Erik Callender is sitting with his live alligator Walley sprawled across his lap like a toddler. Callender caresses Walley's head as he answers questions about his new Erik's Reptile Edventures Discovery Center at the Long Island Game Farm Wildlife Park & Children's Zoo in Manorville -- "Ed" standing for education.
Callender isn't at all concerned about Walley's tooth-filled snout resting on his thigh. Reptiles are his passion -- when asked to pose with one of his albino Burmese pythons, he instead lifts both Twinkie II and Twinkie IV from their enclosure. Each looks like an elongated yellow squash come to life, and Callender tangles with them as their heads weave back and forth and they encircle his wiry body, wrapping around the boa constrictor tattoo on Callender's right arm.
After he puts the pythons down, a cockroach the size of a baby carrot crawls from his vest pocket -- Callender, 37, had done a presentation earlier in the day for a school group, and he usually keeps three or four Madagascar hissing cockroaches in his pocket to show the kids. "Sorry," he apologizes, "I forgot they were there."
Visitors to the game farm on select days this summer -- June 30, July 12 and 19, and Aug. 2, 4, 7, and 9 -- will experience the enthusiastic Callender walking them through the indoor exhibit. (Call the park for specific times.) "The walk-throughs are good because I tell people exactly where everything came from," Callender says. On other days, the center will be open during park hours for self-guided tours of the turtles, snakes, alligators and more.
Erik's Reptile Edventures isn't the only new attraction for the 45th season at the wildlife park and children's zoo, joining the park's giraffe, llamas, carousel ride and more. David Rosaire & His Perky Pekes Show will run onstage all summer.
Rosaire starts the 15-minute performance with a tug-of-war, struggling to pull an unseen creature onstage. When the line finally gives, it is a tiny Pekingese at the other end.
A bevy of Pekingese joins Rosaire, 73, who is wearing a blue-sequined vest and has his white hair in a ponytail. The dogs ride a scooter, go down a slide. "Stay in that doghouse where you belong, or tomorrow we'll use you as a Swiffer," he threatens one pup. Badump bump.
But the show features more than just dogs -- Vanna the Baboon enters driving a red stagecoach pulled by a Great Dane and pulls two toy pistols out of her pockets in a Western quick-draw. That was the scene-stealer for Ethan Deerkoski, 6, of Tennessee, on Long Island to visit his grandmother Laura Magill of Laurel. Says brother Alex, 9, "The dogs were just cute. They did some really good tricks."
BACK TO THE GATOR
After the dog show, Jon and Theresa Marcazzo of Fort Lauderdale, who are visiting family in East Moriches, walk with their daughter, Isabella, 2, to the reptile exhibit. Jon enters first. "Oh, you're going to freak out," he warns Theresa before she walks in carrying Isabella, happening on Callender with the alligator on his lap.
"We're from Florida, we see them all the time," Jon says of gators. But usually from a boat. Not on someone's lap.
Callender enjoys the attention -- he's a performer at heart who did shows on the game farm stage last year, does school and special events throughout Long Island and Queens, driving his colorful Erik's Reptile Edventures van, and is even working on building a nature center for children in Madagascar, where he plans to return this winter.
Callender found his first turtle when he was 10; his parents let him keep it, and the rest is history. He says he can't express how happy he is to now have a brick-and-mortar venue for the animals he used to keep in cages in his former Hauppauge apartment. "Being here, it's a dream come true," Callender says. "I'm grateful."
WHATErik's Reptile Edventures Discovery Center and David Rosaire & His Perky Pekes Show
WHEN | WHERE Daily at the Long Island Game Farm Wildlife Park & Children's Zoo, 489 Chapman Blvd., Manorville
INFO Included with park admission of $18.95 per adult, $16.95 for children ages 3 to 12 and senior citizens 62 and older; 631-878-6644; longislandgamefarm.com