Last month, OMSI hosted its 26th annual Reptile Show. Beyond the cages featuring an exotic array of global reptiles, a large line of families inched forward towards the hands-on area. Around long tables, volunteers handled snakes and large lizards, while children walked forward to pet their scales.
"This is what it's all about," remembered reptile breeder and advocate Steve Verhines. "You saw the parents stand back because they didn't want to go anywhere near the table. But the kids were just clamoring [to pet the reptiles]."
After the show ended, all of the reptiles were packed up and taken away. The final destination for most of the snakes and lizards was the home of Steve Verhines and his partner Michele Verheyden.
What started out as a small collection of two snakes has since blossomed into a house full of rescued and newly raised reptiles. Although the couple has a facility permit with Multnomah County to carry more than 150 snakes and many lizards, Verheyden and Verhines still consider this a hobby.
But hobby or not, raising this many animals is an extensive job.
There's always something to be done, including daily feedings for all of the reptiles, which eat on different schedules, as well as cleaning the cages. To save money the couple also raises their own rodent colonies, so they need to feed them and clean their cages as well. Like farmers, this exhaustive list of chores and responsibilities is not ideal for traveling. "We used to go camping on the weekends," remembers Verheyden. "Not so much anymore."
Over time Verheyden and Verhines have been able to make their hobby self-sustaining. They have found a national market for their breeds of different exotic snakes, and often sell their new colors and "morphs" at a considerable price point.
Since they both breed reptiles and advocate for their importance, the couple feels compelled to be overly cautious when managing the animals at home. For example, since they have large constrictors, they do not handle any snake when they are in any way impaired. An "impairment" might range from a single beer to a fleeting cold. Verheyden and Verhines maintain these precautions not only to protect them from the potential danger of their pets, but also to protect their reptiles from forces outside the home. "To us it's important to keep a good light on our [reptiles], just because there are so many misconceptions out there about these animals being dangerous," states Verheyden.
The couple tackles these misconceptions head on at events like OMSI's Reptile Show. Their goal is to connect the smaller, cuter reptiles with the larger ones. Verhines states his philosophy clearly: "The more you know about these animals, the less you have to fear."