. Here, he holds a corn snake. (Keith Barraclough - )
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By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, June 8, 2008

PERHAPS IT'S THE FOAM SIX-FOOT-LONG LIZARD atop his purple Isuzu Trooper. Or maybe it's the 92 snakes, lizards, tortoises and spiders that once shared his Germantown home. Either way, it quickly becomes clear that Brian Kristal has a way with exotic creatures.

Brian says he got hooked after a reptile show visited his kindergarten class. His parents remember him bringing home injured turtles that he would nurse back to health. In his dorm room at the University of Maryland, Brian says, he kept a boa constrictor, Burmese python and other slithery roommates.

When Brian found himself looking for work two years ago, he turned his longtime hobby into a full-time career with "Reptile Wonders: The Nature Center on the Go." He brings educational nature shows to Washington area birthday parties, schools, and Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs. He figures he performed for more than 10,000 children last year.

"The kids love it," says Margaret Olsen, whose Damascus preschool, Montgomery Methodist Children's Center, has hired Brian for shows the past four years. "The teachers kind of back away, but the kids are right there."

Brian, 32, started with plenty of experience. Growing up in Rockville, he volunteered at a local nature center and the National Museum of Natural History's insect zoo. In high school, he worked -- first as a volunteer -- for a local vet, who showed him how to repair the shells of turtles that had been hit by cars, boats or lawn mowers or, occasionally, attacked by children or dogs.

In college and for two years after, Brian says, he worked as a caretaker for University of Maryland lab animals. During his sophomore year, he started showing his 15 pet tortoises, lizards and snakes at birthday parties and community events. After graduating in 1998, he continued the shows on weekends while working in computer technology support for a NASA contractor and then as a naturalist at Meadowside Nature Center in Rockville.

When he left the nature center in 2006, he decided to turn his weekend gig into a full-time job. He now does up to nine shows per week, charging from $265 to $375 for 45 minutes to an hour. A primary overhead cost is food: $400 to $500 per month in fruit and vegetables for the tortoises, as well as frozen rabbit and chicken for the snakes and lizards.

He says his annual profits have grown from $4,000 in 2001 to $30,000 in 2006. He's projecting $65,000 in profits this year.

The business has paid personal dividends, too. After Brian put on a show at a Rockville preschool in 2005, a teacher called to ask if he was single. A colleague who had seen the show, the teacher told him, was interested. He and his blind date, Alexandra, 26, got married last November.

Alexandra, now a substitute kindergarten teacher in Carroll County, says she's grown used to handling the reptiles and helps care for them. "The only ones I'm hesitant about are the tarantulas," she says.

The couple splits time between their Germantown townhouse and a new house on 3 ½ acres in Westminster, where the reptiles and spiders live in a converted barn that doubles as a teaching facility for scout troops.

Now that they're no longer sharing a house with their critters, Alexandra says, life is "a lot less smelly."

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