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Portage Hosts A "Reptile Roundup"

Leona Larson

Family-friendly summer events that were cancelled last year are back on as Michigan’s pandemic restrictions ease.

A new event “slithered” out last weekend in Portage and for the 400 people who attended, it was a sign that southwestern Michigan is returning to normal.

“Why is his mouth shut?,” asked a curious child, who noticed that the small alligator’s mouth was safely secured shut as he patiently waited in line to hold him at the "Portage Reptile Roundup" at Celery Flats on a Saturday afternoon.

“Because he talks too much,” joked David Critchlow, who runs the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary in Athens, Michigan. “And if you haven’t noticed, this is my show. Okay?”

Critchlow is serious about safety while being silly with curious kids. The safety lessons he gives are as much for the animals' benefit as they are for the children. “I want you to always hang on to the tail, just in case she lets go, that way you got it. Understand? Do you understand? You’re my safety net.” And with that, Critchlow enlisted the help of an older kid to secure the alligator so smiling parents could snap a photo. Without missing a beat, he joked, “If you get this wrong, I will fire you.”

Credit Leona Larson / WMUK
Steve Lynn and daughter with their snakes at the 2021 Portage Reptile Roundup

The "Portage Reptile Roundup" was originally scheduled in the summer of 2020 until COVID-19 forced it and most other events to be cancelled. “We’re super excited to have it here in 2021 and let everybody meet some of the snakes and tortoises and alligators, and educate them more about these reptiles,” said Alexis Conklin, the events manager for the Portage Parks and Recreation Department.

With a wide variety of turtles, lizards, snakes, and alligators, their handlers both entertained and taught kids what to do if they encounter a reptile in the wild or at a friend’s house.

Jay Pike got the protected eastern box turtle he brought to the event from the state after it suffered injuries from an animal attack were too severe for it to survive back in the wild.

“The most important thing about the turtle, and this is what I tell everybody: if you see it in the wild, leave it in the wild, said Pike. "They do not do well in captivity if they are wild caught.” Pike runs the Tail Whip Exotics Reptile Rescue program based in Morenci, Michigan.

“He will bite me,” a boy told his mother as they considered petting one of the snakes at the round-up. Steve Lynn said the boy’s question is the most common one he gets at educational events. Lynn is with the Michigan Society of Herpetologists and owns several of the large snakes that were on display.

“I usually respond with the same question: 'Do you bite?' Anything with a mouth will bite,” said Lynn after he placed "Karai," a seven-year-old Columbian red-tailed boa constrictor across the WMUK reporter’s shoulders.

One of the more popular attractions was "Snappy," a friendly, giant snapping turtle lounging in the grass near the entrance.

“He’s super-duper friendly. He never tries to bite, the only time he snaps is when he is eating,” said Bill Martinson, who raised the 28-year-old, 55-pound snapper since it was the size of a nickel. “He’s had shots, blood tests, x-rays, rectal exams, needle biopsies, big dog licks to his face, the kids ride on him and he’s never tried to bite.”

When Snappy was little, Martinson said he often slept tucked inside his owner's shirt pocket.(P) “When he got bigger, I’d put him on the foot of the bed and then he’d crawl under my arm and go to sleep,” Martinson said. “He got kicked out of bed because he likes to wiggle around a bit to get settled in and he clawed the new flannel sheets, so mom kicked him out.” “No more bed for you,” Martinson explained to the turtle.

The "Reptile Roundup" is one of six family events planned for June at Celery Flats. There's more information at the Portage Parks and Recreation website, or by calling (269) 329-4522.

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