By ALICIA NOTARIANNI
5:25 PM EST, December 8, 2012
Michael Shwedick spoke barely above a whisper with the wide-eyed calm of a priest officiating midnight Mass and the singsong poetic meter of a children’s book.
“I am still the only person ever bitten by a giant anaconda at Reagan National Airport. I have only ever been bitten when I have made a mistake. I have learned a lot from my mistakes. So have the doctors at Johns Hopkins,” he said.
Parents chuckled and children sat rapt on the floor just a few feet from Shwedick and his array of snakes, alligators and crocodiles Saturday at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Children’s Holiday Reception.
The unconventional reception featuring the creatures of Reptile World is a tradition of more than 20 years, museum educator Amy Hunt said.
“It’s an all-inclusive event. Regardless of religion, it has an overall message of protecting animals and their habitats, of humans and animals sharing the world comfortably together,” Hunt said.
About 125 people attended the reception. Tickets were $5 each. Organizers moved the presentation last year from the museum’s 100-person capacity concert gallery to the atrium to accommodate a larger crowd.
“We get a lot of people who have been coming as a family for years and have made it a tradition. And it’s a great opportunity for people who might not otherwise come to the museum to walk through the galleries and see what we have to offer,” Hunt said.
Amanda Maynard, 38, of Boonsboro, said she remembers seeing Shwedick, who presents his reptiles nationally, when she was a girl growing up in Prince George’s County, Md.
“Twenty-some-odd years later, I’m bringing my kids to it,” Maynard said. “I think this is a unique holiday twist and wonderfully educational. These are not exactly your traditional Christmas critters. And it shows that snakes are not as ‘oogey boogey’ as they are made out to be.”
Amber and Rick Woody of Sharpsburg took their sons, Logan, 10, and Luke, 7. Logan said he was “amazed.” He was especially taken with a massive albino jungle python named Banana Boy’s Brother or “Triple B.” Shwedik said the 15-foot, 238-pound snake used to be small enough to curl up in the palm of his hand.
“Now, he is not big. He is huge,” Shwedick said.
Luke Woody was taken most with a cobra featured in the show. Shwedick told the crowd he hoped they would not be disappointed, as he is “not a snake charmer or a cobra whisperer.”
“Snake charmers want you to think that the snakes are dancing, but you know that they don’t have ears or music appreciation,” he said. “The snake is watching the instrument. It doesn’t know it is an instrument, but it doesn’t want that thing getting any closer to it.”
Montserrat Plaia of Smithsburg, who took her girls, Irena, 4, and Nina, 1, said the reptile program was “unusual” and “very interesting.”
Crowd favorites were Jade, a 10-foot 2-inch anaconda, and Lipstick, a Mexican milk snake whose eating habits Shwedick described.
“Ten years ago, her first dinner was a day-old mouse. Three weeks ago, she swallowed a pig,” he said. “It took her an hour and 10 minutes with no fingers, no arms, no legs and no chewing.”
Lipstick, while tied in a knot, hung from a table and worked her way, ever so slowly and eerily, back into her bag.
“I am not showing off,” Shwedick said. “I am not being disrespectful. Snakes are very flexible.”
As he ended his presentation, Shwedick told the children he hoped they had learned something of interest about the reptiles.
“I’m hoping you remember, but not in your dreams,” he said.
Following the presentation and a hands-on visit with Triple B, many children lined up for a visit with a less scaly holiday attraction — Santa Claus.
“It’s a great opportunity to for the children to learn about the reptiles, see Santa and to spend some time here at the museum itself,” Amber Woody said.
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