While snakes and lizards make many people’s skin crawl, Peter Child can’t get enough of them.
“When you talk about native Australian fauna, everyone falls all over koalas and kangaroos but don’t realise that 90 per cent of the reptiles in Australia are just as unique,” he said.
“We have well over 800 individual families of reptiles, but instead of revering these beautiful amazing creatures we’re afraid of them.”
Mr Child’s love of reptiles began when he was 10 years old and his father brought home two turtles.
“All kids love dinosaurs, and if you look really close at a reptile, look at its eyes, stare at its face, it looks like a mini dinosaur.”
He did his research and learnt how to care for his new pets and before long he found himself a local turtle expert.
When Mr Child finished school, he got his first pet lizards and snakes and started working in the pet industry.
“I found lots of people in the industry didn’t understand reptiles and all of a sudden I found myself as a centre of information,” he said.
“People were coming from everywhere to ask me advice about reptiles.”
Love of lizards leads to crocs in lounge room
But his love for native lizards turned to one of protection, after he went to a Canberra pet expo in the early 1990s with a blue-tongue lizard in hand and discovered how misunderstood reptiles were.
“Everyone had their dogs and cats and I had a blue-tongue and everyone cleared the room because everyone was afraid of my blue-tongue,” he said.
“It turned out that most people thought the blue-tongue’s blue tongue was a sign of venom.
“What’s scary about it is how that kind of ignorance translated into a gentleman in the audience saying, ‘So I guess I should stop killing them’.
“He owned a dog and every time a blue-tongue entered his yard he’d kill it because he thought it would hurt his dog.”
Mr Child then turned his focus to educating the community about native reptiles.
While working as graphic designer he started running a reptile pet business from his garage in 2003 and began doing reptile shows at schools across the capital.
“[This] grew the business even further and included me having crocodiles in my lounge room and everything — under special permits of course.”
Backyard collection becomes reptile zoo
Mr Child’s backyard collection of native reptiles grew so big that he started the Canberra Reptile Zoo at Gold Creek five years ago.
The zoo’s focus remains on education.
“While reptiles are much more accepted and much bigger in people’s homes than they were 20 years ago, every day we still come across people who say they’re horrible or dangerous.”
He said giving people the opportunity to get up close with snakes and lizards, and even keep them as pets, increased their empathy for reptiles in the wild.
“If they get close to it and see they’re not vicious and trying to kill them, when they see that animal in the wild they’re calm.
“They see a snake and remember, ‘The reptile guy said to just stand still and leave it alone’.
“They’re not panicking, they’re thinking logically and rationally and they don’t feel the desire to kill the animal.”
So why keep a reptile as a pet?
Mr Child said it was becoming increasingly popular to keep reptiles as pets, particularly because they made the perfect companion for those who didn’t have backyards and were short on time.
“Reptiles live a very sedentary lifestyle; they lie around in the sun, get warm and they eat,” he said.
“You don’t have to walk them; many you don’t have to feed every day.
“That ease of maintenance means that people in this day and age with their busy lifestyles, can keep the animal without sacrificing the animal’s needs and feeling bad about it.”
Mr Child said it was essential to understand the reptile’s needs before buying one — how big it grows and what kind of housing, temperature and humidity it needs.
Despite only buying one lace monitor (a native goanna), the zoo now has seven, each of them 1.5 to two metres long.
“The rest were donations because people bought them as cute little lizards that fit in the palm of your hand and realised they couldn’t handle them five years later,” Mr Child said
“You’ve really got to understand these animals from day one.”
There are also different licensing requirements for different reptiles in each state and territory, so Mr Child recommended people do their research before deciding to take a lizard or snake home.