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Lizard wizard.

Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - Australia had "the Crocodile Hunter," Steve Irwin.

The Columbus Zoo in Ohio has "Jungle Jack" Hanna, made famous by his many appearances on the "Late Show with David Letterman" over the years.

And Oregon?

Well, we've got The Reptile Man.

Richard Ritchey, 52, of Molalla has been coming to the Springfield Public Library to entertain kids, their parents and grandparents during winter break for more than a decade now.

So popular are his hourlong demonstrations that the city for the past five years has had him do two shows, as was the case on Tuesday.

"It's one of our most popular programs," said Emily David, the library's youth & adult services associate manager. "It's fun because the kids get to see the animals up close and personal, and he does a really nice job of making it educational and fun."

After all, who doesn't like to lay his or her hand on the scaly back of a giant python or king cobra?

Who doesn't enjoy a kiss from the flitting tongue of a dragon lizard?

Some children have been known to lose their lunch, on rare occasions, and some do cry when brought face-to-face with a snapping turtle.

But the vast majority of the kids who encounter the man they nicknamed themselves (it just stuck) can think of nothing better to do on a cold winter's day.

"Because the snakes are cool," 7-year-old Nolan Wolf of Springfield explained, when asked why he enjoys it so much.

Besides, where else can you hear a grown man say ...?

If I push his head in, it poops on the holder.

Or ...

In this box, I actually have a snake that's been known to swallow people.Or ...

Do. Not. Move. If you move, he will spray you. And it will smell worse than a skunk, and it will burn you.

Ritchey has made a living doing this since 1991 and does more than 500 shows a year, including an average of three a day in summertime.

He normally charges $325 for an hourlong program, and $175 for a second show. But he's been coming here for so long (about 14 years, he guesses) that he gives the city of Springfield a deal and charges $400 for the two shows, which are free to the public.

He is licensed every two years to keep and transport exotic reptiles through the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to a letter on his website.

And he is not to be mistaken for another "reptile man," a guy in Vancouver, Wash., who did school demonstrations until he was arrested and charged in 2011 for keeping about 40 snakes in house without a license, according to The Columbian newspaper.

Ritchey keeps his reptiles, about 100 of them at a time, in a 12-foot by 40-foot building behind his home.

He said he's had reptiles since he was a boy growing up in Albany.

"I had snakes and lizards since I was 7," Ritchey said.

"Actually, I've always had a fascination with all animals," Ritchey said before Tuesday's first show.

But reptiles hold a special place in his heart "because they're so variable in their size, colors and abilities."

His favorites are the king cobra "because they're so intelligent. They're actually interested in what you're doing. They'll come out ... and watch you."

And rattlesnakes, "because of the rattle at the end of the tail, it seems like a mythical creature."

One of the rattlesnakes he showed on Tuesday, named Bubba, is a "movie star," Ritchey said.

He loaned some of his rattlesnakes to the makers of the movie "Wild," currently playing in local theaters. The movie, which was filmed in Oregon and based on the best-selling memoir by Portland author Cheryl Strayed, is about her 1995 solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Ritchey has also provided snakes for the Animal Planet TV series "King of the Jungle" and once put a venomless king cobra on a Los Angeles-bound Delta Airlines flight so Irwin, the late TV personality, could show it on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

But it's showing off his vast collection, most of which comes from rescues around the state when various animal control outfits call him, to the kids that inspires Ritchey.

After showing a speckled rattlesnake, Ritchey took the long hook he fashioned using a golf club grip and placed the snake on the carpet.

"Who's going to put it back in the box for me?" Ritchey asked.

"I've got to look in your eyes," he said, as he gazed around the room. "Takes a certain kind of person, you know. I'm not looking for Clint Eastwood. Not lookin' for crazy, either. Calmness in the eyes. Relaxed."

Naijah Reed was ready.

"Sure you want to do this?" Ritchey asked the girl.

She was.

Reed gently lifted the curling snake and placed it in its container.

"Excellent," Ritchey said. "Now close that side first. Now you gotta hook him in there," he said as the snake tried to crawl out.

"Take your time, don't get in a hurry.

"Perfect. Give her a hand, guys."

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkBakerRG. Email mark.baker@registerguard.com.
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Title Annotation:Living Here
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 31, 2014
Words:865
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