by: ©2008 BETTE VAN BUSKIRK, Reptile Man Richard Ritchey (left) says older people are more likely to be afraid of things that crawl or slither. At 8, Luke (with Ritchey and above) isn’t showing any signs yet that he inherited his grandfather’s dismay about all things reptilian.

Some time ago, Richard Ritchey was driving down Interstate 5 toward Eugene when one of the containers in the back of his station wagon popped open. Before he could say “Slithering serpents!,” his 12-foot king cobra had ditched its cage and raised its impressive hood directly behind Ritchey’s head. Because he makes his living as Oregon’s Reptile Man and is intimately familiar with all his creatures, Ritchey says he wasn’t much bothered by the sight. But “the people next to me doing 55 mph on the freeway sure freaked out.” That story is just one of the tales in Ritchey’s new book, “True Adventures of the Reptile Man,” available through his Web site,, and turning up on my son’s nightstand soon. Children aren’t naturally afraid of anything. Even stranger anxiety is a learned behavior that develops at about 6 months. As they get older, they don’t usually see mice as inherently yuckier than bunnies, reptiles are like small dinosaurs (only with fewer teeth) and bugs are just as fascinating as birds. They learn most of their fears from adults. My dad is about petrified of snakes, lizards and the like, but when my son Luke turned 8 last month, he wanted to have a reptile party. The idea that 16 8-year-old boys would sit still for the Reptile Man’s hourlong show sounded about as unlikely as the prospect that my dad wouldn’t faint at the sight of the anaconda or tiger rat snake. But the show was an incredible hit (my dad spent the whole party in another room). The kids were mesmerized. And for the most part, they weren’t terrified. But they did follow, with startling hustle, Ritchey’s directions to sit still, back up and keep quiet around the most dangerous reptiles. The show was organized, engaging and educational, but most interesting to me was how Ritchey expertly toed the line between fear and respect. He wants children to understand how impressive, beautiful and important these animals are, and for them to develop a respect for the animals’ potential danger without being flat-out terrified. Parents face the same challenge in teaching kids about everything from crossing the street to staying with baby sitters to learning to swim to riding a bike. Any time you introduce a child to something new there’s the chance they’ll be scared, and sometimes they should be a little. How to teach a healthy, but not paralyzing, fear? Herpetophobia, or fear of reptiles, is something most children get from their parents. Ritchey, who’s been putting on reptile shows for school groups, museums and birthday parties since 1991, says when he does elementary school groups only about 5 percent are fearful. But by middle school the number climbs to 30 percent to 40 percent, and, he says, 60 percent to 70 percent of high schoolers are scared. He recommends that parents who are at all uncomfortable not hold their children on their laps during the show, because they can transmit fear bodily and create a lasting negative impression for the child. Being the birthday boy, Luke got the added thrill of having several of the reptiles around his head, on his lap, within snapping distance. And several times I worried that he was too scared. I’m not especially scared of reptiles. I know that given the choice they’ll avoid you in the wild. But mice, rats and other rodents? I’d rather take a bath in a tub of snakes than pet a rat. One of my great challenges as a parent is how much to push Luke into things I’m sure he’d like and how much to respect his own reticence. Two summers ago my cousin and I waited in the long and circuitous Space Mountain line with our then 6- and 7-year-old sons. When we finally got to the entry chutes her son balked, and she let him. When Luke saw that Tanner was leaving the building, he started to flip out. I forced him to stay, threatening all sorts of misery if he didn’t calm down, sit down and engage the safety bar. It wasn’t my finest mom moment, forcing him to do something because I had liked it so much as a kid. He was, for a few moments, panic-stricken and almost hysterical. But as soon as the ride ended, he looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “Can we do it again?” So I let the cobra hiss just inches from my precious son’s quivering cheek. I’m still not sure I made the right decision about the Space Mountain ride, or that it mattered, but Luke, overall, became more courageous last year. On Christmas Day I was demonstrating how to use his new pogo stick and ended up in the mud, writhing in pain with a badly sprained ankle. He was sympathetic but more interested in trying to break my pogoing record (sadly, just five hops) than in listening to a lecture on safe jumping. He’s made it to 148. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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