You can ask Caroline Seitz why her Nile monitor has a four-inch-long forked tongue. What makes her albino Burmese python so pale. Or how old her big African spurred tortoise will live to be. Just don't ask her what kind of snake lived in the Garden of Eden.
For that is where pleasure meets business for Seitz, founder and owner of Reptiles Alive! -- and business must come first. Smiling and enthusiastic, Seitz and her staff of three relish the challenge of showing kids and adults in their many area presentations that snakes don't bite unless threatened, that iguanas are fascinating but not much fun and that turtles are more fragile than they look. The finer points of public relations -- answering questions involving evolution, the animals' need to mate and the like -- are more an acquired skill.
But tough questions or not, the 32-year-old Seitz, whose confidence makes her seem taller than the 5-foot, size 21/2 hiking boot-wearer she really is, wants nothing more than to share her abiding fascination with the world. When she was a child in Northern Virginia, she kept snakes, lizards and turtles, typically found in her back yard, if only for a few weeks before letting them go. Building a business around them just followed naturally.
So she climbs in her black and yellow van many times a week, with select live snakes, lizards, caimans, turtles, tarantulas, scorpions, hissing cockroaches and even slugs in cages and plastic storage bins, and goes to nature centers, libraries, schools and parties to introduce the public to the animals.
An avid fan of the movie "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," the 1975 animation in which a young mongoose protects its human family from two venomous cobras, Seitz started out with more mundane species, such as a corn snake, at her Annandale home. As a young girl, she was fascinated with a local animal show given by Dennis and Carole Moore. Seitz went to all their shows and sent them fan mail. (The Moores have since moved to Florida.)
Seitz, who has a degree in speech communication and did graduate work in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, acknowledges the paradox in taking tamed wild animals out for public shows as a way of teaching people that it's not generally advisable to keep them as pets or even to touch them in some cases. But she and other professional reptile-handlers see a distinction between keeping them for education or rehabilitation, both of which Reptiles Alive! does, and keeping them as pets or for breeding.
"We're not interested in breeding more captive animals," she said. "We specialize in what you'd call unhuggable animals. We want to turn that 'eww' into an 'ahh.' "
The presentations typically cost $200 to $400 apiece. Reptiles Alive! (www.reptilesalive.com) advertises shows with about 10 different themes. A 30-minute show, typically involving six live animals, starts at $250. Seitz charges $325 for a 50-minute show with eight animals.
In a typical year, Reptiles Alive! grosses $170,000, she said. Her expenses: the care and feeding of the animals, staff salaries, liability insurance, transportation and paperwork.
"It takes a lot of time, a lot of anxiety," watching over each of several dozen exotic creatures that have unique and sometimes unusual needs. "It's not something I would recommend for the average person. But yes, I make a good living doing this."
Animal control and park officials in Fairfax County consider wildlife education a public service.
"Any type of exposure to wildlife or nature is something that more and more of our population lack," said Earl Hodnett, the county's wildlife biologist. "And because they lack personal contact or experience, when ultimately they do come in contact with something, it becomes an emergency to them.
"We all pay the price for that: we who work for the police department or animal control, and we the taxpayer."
For the most part, Reptiles Alive! works locally. It is well known at schools, nature centers and parks, and as a party option for parents or corporations looking for a new and different theme. Reptiles Alive! does about 700 shows and 300 parties a year.
The creatures, about 50 in all, are not all reptiles. The hissing cockroaches from the southern African island of Madagascar, for instance, are insects of the order Blattaria. The salamanders are amphibians. But the reptiles -- snakes, lizards, alligators, turtles, caimans and crocodiles, all characterized by being coldblooded, usually egg-laying vertebrates with an external covering of scales or horny plates and breathing by means of lungs -- are Seitz's first love.
She does not keep any venomous animals, although the Reptiles Alive! collection includes preserved specimens of cottonmouth and copperhead snakes and a timber rattlesnake, along with the nonthreatening painted turtle and black racer snake.
The recreation room of her three-story Annandale home, where Seitz and her family moved in 1975 from Arlington County, was renovated about 20 years ago for human enjoyment. But after Seitz graduated from college, she realized her choice was to "get a graduate degree and go work for somebody else, or start my own business."
The rec room itself became Seitz's office, with a desk facing quarantine cages, aquariums and other animal holding pens, which also line the front wall.
A side room previously used for storage became home to the Nile monitor, Logan, a kind of lizard. Stationed at the edge of his large cage, Logan fixes his eyes on a couple of visitors, barely moving except for regular flicks of his long tongue to "taste" the air around the newcomers. White's tree frogs voice their own reaction in the corner: "Brrrrp. Brrrrrp."
They seem comfortable, each in their separate indoor habitats, as do the albino Burmese python Sunshine; a standard Burmese python named Del Shannon; the giant boa constrictor Pretty Girl; a sand boa; a Nelson's milk snake; a South American horned frog, Jabba; two blue-tongued skinks; two leopard geckos; two scorpions; and several other creatures. The room temperature is kept at an average of 80 to 85,, plus auxiliary heating for individual cages if the animal within needs it.
A wet bar in the main room is now where frozen rats are thawed on a heating pad to satisfy the appetites of Seitz's pythons, boas and some of the other carnivores.
Seitz lives in the upper two stories with her mother, Marilyn Seitz, two elderly cats and a dog. The Reptiles Alive! collection lives only in the walk-out basement. Certain turtles are permitted to roam around a closed-in portion of the large sloping yard, which is surrounded by a stockade fence.
Some are there for the rest of their lives, others until they are ready to be returned to the wild.
"Most of the time people don't want these animals because they're just not very good pets," Seitz said. Others were rescued from the wild and brought to Reptiles Alive! to be cared for.
Logan, named after the "X-Men" character also known as Wolverine, because of his inch-long claws, was found on a bird feeder in Waynesboro, Va., in October 2000. The resident who discovered him thought he might be an endangered Komodo dragon, the largest lizard in the world, which has a potentially dangerous bacteria-laden bite.
But Logan is in no way dangerous. With his velociraptor-type claws, he is "not a hands-on animal," Seitz said, but he is "absurdly tame."
Reptiles Alive! took in Logan, of unknown age but "at least 10 years old" and at four feet long still growing, put him in a legally mandated three-month quarantine and has been caring for him ever since, noting his feeding, bathing and behavior on the same kind of "cage card" kept for each of the creatures -- except the cockroaches and slugs, which are monitored as a group.
"The problem with these exotic animals, whether they're tarantulas, lizards or snakes, is they're very difficult to really take care of unless you know exactly what their needs are," Seitz said. "You just can't take them out of the cage. You can't play with them. They're not a lot of fun. They're a lot of work and a lot of money."
Paperwork is a sizable portion of the workload at Reptiles Alive!. "The law doesn't necessarily require the specific record keeping that we have," Seitz said, but the staff must note each animal's type, where Reptiles Alive! acquired it and the animal's disposition. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries requires an annual report on the collection.
And, amid the routine tasks, Seitz said Reptiles Alive! needs to keep its image up-to-date. "I'm never comfortable," she said. The exotic appeal of reptiles isn't in itself enough to bank on year after year. These days, she's developing at least two more shows, including one called Ecosystems Alive!, tailored specifically to the Virginia Standards of Learning tests.
A variety of approaches is key to success, said Michael Shwedick, 50, of Anne Arundel County, who travels around the country with his Reptile World program (www.reptileworld.org). Beyond that basic strategy, word of mouth is critical. "Ninety percent of my work is referrals," he said.
Like Seitz, Shwedick said he has programs for all ages. But the key audience will remain the children, he said, namely "kids who hear only one thing about the woods, and that's that you don't go there alone."
Hodnett agreed. "If these or other shows are able to expose young children [to wild animals], then they're less inclined to take on the values of their parents -- which are probably to kill every one of them that you see."