Frogs, snakes and a lofty dream

Student hopes funds from sales can aid medically uninsured

July 31, 2000|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Sean Stewart shells out $350 a month on 15,000 live crickets and has, as you might expect, an unusual hobby.

Stewart raises tropical frogs and snakes. But that's a business, not a pastime. Medical school is his hobby.

A third-year medical student at the University of Maryland, Stewart hopes the frog business will be lucrative enough to support a "discount" medical practice for people without medical insurance - such as his mother, a single parent who was uninsured while she ran a home day care business when he was growing up.

"My ultimate goal would be to make my money doing this so I can do discount medicine," said Stewart, 30, of Columbia. "I've watched my mother live without health insurance, and it's frustrating."

Stewart clearly loves the colorful creatures he raises. They are something that his family and roommates also have learned to love - or at least tolerate.

When he first toured a Hickory Ridge townhouse with two future roommates, Stewart knew immediately what he wanted to do with the first-floor living room.

"When we came in, they were saying, `Oh, there's a fireplace. I'll put my couch here,'" Stewart said. "I was just thinking, `Man, this is a nice frog room.'"

Stewart got his way. The room is crammed with tanks for about 150 frogs and 15 snakes. A small freezer holds baby mice and rats that he feeds to emerald tree boas and green tree pythons. A large cardboard box contains the crickets - chirpless because they're just babies - that the frogs devour.

The rest of the room holds the run-of-the-mill clutter of a suburban bachelor pad: mountain bikes, soccer balls, a charcoal grill.

Colorful amphibians

Known as poison dart frogs, the amphibians hail from South and Central America but look like they were churned out by a crayon manufacturer.

Their speckled skins come in royal blue, bright yellow, red - even metallic silver.

The frogs require a level of care that even a full-time hobbyist would find grueling, never mind a medical student who frequently works overnight hospital shifts.

Feeding. Misting. Special lighting. Temperature control. The chores have gotten a lot easier since Stewart installed a computer-controlled system for misting the frogs three times a day.

But he happily fussed over them even when he had a long commute to Bethesda, where he held a National Institutes of Health predoctoral fellowship to research pediatric AIDS.

"He'd leave the house at 4:30 in the morning, come back at 5 o'clock, and before he did anything, he'd walk upstairs. I could hear the squirt bottles going," said his mother, Barbara Stewart. "He'd spend two hours each evening caring for the animals."

Selling and swapping

The hard work has paid off. Stewart has sold frogs to or swapped them with collectors, zoos and aquariums across the country, including the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the National Zoo in Washington.

With a partner, Stewart also designs salt-water fish tanks and rain forest tanks containing snakes, frogs and fish - all carefully selected so they don't eat each other.

Among their creations is the 2,000-gallon aquarium at Hunan Manor restaurant in Columbia.

Clients pay $20,000 to $100,000 for 500- to 1,000-gallon tanks, he said.

He declined to say how much money he makes from his amphibian business.

But the money is not the point, he said.

"When I'm building them a tank, they're paying me to do something that I love," he said. "It's really nice."

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