When Erik Callender was 9, he happened upon a toad in the woods while at camp. He picked it up, showed it to his friends and found himself almost instantly falling in love.
“I can’t even describe the feeling, it’s beyond excited,” said Callender, who also found a turtle and a snake that summer. “My whole body would react.”
Now the 34-year-old Hauppauge resident helps other Long Islanders react to reptiles and amphibians through his mobile "Reptile Edventure” show, which he gives at different venues. Among the exotic animals in his repertoire are a scorpion, anaconda, tegu lizard and an 18-year-old female alligator named Wally.
Thirty kids gathered Friday at the Lynbrook Public Library to see Callender’s show. He likes to describe what he brings to build suspense, then takes them out, often to a chorus of “Whoa!”
At a lightning pace Callender spews out facts about each animal while running around the room with whatever creature he has pulled out, letting children pet it, be licked by it, or just see it up close and personal.
Callender also incorporates insects into his show. At one point he pulled two Madagascar roaches from his hat, sending several little girls to the back of the room.
“It grosses me out,” said Peggy Marino, 44, of Lynbrook, whose son Chris, 10, held one of the roaches. Another son, John, 7, held a tree frog, and glowed during the entire experience.
“I’m the mother of three boys,” Peggy said. “I’m in trouble.”
Callender has constructed a room in his house that has year-round temperature control and space for each animal. Wally, who has been with him for 16 years, has her own 1,000-gallon pool. Although a large part of Callender’s life is spent around screaming children and people who misunderstand the animals he holds so dear, for him it’s all worth it. He loves working to make tarantulas, tree frogs and other exotic animals a little more accepted.
“I think it’s very important for people to connect to life, connect to nature,” he said with Wally relaxing on his lap. “Take a walk in the park, take a walk out into nature and see the world.”
Erik Callender displays a chameleon to his audience at the Lynbrook Public Library on Friday.