Starting a Reptile Road Show

Somewhere between two and eight times a week, I load a dolly and four insulated coolers full of animals into my van and head off to do my traveling road show. I have been doing this for more than 30 years now and have a regular coterie of clients, as well as the constant addition of new customers. I primarily perform at birthday parties, schools, libraries and scout meetings, but I am open to, and available for, all kinds of events.

This requires quite a bit of coordination with my partner and staff, as I have to make sure the store doesn’t suffer in my absence. But, truth be told, it is sometimes the most fun I have at work and it benefits the store. In fact, there are some points in the year that over the counter business is slack, and it’s these shows that often pull us through. I recommend this as an adjunct to your regular business, and in this article, I will give you some tips as to how to get things rolling.

My introduction to this form of show biz started when a Scoutmaster for a local Boy Scout troop called and asked me if I could present some of our animals at their monthly troop meeting. Of course I accepted, though I had no idea what animals I would show and how I would show them. I must have done all right, as word spread and I was soon demonstrating wildlife at a variety of events and situations.

That leads to my first tip: until you feel you truly have a professional program in place and understand what works and what doesn’t, and you have a good feel for how to read a crowd and act accordingly, and how to vary your presentation to fit the needs of your audience… charge nothing! You are learning the ropes and getting as much out of doing the work as your audience. I didn’t start charging for my shows until I had been doing it for more than a year. This is a learning opportunity for you, so treat it as such. Just as you wouldn’t sell an animal that you had no knowledge of, you should not be selling this product without first having a truly worthy product to sell.

I often use the very same animals for a preschool that I use at a high school. But what I teach about them will be worlds different and the language I use will vary with the cognitive abilities of the kids by virtue of their age. When I am doing a birthday party, I know I have to keep small children AND adults focused and involved, so I have some verbal material that appeals to kids and some stuff that is in the show purely for the adults.


Creating a Show

You need to balance three factors: information, humor and excitement. I do this by teaching how animals survive in the wild, how they interact with humans and how to work with animals safely and respectfully. I can vary my focus depending on the desires of the client, but I always try to teach a love and respect for wildlife and the value of knowledge. I have been asked to focus on evolution and adaptation, desert life, rain forests, climate change and a myriad other subjects, and I can tweak both the animals I use and what I say to fit.

You need to develop a sense of time and pacing. At this point, I no longer need to ever look at my watch. I know exactly how much material gives me an hour, and I can extend or contract the show as I need to by adding material in or reducing it. This all takes time to develop and implement. Eventually, you will have an actual script in your head. I do, and it is constantly being revised, as I think of new and different things to say, or animals to feature. That keeps it fresh, but I also have a nice, predictable show that I know will work.

Here’s the thing I have learned about animals: each species has a story. It’s the rare creature indeed for which you cannot find some bit of fascinating information to impart. Choose your subjects according to what you find interesting and what you want to teach. Your enthusiasm will be infectious!


Picking the Stars

Choose a dozen or so animals and you have a show. My current retinue includes a tarantula, scorpion, a few species of frogs, a water turtle, box turtle and tortoise, leopard gecko, bearded dragon and blue tongued skink, several colubrid snakes, a boa and my showstopper, a water monitor named Boris.

Years ago, my star performer was a seven foot long black throated monitor named Elmo. With monitors being smarties, and Elmo being particularly bright, he figured a way to get out of his traveling case and would occasionally decide to explore my van while we were in transit. One day, I had stopped between shows for lunch. I always like to keep my eye on the car when I eat, so I found a restaurant in a strip mall where I could sit in full view of my car. Midway through my meal, Elmo emerged from his crate, sidled from the back of the van right up to the driver’s seat, positioned his big old paws at 10 and two on the wheel and spent his break watching people go past. Shoppers would walk past and nearly fall over in surprise and delight. But nobody enjoyed the whole show more than me. Best lunch ever.

The bulk of my work is with pre-schools and birthday parties, but I try to take what falls my way. I have performed at Elks Clubs, Explorers’ groups, retirement homes, museums, Halloween and Holiday events, corporate parties and wedding receptions. One of my favorite shows ever was for a ward of Alzheimer’s patients. They had a ball, and so did I.

The work is richly rewarding, especially for kids who, until I come along, have a range of experience with animals that includes nothing but dogs, cats and squirrels. To them, this stuff is better than magic.

The rewards of this work include my sense that I am making the world better for kids, but I also think that I am planting the seeds that will make the next generation care about wildlife in a way that they might never have without meeting my little friends. This is good for the animals and the Earth. I also see this as good advertising; I am a walking billboard for reptiles as pets and for my shop, in particular. Can you afford to spare the time to do this work? Can you afford not to?  PB

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.