Sunday, April 13, 2008

Two-man Venture Educates, Entertains with Creepy Critters

Creepy crawlies, slithering critters, bugs that can bite – these aren't most people's idea of the perfect job environment. But that doesn't matter to the guys behind Radical Reptiles and Friends.

SEAN M. HAFFEY / Union-Tribune
Radical Reptiles and Friends employee John Taibee (above) held a tegu lizard rescued in Poway. Ben Hian (below) held Vince, a reticulated python that hails from Asia. The snake will grow to be about 25 feet long. Hian's business, Radical Reptiles and Friends, shows off exotic animals in after-school programs, summer camps and birthday parties.

Radical Reptiles and Friends' Ben Hian
SEAN M. HAFFEY / Union-Tribune
Founded by Ben Hian nearly 12 years ago, the Carlsbad-based venture features an array of snakes, insects, lizards, spiders, turtles and cockroaches that are presented as an entertaining educational tool in after-school programs, school assemblies, birthday parties and summer camps throughout the county.

The business began as one boy's desire to have a snake. “I told my mom I wanted a snake,” Hian said. “She said I could have one the day I moved out of the house.” Hian made good on that promise. The day before he moved out of his parent's home at age 18, he bought his first corn snake, named Rufus, and took it to his new place. Soon enough, Hian acquired a tortoise named Esiotrot – tortoise spelled backward. Then came Baby Boris, a Burmese python, then 6 feet long. Now full-grown, Boris is 21 feet long and weighs 307 pounds.

While Hian was slowly collecting a menagerie of reptilian creatures, he was making a living teaching at a private preschool. Once in a while, he would take an animal to class, fascinating the children. Soon he was getting calls from parents asking if he would bring his creatures to children's birthday parties.

For a few years, Hian was teaching and doing birthday parties part-time. Then, he had an epiphany. “I woke up at 2 a.m. one night and shot out of bed. 'I'm going to quit my job,'” Hian said he remembers thinking. “I emptied out my bank account to pay for fliers I could hand out at schools.

The first few years of building his business, Radical Reptiles and Friends, were difficult. “I ate a lot of oatmeal and Top Ramen,” Hian said. But his reputation grew through word of mouth. Now he can have as many as 15 after-school programs and school-assembly presentations per week, and as many as four or five birthday parties on the weekends. His collection has grown to more than 100 reptiles, which he keeps in his home. Because they are categorized as pets, Hian said he doesn't need any special permits to own them.

A few years ago, he met John Taibe, a recreation coordinator at the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center, where Hian had an after-school program. Taibe also was a reptile enthusiast, and pretty soon they were talking shop. “One day, Ben asked me if I'd like to have a full-time job where I could work with animals and children,” Taibe said. “I jumped at the opportunity.

I really liked John's energy,” Hian said. “He was great working with the kids and with the animals.” That was two years ago, and the business is going strong. Because Radical Reptiles and Friends is now a two-man operation, they have been able to expand a rattlesnake and reptile rescue service, removing reptiles found in homes and relocating them to remote, safe environments. “This is better than just killing the animal,” Hian said.

Snakes don't want to interact with humans, he said, but development and wildfires can force them to find shelter in populated locations. Education is an important component of what Hian and Taibe bring to the business. “We like to generate interest and educate the children on animals that, in general, people think are scary or gross,” Hian said. “We help to get an interest started and hopefully a desire in the future to help out with conservation.

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