Reptile show charms OMSI visitors

Meet two warm-hearted herpetologists who share their love of cold-blooded critters at the unique show held at Oregon’s science showplace …

-1 It seems as if the wide variety of reptiles and amphibians on display at the OMSI exhibit are enough to charm any budding herpetologist.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), located just north of the Ross Island Bridge on the Willamette waterfront, hosted its annual Reptile and Amphibian Show, with more than 100 cold-blooded animals on display early this fall.

The hands-on area attracted brave-hearted kids and adults like a magnet; giving them the opportunity to touch or hold many non-venomous reptiles.

Herpetologist Michelle Verheyden gives OMSI visitors a very close-up view – and the opportunity to pet – her pet ball python named Sabien.

Most of the not-so-huggable scaly and shelled creatures with which visitors were invited to interact belonged to herpetologists Michelle Verheyden and Steve Verhines.

“We do this show for the love of the animals,” Verheyden told us, as she cuddled a ball python that entwined its sinuous body around her arms. “And, we bring out our pets to promote educational and awareness. Right now, there’s a lot of pending legislation against owning reptiles.”

Such creatures have gotten some bad press, Verheyden said, due to ignorance. “For example, there is the misconception that there are horrible, man-eating pythons all over Florida. It’s not true; they’re not capable of reproducing in nature; there are actually only a very small number of them in the wild.”

Regarding news stories about people getting bitten, or a documented case of a toddler being killed by a python, Verheyden commented, “When there is a problem, it stems from not being responsible or being neglectful. Most herpetologists are really very responsible. We care about our animals.”

The charming snake handler said of her special pets, “They’re a lot of fun. Honestly, each one of them has a different personality. And, they’re easy to care for; we need to pick up poop only once a week.”

Steve Verhines introduces OMSI guests to his African spurred tortoise.

Not far away, Steve Verhines looked up; he was crouched down showing youngsters a silcata tortoise. “It’s true; Michelle and I do have quite a collection.”

A youngster points out abnormalities in the turtle’s shell. “Turtle had an infection,” Verhines explained. “It got Pseudomonas; that gets under the plates and deteriorates the shell itself. The antibiotics have healed him, but the shell won’t grow back.”

At the OMSI show, visitor Helen Morell gets nose-to-nose with “Toot”, an 18-year-old pancake tortoise.

This shelled friend, Verhines explained, was an African spurred tortoise. “He’s a desert tortoise, about six years old, and weighing in at about 60 pounds. These are the third-largest tortoises in the world.”

About his passion for herpetology, Verhines said he started collecting reptiles about seven years ago. “I got into this because, when I was a kid, I had a fancy for snakes that I didn’t pursue until I became an adult. I met a reptile guy, got introduced to different animals, and one thing led to another.”

Judging by the number of visitors looking at, and learning about, reptiles – both in live demonstrations, and by seeing them in terrariums – hundreds of others locally share this duo’s interest in, and fascination with, such cold-blooded animal friends.

An OMSI volunteer reptile handler, Alyssa Chart, helps guests interact with the reptiles at the show. What’s going on at OMSI today? Check their website! CLICK HERE.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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