Woman finds warmth and character in these cold-blooded beings

October 04, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

One day after the governor urged all Marylanders to get back to their normal lives, I visited a woman who keeps nearly 100 reptiles in her house, including a 10-foot Burmese python, a hissing alligator and a huge iguana she calls Billy Idol because a scar on his lips makes him appear to be sneering.

The last time I visited Holli Friedland, it was the morning of Sept. 11. She was standing in her living room with a colorful panther chameleon on each shoulder, posing for our photographer. We had the TV on because someone said a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Suddenly, as we watched in awe, another plane plowed into the glittering skyscraper, igniting a fireball. Minutes later, CNN reported the Pentagon had been hit, too.

"Um," I said to Holli, as our photographer sprinted out the door to Washington, "we may have to put off the reptile column for a while."

Yesterday, then, was to be our make-up date, the day Holli and I would get together again to discuss what kind of person keeps 100 reptiles in her home without freaking out the neighbors.

So naturally, as I pulled up to her house near Mount Washington, a report came over the car radio about a bus crash in Tennessee that was possibly terrorist-related.

"Remind me not to come over here anymore," I said, and we both laughed nervously. The bus incident, as we found out, appeared to be the work of a lone nutcase.

Any other time, that would be deeply disturbing. This time, it was oddly comforting.

On this sunny, summer-like day, we began with a tour of her comfortable split-level, which looks like it should be the set for the Animal Planet channel.

Friedland, 43, a graphic artist, is also the adoption coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show, and her house is filled with cages and vivariums in which all manner of slithering, scaly creatures reside.

It's a reptile homeless shelter, is what it is. Almost all of these reptiles have been turned over by people who kept them as pets, but ran out of space in which to keep them as the animals got bigger. Or they were turned over to Friedland by various county animal control agencies.

As we wandered from room to room, Holli pointed out boa constrictors, veiled chameleons, savannah monitors, fat-tail geckos, Ceylonese pythons, corn snakes, milk snakes, California king snakes, plated lizards, iguanas, green anoles - more reptiles than I ever knew existed.

When I wondered aloud about the care and feeding of all these animals and whether she had help from anyone else, Friedland smiled softly and said she wasn't married.

"It's kind of difficult to find someone to put up with all this," she said, waving her arms to encompass the wall-to-wall reptile life.

Friedland could use a full-time staff. Cleaning cages alone can take six or seven hours each Saturday if her usual volunteers don't stop by. The vivariums, cages, food and water bowls are all donated, but Friedland has to shop for food for these critters.

Don't ask what her electric bill is each month; the cost of keeping all these hot lights and warmers going is through the roof. She burns a $20 bill at the Farmer's Market each time she shops for vegetables and the freezers downstairs are filled with frozen mice and rats, which she gets in shipments of 2,000.

Thankfully, the mice and rats are also donated. I hope you're not eating breakfast as you read this, but that Burmese python chows down on three "jumbo" rats a week. Some of her other reptiles eat giant millipedes and Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which Friedland raises herself.

Friedland's green iguanas, it turns out, eat better than I do.

Every day she makes them a "salad" of collard greens, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes and Chinese pea pods.

Their diet must agree with them; all started out about six inches long and are now nearly five feet, including a monster named Jub-Jub, who found himself homeless after he knocked down - knocked down - the grandmother of the kid who owned him.

"But most [iguanas] aren't as sweet as my baby here!" cooed Friedland, inches from Jub-Jub's homely, pitted face and darting tongue.

At this, of course, we had arrived at the express reason for my visit.

What kind of person, I want to know, coos at an iguana?

What kind of a person finds chameleons and savannah monitors cute and cuddly?

What kind of a person shows you a ball python, twitching around her arm, and says, as Friedland did: "They're really friendly"?

Really friendly?!

How can you tell?

Friedland laughed. "I have a soft spot," she said, "for things no one else loves or wants."

As a little girl growing up in Cumberland, she said, she used to bring home all sorts of box turtles and toads, although she was "terrified" of snakes.

Then seven years ago, she got involved with the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show, overcame her fear of snakes and discovered a singular beauty in the cold-blooded creatures others run from.

Now, if she gives talks to children's groups and takes her reptiles along: "When the kids go `ooh,' I always tell them, `It's ahhh!, not ooh.' "

As I left Friedland yesterday, she mentioned she was picking up six more snakes from the Prince Georges County animal control people: two pythons, three boas and a kingsnake.

I didn't ask how friendly the snakes were.

Some things you just don't want to know.

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