by Mallory Moad
Eric Johnson’s home is filled with lizards, turtles, and snakes. There are frogs and toads, and a few Madagascar hissing cockroaches in there, too. But there’s no need to freak out and call for pest control because they aren’t pests. These scaly, slinky, crawly, and cool creatures are part of E&M’s Reptile Family and Eric’s home is their home, too.
Animals, especially reptiles, are Eric’s passion. E&M’s Reptile Family (the M is his wife, Michelle) is how he shares his enthusiasm. It’s a program that is part storytelling, part education, and part hands-on experience. Add a dash of community outreach and a spoonful of environmental activism and you’ve got a unique, memorable event that is fun and entertaining for all ages.
A Southern California native, Eric was inspired by his god-parents’ work with animals and their own Venice Beach-based Reptile Family. With their encouragement, he enrolled in Moorpark College’s Exotic Animal Training and Management program in 2001. He graduated in 2003 with certifications in Zoology, Wildlife Education, and Exotic Animal Training and Management. Who said school is boring?
In 2005, Eric and Michelle packed up their bags, bugs, and critters and moved to the Central Valley to raise a non-reptile family (they have a daughter, Pearl and a son, Canyon) and carry on the Reptile Family legacy. “I had been working in education, as well as movies and television,” he says. “When we decided to relocate I noticed a need for an educational program like mine.” Southern California’s loss is the San Joaquin Valley’s gain.
Eric’s respect for the animals of E&M’s Reptile family is reflected in how he treats them. They aren’t exactly pets. They’re more like pampered superstars. “The animals are housed in a barn which is temperature controlled to be eighty-two to eighty-five degrees all year round.” They even have their own enclosures and spaces to relax and get some sun. This year, a new “reptile rod” (dubbed “The Falcon”) transports the cast in style and comfort. Custom travel boxes “made to look like they are from all over the world” double as car seats and stage décor. The busy schedule of performances is taken into consideration, too. With over 750 shows a year, time is needed for rest and recuperation so animals are rotated. “Every time you see me, my show is different. You never know who may be with me as they do, indeed, get days off.” These fantastic beasts are livin’ large!
Most of Eric and Michelle’s animal family are rescues.“It is sad that so many animals need homes, and it’s not just reptiles,” Eric says. “We hope, through our presentations, we can educate the public about making better choices when it comes to getting a pet of any kind.” They do not believe in taking animals out of the wild to use in their shows or to have as part of their family. “They should be left to live their lives free” in their natural habitats.
Although an E&M’s Reptile Family show is educational, there are no lectures and no pop quiz at the end. Instead, the audience learns by listening, looking and touching. Standing over six feet tall, Eric is a commanding presence with a friendly, energetic personality. His reverence for all living things includes his audience and he’s aware that not everyone is comfortable around reptiles. Never stooping to insults or mockery for the sake of getting a laugh, he chooses kindness and compassion. “There are always people who tell me up front they are afraid. I assure them that it’s OK, and just looking is OK. Everyone has fears – I’m afraid of heights! My job is not to scare people; it’s to open their minds and make them feel safe.”
E&M’s Reptile Family has been involved with the Fresno County Public Library for the past 11 years and will be returning to this year’s Summer Reading Program. The shows are very popular – reptiles are all the rage with kids, you know – and he usually finds himself playing to large, inquisitive crowds that are ready to be amazed, amused and enlightened. And Eric wouldn’t have it any other way, especially when it comes to curiosity. “My feeling is that when you get a chance to be hands-on with any animal, it really is an experience you rarely ever forget.”
My name is Mallory Moad and I’m perfectly OK with reptiles but Madagascar hissing cockroaches, not so much.
To see when E&M’s Reptile Family will be appearing at a library branch near you, or for other Summer Reading Program events, visit www.fresnolibrary.org.
For more information about E&M’s Reptile Family, go to www.emreptilefamily.com.