BOWIE – Some people collect stamps, some play sports—but for one city resident his main hobby is teaching children about reptiles.
Michael Shwedick, a self-titled ‘Reptile Man,’ has handled cobras, pythons, crocodiles and alligators from the wild and has sparked interest amongst audiences across the nation.
Shwedick, 61, introduces the rarest and most aggressive reptiles to residents through his program Reptile World.
Shwedick said he often travels the nation and has had the opportunity to be in front of crowds of as many as 2,000 people at colleges, schools and other special events. Over the years he has been featured on numerous television programs to meet and share his reptiles with Robert Kennedy's family, Amy Carter, Gloria Vanderbilt, Sugar Ray Leonard, Scatman Crothers, John Ritter, and Joe Theisman.
“I also met Mark Mosley at a Redskin fundraiser as well as many Washington, D.C. television and radio personalities,” Shwedick said. “In the 1980s, I visited a news show in Baltimore and the female co-host did not know what was in the boxes being set up on stage. I began to bring the cobra out and she said she was not comfortable. She quickly left the set and didn’t make it through the whole segment. The female co-host is known today as Oprah Winfrey and that was our first encounter.”
Shwedick said he has loved reptiles since he was a young boy. A Prince George’s County native, Shwedick grew up in Cambridge and lived in Bowie for 20 years. His love for animals began in middle school when his parents took him to the zoo.
“The only way we knew about reptiles was through the books we read,” said Shwedick. “My brother and I used to read reptile books over and over again for years and then we studied reptiles at our local library. Our parents took us to the National Zoo in Washington and it forever changed our lives. Although mom had a terrible fear of snakes, she encouraged our studying at the library and waited outside of the museum.”
A graduate of Crossland High School, Shwedick said his biology teacher allowed him to keep reptiles in the classroom and learn more about them. The only requirements were that he take good care of the animals and write reports.
“A gentleman in Florida sold me reptiles,” Shwedick said. “All I had to do was write a letter, include a quarter, and he mailed me a price list for exotic reptiles. At an early age I began to keep pythons and crocodiles in a habitat that I set up in the classroom. I did oral reports for different classes at my high school. Then I found schools who would have me display my reptiles to their students as well.”
The largest reptile Shwedick said he has is a 250-pound yellow python that he and his assistant David Dean display in the summer. “Trying to move her requires more people and is time consuming so we bring her daughter ‘Nanana split’ instead,” Shwedick said. Banana split is only four-years-old and weighs 104 pounds.
He has handled dangerous and aggressive reptiles such as black and green mambas, spitting cobras, king cobras, and vipers. Shwedick said, “The most aggressive reptiles I have dealt with would be black mambas and crocodiles because they are fast. Reptiles respond quickly when they feel threatened and only fight for two reasons, in order to save their own lives and to fight for prey.”
Shwedick’s oldest reptile is a snapping tortoise called Alexander the Great Big Alligator Snapping Turtle, 44. He said, “Turtles can live the longest, sometimes for more than 100 years. Alexander will most likely live past my age. Crocodiles and alligators live for 60-70 years. Snakes, depending on the species, have lived for 40 years. How long reptiles live while in captivity has everything to do with the care they are given.”
Shwedick said his Reptile World program has been very successful over the years and finds his job to be rewarding.
“It is so much fun seeing our reptiles grow, maturing and remaining healthy due to our care. The most rewarding part of what I do is to see people of all ages find an interest in reptiles that they never had before and children wanting to learn more about them. We always want kids to read more and have their eyes opened to the amazing world we live in,” Shwedick said.
He said the mission of his program is to make people more aware of reptiles, their importance in nature and the fact that most kinds of reptiles, depending on where you live, are harmless.
“People should not be afraid of reptiles. In P.G. County we only have one kind of venomous snake, the northern copperhead,” Shwedick said. “Although people encounter them, the majority of snakes that live here are harmless.”
Bruce Shwedick, Michael’s brother, said a copperhead snake bit Michael when he was younger. Copperhead snakes are the deadliest snake found in Prince George’s County but rarely cause human death. The occurrence also led Bruce to specialize in venomous snakebites and safety.
“A valuable lesson Michael and I learned about snakes is that you should never handle a snake if you don’t have to,” Bruce said. “Reptiles won’t attack you if you watch them for a moment, then leave them alone, step back and walk away.”
Shwedick says learning about reptiles, especially snakes, can also help a person with
Shwedick said he wants his program to encourage a decline in the prejudice of reptiles and hopes it will result in less prejudice amongst people of different backgrounds in the world as well.
“With more than 14,000 presentations and millions of audience members over the years it has always been the encouragement they have given me to continue with my work. I love Prince Georges County and the people that live there. It was a wonderful place for my brother and I to grow up and will always be grateful,” Shwedick said.