SNAKES, DRAGONS & GATORS, OH MY!

Behind an innocuous middle-class home in the heart of the Westside, a black dragon wades in a swimming pool inside a cage in the backyard. It’s among the rarest reptiles in America, this one even more so because of unique markings acquired from a house fire. No zoo has a black dragon, yet this one is a local who has been onstage at The Florida Theatre during a live broadcast of the NPR show “Whad’Ya Know?” last February. The dragon is part of Bob and Liz Shumaker’s LB Reptile Experience, a hands-on educational show that brings people in close contact with snakes and lizards. While both husband and wife maintain full-time jobs, their passion for reptiles has amounted to more than 100 animals in their home and on their property — including a four-foot-long gator — and countless trips across the region to educate kids about snakes and lizards, and lots and lots of reptile poop.

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Folio Weekly Magazine: How’d you acquire your first reptile?
Bob: We started out with one snake in 1999. Our son just wanted one to have. His stepmom did not want him to have a snake, so it came to our house and he’d come and visit on the weekends to see the snake … [Then] my daughter wanted a snake ’cause he had a snake. Then my wife wanted one. Within six months, we had probably six or seven boas.
Liz: It’s like a tattoo; you just can’t have one reptile.

What kind of snakes were they?
Bob: These are boa constrictors. They’re pretty tame, pretty easygoing. They’re on the big side, but they’re not a biting snake as long as you hold it and mess with it a lot.

You weren’t concerned about any danger at all?
Bob: No. We read about them and learned a lot about them. Got with some of the bigger boa breeders in the United States, there’s a lot of them out there. We joined the Jacksonville Herpetological Society and we started seeing what was going on, learning more about all of it, the laws, Florida Wildlife Control, all of it. Back then, there were a lot of breeders in town and we learned a lot from them.

And you decided to grow your collection?
Bob: We started gathering things, especially corn snakes, small things. Then I started liking the bigger things. The monitors, big lizards, things like that.

What is it about reptiles that you love so much?
Liz: They’re just as lovable as a dog or a cat. You wouldn’t think they are, but they are, they all have their different personalities.

How big is the reptile pet world?
Bob: Just like dog people, we have designer snakes. Used to be poodles and Labradors; now there are labradoodles. We have snakes where there are 4,000-5,000 different colors of one variety of snake. Ball pythons are one. A lot of people breed those because it’s good money for some, hobby for a lot of people, they’re easygoing, they stay small, they stay in a ball.

What was your experience going beyond snakes?
Bob: We took over the reptile rescue in 2005 and had no idea what we were getting into. With the rescue, we were getting iguanas. We had 10 iguanas at one time. We have four now. We try to adopt them out to people who know what they’re doing with these guys.

Are there any reliable patterns with reptile rescuing?
Bob: Around college time, we’d get an influx of iguanas. Kids would have them as they’re growing up; when it’s time to go to college, they had to dump ’em off.

But why not donate to the zoo?
Bob: The zoo won’t take anything, they’re going to give you our number. A lot of the vets will give you our number. That’s how we got known … That’s when we started doing reptile shows to educate people and fund the rescue.

What sort of funding are we talking about?
Bob: With five or six iguanas, that’s a case of Romaine lettuce every week. Now there are big tortoises coming in; they eat two or three heads every day.
Liz: Last year, our food bill was almost $12,000. That doesn’t include electricity.
Bob: That electricity will scare you. We have to have UV lights for them, heating lights for them. Our bill runs over $500 every month.

Describe your show.
Bob: It’s hands-on, everything from the little thing to the big thing. The littlest is a bearded dragon. The biggest could be Julius Squeezer, our 16-foot Burmese python, or Khan, our 7-foot 5 monitor lizard that you get down and pet. We try to show everyone the good things, and the bad things.

There’s no concern of any dangerous reptiles during your show?
Bob: Not the ones that we take. We really know what we have. We do have some breeders; we don’t take those. Things from the rescue, there are some iguanas that you can’t touch. Some aren’t used to being held.

Is there a process for domesticating reptiles?
Bob: It takes a while to tame things down. You have to touch them, you have to talk to them, you have to mess with them. You’ll see the difference.

Are different reptiles tamed differently?
Bob: Very much. Iguanas, you have to hold and touch a lot. Snakes, not so often, once every two or three days. But iguanas, just about every day you have to mess with them.
Liz: And we know which snakes are just hateful. We’re not going to take those to a show.

What do you feed your reptiles?
Bob: Little bit of everything. We have things that eat fruit and vegetables. We have snakes that eat mice. They’ll eat little chicks. These are all frozen and thawed; we don’t feed [anything] live. We don’t want them to be aggressive. Chicken livers, gizzards, legs, breasts, rats.

Have you been snake-bitten?
Bob: I have. I’ve been doing this so many years, I’m not gonna say I haven’t. Snakebites are not that bad. If you were to get bit by pretty much any of the snakes we have here — and I say pretty much — within 10 minutes after you wipe it off, you really can’t tell you’ve been bitten. They’ve got a lot of teeth, and they’re sharp, but they’re real small.

What’s your rarest reptile?
Bob: Khan, our black dragon. He’s out back, he’s got an outdoor cage. We actually bought him. There are fewer than 20 captive bred in the United States right now. There’s no zoo that has one. He walks on a leash. He’s our buddy.

Do you get any flack from Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission?
Bob: No, we work with them really closely. They were here three times last week, borrowing things to go do schools and such. They trust us.

What’s your most common reptile?
Bob: Corn snake. Probably a ball python. If it’s a reptile, we have it. It’s easier for us to tell you what we don’t have.

I presume you’re involved in the cleanup.
Bob: Every day. The worst part is after a regurge. Sometimes you feed them and it comes back up the next day. It’s not nice.
Liz: And most of them will go to the bathroom in their water. I didn’t know at 60 years old I’d be cleaning up snake poo.

Do you ever mess with alligators?
Bob: Oh, yeah, they’re common to Florida. I’ve got a trapping license.

What do you do with those?
Bob: Catch and release. But with nuisance alligators, if they’re over four foot, we do have to kill them by Florida law, unless you have over two-and-a-half acres that you can take and release them.

Have you actually had to kill a gator?
Bob: Since 2003, we’ve done it twice, a 10-foot and a 12-foot. We use a bang stick, not a gun or anything, not a pistol or rifle. A bang stick isn’t considered a firearm. You stick a bullet [into the stick], there’s a little sweet spot in the center of the gator’s head where it’s soft, it’s quick and it’s over, but it’s [emotionally] hard. I have to do the killing because I have the trapping license. We don’t do it onsite where we catch them.

What happens to it?
Bob: I’ll take it out to a processor who does pigs and hogs, he’ll make some gator burgers, gator sausage; he does a lot to the ribs and legs and things like that. We’ll give some to our friends or have a party. Outside of that, I’ll cut it up and feed it to our monitor. We don’t waste anything.

Nothing?
Bob: Except the hides. The hides are not worth [any] money. If you want boots or belts or something, they get those out of farms where there are really nice 4- or 5-foot alligators. The ones we get from retention ponds, they’ve been in the battles, they have scars.

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