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Wrapped Up in Reptiles

By Kristina LanierStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 1998



Joaney Gallagher traps a wandering cricket under her foot, scoops it up, and plops it in a nearby aquarium. You can tell she's done this before - she doesn't even flinch at the sight of a creepy-crawly sneaking around the house.

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"I buy 4,000 crickets a week," says Ms. Gallagher. Crickets are a regular meal for many of her family's pets. With so many crickets (they arrive by mail), a few are bound to escape.

For Gallagher, her husband, Michael Ralbovsky, and their five children, "family pets" mean a dog, a cat, a five-foot-long iguana, several birds, and 200 more cricket-munching turtles, lizards, snakes, and frogs.

"If you count the cockroaches, we probably have about a thousand [pets]!" Mr. Ralbovsky laughs. He's referring to the Madagascar hissing cockroaches the family also keeps.

Gallagher and Ralbovsky, of Beverly, Mass., operate Rainforest Reptile Shows, an educational project that teaches children and their parents about conservation, the rain forest, and reptiles.

They've been doing as many as 1,200 shows a year all over New England since 1993. They visit schools, clubs, and other organizations with their lineup of exotic stars like Jabba, the African bullfrog; Bernie, the Burmese python; and Lou, the American alligator.

"We educate about the natural world to improve the quality of our lives," Ralbovsky says. He and his wife feel they are on a mission. "We want the kids to develop an appreciation for the animals."

Ralbovsky never had a dog or cat growing up, so instead he played with the frogs, snakes, and toads he found in his backyard.

"In Florida we had alligators in our backyard," he says, "and in Oklahoma we had horny toads." He grew up to be a herpetologist (HER-puh-TOHL-uh-jist), someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. He's been acquiring reptile pets for a long tim. For many years, he worked at the St. Augustine (Fla.) Alligator Farm.

Now he and his family live on their own exotic farm at home. What's it like living with and caring for all those animals? It's a lot of work - and a lot of fun.

Ace, a five-foot long iguana, sits on the couch watching TV while Ralbovsky and Gallagher talk to a reporter. Tiny, the family dog, sits nearby. He seems not to notice the dinosaur look-alike hogging the best seat in the house.

While Ralbovsky discusses reptile care, Gallagher watches Ace warily. Suddenly, she jumps up, rushes to the refrigerator, and returns with lettuce leaves.

"He was eyeing my flowers," she says, making sure Ace turns his attention to the lettuce.

The dog, cat (Hershey), and iguana are the exceptions. They roam free. The rest of the animals live downstairs in their own cages.

The house is warm and humid, just the way lizards like it. Snakes, turtles, alligators, and other reptiles are coldblooded. That means they can't stay warm themselves. They need sources of heat, like the sun - or sun lamps.

THE basement is brightly lit. An eight-foot-long, 400-gallon tank bubbles as its inhabitants splash around. A quick peek over the edge reveals ... five young alligators! (Baby alligators live with Ralbovsky and Gallagher for a few months, until they get too big. Then they go to an alligator farm in Florida.) The rest of the available space is lined with special cages.

With so many animals you'd expect the house to smell bad. But it doesn't.

Gallagher does most of the daily care and feeding of the animals. She also works at a second job at night. Ralbovsky does most of the shows. Their children help out with chores like cage-cleaning.

"It's hard, doing the cleaning," says teenage son Mike. But it's also "cool" because no one else has such animals, he says. "People are fascinated."

But most people don't know how much time and money it takes to own a pet iguana or a snake. A snake isn't "something you put in a tank and watch," Ralbovsky says. They need human contact and special equipment.

"They have heat pads and heat lights," he says. "There's different lighting for different animals."

It costs a lot to keep their house warm. And then there's the electricity to power all those heaters in the cages. But the biggest expense is food.

"I go through a couple cases of lettuce a week," Gallagher says. "I'm always at the store." She buys chicken and turkey legs for the snakes. "When I shop, I shop for the whole family," The family eats the same chicken the snakes eat.

Besides feeding and cleaning, the pets need other care. Birds and turtles must have their beaks trimmed. Lizards need their nails clipped, and "everybody needs baths." She fills up trash cans with water and gives the animals a dunk.

And you may be surprised to hear that, like your pet dog or cat, reptiles can get rambunctious, too.

"There are days I get really mad at Ace," Gallagher says. "You've got this little dinosaur running through the house. I've had things broken."

But in the end, she agrees with her husband, "I love the work I do," he says. "I love them all."