By Amber Wilhelm / TheOnlineRocket
Media Credit: Samantha Chalmers
Tom Kessenich is living his dream. Kessenich, 49, tours the country with his reptiles in the show Snakes Alive!, a hands-on reptile exhibit, which came to the University Union Multipurpose Room on Tuesday.
Kessenich's fascination with reptiles started when he was a boy. "I loved dinosaurs when I was little," Kessenich said. "When I was 7 years old, I met a garden snake and I was hooked." Kessenich takes Snakes Alive! to schools, colleges, birthday parties, nature centers and anywhere there are people who want to be entertained and educated. He said that he brings different snakes with him to different events.
For his show at SRU, Kessenich brought a savanna monitor lizard, a bearded dragon, a Columbian tegu lizard, two types of corn snakes, a South American tortoise, a small alligator, a boa constrictor and a black rat snake, which is native to Pennsylvania.
In the introduction to his show, Kessenich said, "My show is about turning malice and fear into curiosity and fascination." The energetic Kessenich starts with small lizards and works his way up to bringing out the biggest snake in the show, Billy the boa constrictor. Jason Lane, a freshman health and safety major, said his favorite part of Snakes Alive! was Billy the boa. But Lane doesn't see himself with a job like Kessenich's anytime soon. "I like snakes, but I don't like touching them," Lane, 19, said.
Lane's sentiment was not shared by everyone in attendance, however. Audience members clamored to pet the snakes and lizards throughout the show. Some audience members were more nervous than others. Since dispelling fear is one of Kessenich's main goals, he coaxed the most frightened students in the audience on to the stage to pet and hold the reptiles.
Kessenich said it wasn't the first time he has encountered reluctant participants. "One girl (in Iowa) was so scared she was shaking," Kessenich said. "So I started by letting her touch the lizard's tail and she worked her way up to holding it."
Kessenich has an analogy for the emotions Snakes Alive! brings out in the audience. "It's like a roller coaster," Kessenich said. "People start out scared and end up having fun."
Kessenich started a formal education in biology, but wanted to be in the field. "I'm not a lab guy," Kessenich said. "If somebody wants to study an animal's blood, I'll go out and get one for them and care for it, but I leave the lab for other people."
Snakes Alive! reflects Kessenich's hands-on approach. He walked around almost continuously throughout the show, letting the audience take pictures and pet the animals. After the presentation, Kessenich invited everyone to come to the stage area to hold the reptiles. Kessenich demonstrated how to hold Billy the boa, then put him on the shoulder of the first obliging audience member to free himself up to guide curious spectators through a frenzy of passing snakes and lizards around and answering questions on stage. "It was a great show," Lane said.