Michael Shwedick's career handling reptiles came from childhood fascination

Michael Shwedick mixes ecology, myth-busting and safety tips in his traveling reptile show, now entering its 40th year.
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 7:29 PM

Yes, he has been bitten. By venomous snakes. Four times.

But as Michael Shwedick begins his 40th straight school year of mesmerizing Washington area kids with his traveling reptile show, the staggering thing is not his history of venomous snake bites. It's not the 12,000-plus times he has performed his show, or the nearly 1 million miles he put on one Econoline van. It's not even the collection of cobras, crocodiles, pythons, pit vipers and snapping turtles that he keeps in an unmarked corner of an anonymous office park near Annapolis.

No, the most amazing thing about Shwedick is the magnificent durability of his obsession. It was at age 14, pretty much at the moment he saw a picture of a researcher handling a cobra in a library book in Oxon Hill in 1968, that he settled on his life plan: Acquire reptiles, care for reptiles and expose kids to the wonders of reptiles. That's exactly what he's been doing ever since.

"Thank you so very much for being here; what a wonderful, wonderful pleasure this is for me," says Shwedick, standing before dozens of restless students from Bethesda's Pyle Middle School. They grow instantly still at the sound of the hypnotic baritone coming from the little bearded man with a radio mike clipped to his safari shirt. In his pauses, they hear some provocative scratching from the padlocked wooden crates stacked behind him.

It's his third Reptile World show of the day, but Shwedick's patter changes little over a day - or a decade (at least one teacher in the audience, Alan Prunier, remembers hearing it when he was a student in Rockville). The spiel is a mix of ecology, myth-busting (water moccasins are not found in this region) and safety tips (most bites occur when someone is trying to catch the snake).

But the lecture is quick; in just a few minutes, Shwedick's assistant, David Dean, lifts a massive alligator-snapping turtle from his case and the kids shift from entranced to delirious.

"When I started to care for this turtle 40 years ago, I could pick him up in a breakfast spoon," Shwedick says as Dean strains to hold up an animal that is now the size of an overstuffed ottoman. "Every morning, I'm glad to see him, but he's not glad to see me. He doesn't know me. Reptiles don't have feelings."

From there, the eyes grow only wider. Next up, the 6-year-old alligator, then the ten-foot-long anaconda (who recently swallowed her first pig), followed by an agitated western diamondback rattler. The young crocodile, mouth agape, goes over big. But there is not a whisper as Shwedick brandishes, with bare hands, a loudly hissing and fully-fanged Indian cobra.

And then, with the help of five teachers, he unrolls all 15 feet and 238 pounds of his grand finale: a prehistorically huge yellow python named Banana Boy's Brother.

Pandemonium. Shwedick nods with a calm smile as the crowd shrieks and points and gapes.

Finally, everyone lines up to pet the python, Shwedick bends over to hear the questions and Deal loads up the van. They do this 350 times a year.

"Michael is truly one of a kind," said Betsy Sirk, a NASA program manager who recently ended a 10-year stint of booking arts and science programs for the Cloverly Elementary School PTA in Silver Spring. "He is one of the bright stars out there, year after year. He inspires them. Children look at him and see that he turned his love of reptiles in a lifelong adventure. They get that."

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