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Not your everyday pets

Melrose Elementary students get acquainted with a tarantula, pet an iguana and lift 14 feet of Burmese python.

Betsy McCarthy's kindergartners had company Thursday morning when they returned to their classroom from physical education.

A Chilean rose tarantula and a green iguana eyed them from carriers on the floor. Nearby, a denim sack and a large, lumpy white canvas bag with a thick drawstring shared space on a table. Several of the children thought they saw the canvas bag move, but they couldn't be sure.

The visitors, the sack and the canvas bag belonged to Pat Brown, a member of the Pinellas County Schools Speakers Bureau. She brought them to Melrose Elementary, 4850 31st St. S, for her "Unusual Animals As Pets" presentation.

The children were joined by Mindy Hayford's second-graders. They gave Mrs. Brown their undivided attention as she opened one of the carriers and brought out Lucy, the tarantula. She cupped the furry brown spider in her hands, got down on her knees and slowly moved around the circle. She instructed the children to look but not touch, explaining that many people are allergic to spiders.

She gave them a quick lesson in spider anatomy, pointing out the creature's spinnerets, the appendages it uses to make a web. She traveled the circle again to show the children the nearly invisible silk.

"If there's a spider in your house, don't kill it, but don't pick it up and give it a big hug," she said. "Some spiders can hurt us."

She returned Lucy to her carrier and told the children that the other animals she had brought were members of the reptile family. Several students backed up when she carried T-Rex Marsalis, a 2-foot iguana, around the circle. But after they got used to the long tail and the dinosaur-like spikes along her backbone, many of them drew closer and reached out to touch her.

Before Mrs. Brown revealed the contents of the denim sack, she asked the children a question.

"What's the most important thing for boys and girls to remember about snakes?" She didn't wait for an answer. "If you see one in the wild, even if the wild is in your own backyard, don't pick it up. If you see one outside, you're gonna leave it alone. We got a deal?"

The children nodded their heads solemnly. She took Ping Pong, a 3-foot ball python, out of the sack and asked if anyone wanted to hold him.

"Uh-uh, no way!" said Shanice Clark, 7, as she backed toward the wall. But Roshana Robinson, also 7, was intrigued. She listened while Mrs. Brown explained that one of the differences between lizards and snakes is that lizards can close their eyes.

Mrs. Brown returned the python to its sack and asked for help lowering the canvas bag to the floor. "This is my biggest household pet," she said. "This is one you probably won't find in your backyard."

She untied the drawstring and pulled her "big boy" out of the bag. Even the braver children backed away as all 14 feet and 100 pounds of Burmese python emerged.

She said that Typhon the python is at least 23 years old. She knows he's still growing because he just finished shedding his skin. "He peels it off like when you take your T-shirt off wrong-side-out," she said.

The children had lots of questions. What did Typhon eat? How did he move without legs? Kevin Kapcio, 7, wanted to know how Mrs. Brown gives Typhon a bath.

By the time she asked the children how many of them it would take to pick up a 100-pound snake, even the shyest ones were eager to participate in the experiment. They lined up on either side of the python and raised it waist high.

As Mrs. Brown coaxed Typhon back into the drawstring bag, she reminded the children always to wash their hands after touching animals. She also asked, one more time, "What are you going to do if you see a snake outside?"

"Stay away from him," they answered.

When Miss McCarthy led the children in a game of animal jeopardy the next afternoon, they didn't remember that snakes are carnivores or that they have hook-shaped teeth, but they remembered the snake lady's instruction to keep their distance.

"I respect (snakes)," Mrs. Brown, 55, said. "That's what I try to translate to the kids."

She hopes children won't grow up being afraid of snakes. She makes several presentations a month to children in preschool through high school, tailoring the information to suit their grade level. She always explains that although snakes "aren't the brightest bulb in the chandelier," they are a crucial part of nature.

"Snakes have had bad press since the time of Adam and Eve," she said. "They've always been the bad guy."

But she said the main reason she has brought her unusual pets into Pinellas County Schools since her oldest son entered Azalea Elementary almost 30 years ago is for the looks on the children's faces when they see something for the first time.

"It's a joy to share with them," she said. "Knowing you've reached a child and knowing you've brought him something that he didn't have before is very gratifying."