Cows, horses, sheep and other four-legged creatures are all common sites on the rolling farmland across Carroll County.
But tucked in away on a farm outside Westminster in the heart of the county there are snakes, including pythons and boa constrictors, giant tortoises, lizards and turtles that also call the county home.
In a modified barn where the temperature is always above 80 degrees, more than 70 reptiles live under the eye of Brian Kristal, director of Reptile Wonders, a traveling nature center and wildlife rehabilitation facility.
Kristal started giving talks about reptiles when he was just 15. Twenty-three years later, his hands-on, interactive reptile programs include 10 to 13 different animals that vary in size from tiny lizards to 100-pound snakes.
"I once had 300 reptiles," Kristal said. "I realized I had too many and downsized to 75."
Kristal's interest began as a youth in Rockville, when a reptile show came to his school. "I always dreamed I would have my own nature center," Kristal said.
He wasn't allowed to own a reptile, however, until he was in his own place. "My first was a diamondback terrapin," he said.
Today, 85 percent of his animals are given to him. "They get too big, too smelly or too aggressive," Kristal said, of the owners' reasons for not wanting their pets.
During his shows, Kristal advises people to research a future pet to understand everything involved with its care.
And while he would love to take in all the reptiles that come to his door, he isn't always able to do so.
"Sometimes, the most perfect animal comes along and it is not the right time and I have to turn it down," Kristal said. "I have to have the space."
At those times, he encourages the owner to try the Humane Society or to post it on Craigslist with a nominal adoption fee. Both are places Kristal checks when he needs an animal.
"Certain animals I bring to certain shows," Kristal said, of a core group he takes on the road .
For example, he always brings a tortoise to a show. Typically, he does two shows a day. To handle that demand, Kristal has three tortoises so that the same animal isn't put through too much stress by traveling every day.
Kristal's reptile shows are tailored to the groups that hire him. In addition to birthday parties, school appearances and corporate events, he said he also offers programs for Scouts for Merit Badges.
This summer, he is part of Baltimore County Public Library's summer reading program for youth, and has traveled to several branches around the county to give his presentation.
"He is very, very good," said Jasmine Harris, a librarian at the Catonsville Library in the southwest portion of the county, where Kristal has had several shows in the past. "Parents love him. Kids love him. He brings a whole lot of animals and has great information. It is not just a see and feel show. He is very informative."
While reptiles are his forte, Kristal also does shows about Native Americans, seasons, bugs, rocks and minerals and apple cider making. Above his reptile barn, he has a classroom where he can teach day-long programs to various groups.
"I love all my programs," Kristal said. "Everything is hands-on."
His reptile house in Carroll County is not open to the public, except for those attending a class.
"We [his wife and two children] live on site and we like having our privacy, too," he said.
Interns and volunteers help Kristal take care of his collection. Keeping all the animals fed and cleaned takes a few hours every day.
When he does shows, it takes time to load and unload the animals.
Sometimes, an unexpected problem appears. On a visit Wednesday night, for example, Kristal had just returned from a show and was busy keeping an eye on a snake that was "dropping" eggs while also monitoring a tortoise that had spat up fluid.
"I love my animals dearly," Kristal said.
To learn more about Reptile Wonders, call 410-374-0336 or go to http://www.naturecenteronthego.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun