Coldblooded Love Reptiles: Tim Hoen has a special place in his heart for the critters that crawl and hop and hide under rocks.

September 11, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Tim Hoen has never met a snake he didn't like.

He picked up his first garter snake when he was 7. He's 43 now, and he's still fascinated with snakes, frogs, skinks, toads, newts, salamanders, lizards and all the rest of the creepy, crawly creatures of herpetology. He's president of the Maryland Herpetological Society. And he's still a collector.

One of his current favorites is a 17-foot, 200-pound Burmese python he calls "Bernadette."

He likes to stroke Bernadette. She likes it, too. But despite their frequent bonding, he's very, very careful with Bernadette. The Burmese python is the world's third-biggest snake.

"People don't realize how powerful it is," he says. "They're way more powerful than you realize."

Bernadette's big and strong and fast enough to take on Mike Tyson and George Foreman at the same time if she feels like it. And it won't be Bernadette taking a dive. Hoen makes a circle about as big as a fire hydrant to show how thick she is.

"You have to respect something like that," he says. "Not everyone can have something like that. It takes a high level of commitment."

It also takes a lot of electricity and heat and a special room at Hoen's home near Rocks State Park in Harford County. As a tropical animal, Bernadette cannot stand a sharp drop in temperature.

Hoen takes Bernadette to schools and scout groups. No roughhouse he tells the kids and no horsie rides.

"They get a feel for it," he says.

He'll show off Bernadette at the fourth Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show this weekend at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium -- the second largest reptile show in the nation.

When Hoen launched it in 1993, 3,500 herp fanciers came. He expects 7,500 to 10,000 this year.

Herps are what fans call the things herpetological they collect, basically reptiles and amphibians, from the Greek meaning roughly creepy-crawly.

Collecting herps has grown phenomenally in the last few years. More than 7 million reptiles are pets in the United States, according to the Pet Industry Advisory Council. There's a Herp Mall on the herp.com Web site.

Hoen rejects the atavistic association of herps with the satanic serpent of the Garden of Eden.

"People who fear snakes don't know them," he says. "Snakes are 180 degrees away from the stereotype of the devil as a serpent. There's really nothing creepy about them. They're popular because they're beautiful.

"They're part of nature," he says, with characteristic ecological fervor. "And they have just as much right to survive as any other thing on the planet."

The most popular herp right now, however, is probably the iguana, a beastie that will never win a beauty contest -- except with other iguanas.

At least 2 million iguanas have been imported into the United States, lately at the rate of 500,000 a year, compared with 40,000 a decade ago. Hundreds of thousands die, mostly from neglect or stupidity.

Tim Hoen hates that. "I'm against raping the wild," he says. "We're not dealing in furniture."

Hoen is a lean, wiry guy with haphazard hair who wears a T-shirt printed with a stack of snakes, frogs and lizards surmounted by a toad zapping an insect with its tongue.

He met his wife Diana cleaning a snake cage in a high school science lab. He dropped a black rat snake into her hands and said: "Here, hold this." She flinched, he says. But she took the snake. They've been married 17 years.

Hoen spent five years with the forest service in Montana. He works now as a medical research technician at the Johns Hopkins University Biophysics Laboratory. He calls himself a "herpetoculturist." He's intensely earnest when he talks about serpents.

He's downright puritanical in his insistent disapproval of the sale animals caught in the wild. The 100 to 150 vendors at his show can only sell captive-bred animals -- animals produced at home or in breeding facilities.

"It's the strictest show in the country, by far," he says. "I do not allow vendors to return if they sell a wild-caught animal."

He's not talking about a kid who goes out and picks up a toad and puts it in his pocket. That's OK "If he's going to care for it," Hoen says. "That's how I started out. I have a problem with collecting large numbers of animals out of the wild and selling them for a little bit of money with no regard for their health or well-being."

The cheap, imported iguanas have become a sore point.

"They've become disposable animals," he says. "People have the mentality that if it dies I can buy another one. Well, that's very bad for the animal -- obviously!"

An iguana can be quite a commitment. They can live 25 years and males get to be 6 feet long. And you have to cut their toe nails, too. You can't drop your iguana off at the local zoo either if you get tired of it. Zoos don't want them.

"It boils down to responsible pet ownership. If you can't provide for it and you can't keep it content, you shouldn't have it."

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