PLAISTOW, N.H. — Kevin McCurley understands: To many human beings, snakes are strange. They’re a creepy mystery. Unlike mammals, or even other reptiles, they have no arms or legs. They have no eyelids — they don’t blink.
“We don’t identify with them,” says McCurley. “They’re like a boogeyman for people.”
That might be the primary reason McCurley — a self-proclaimed “freak” — loves them so much. He’s the owner of Zoo Creatures, a 14,000-square-foot pet store in Plaistow, N.H., that specializes in fish, birds, and reptiles.
He’s also the founder of New England Reptile Distributors, a breeding facility on the second floor of the building that houses thousands of snakes, including ball and reticulated pythons, which he breeds for some of the most highly regarded pattern mutations in the industry.
McCurley has just published “The Ultimate Ball Python: Morph Maker Guide,” a huge new guide to breeding the animals to produce dazzling, “world first” color combinations, from vivid purples and oranges to yellow albinos.
In the past decade, McCurley’s reputation as a reptile expert has grown: He’s had conversations with the production company behind the television series “River Monsters” about creating a similar show around snakes, and federal wildlife officers have sought his help with reports of exotic reptiles released in the wild.
“He’s one of the gurus,” says Dawn McCall, president of the New England Herpetological Society, a group of reptile and amphibian enthusiasts.
McCurley and his store have become a kind of regional center and clearinghouse of information for reptile owners and aficionados. And there are a quite a few.
According to a report commissioned by the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, 4.7 million US households owned 13.6 million pet reptiles as of 2009. The sale of those reptiles, as well as related products and services, was estimated as a $1 billion industry.
Shows such as the New England Reptile Expo, taking place Saturday at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, N.H., have become more popular than ever in recent years. The biannual show has grown to 150 vendors, billed as “by far” its largest yet.
There are plenty of reasons some people become enamored with snakes in particular, McCurley says. The mystery can be alluring. Some find their patterns beautiful or enjoy the “outsider” status that keeping a snake might confer.
“A lot of people think they’re slimy, but they’re super soft and silky,” says Raelene DiBartolomeo, whose family has purchased three pet snakes, including a 7-foot Burmese python, at Zoo Creatures. “They’re just so interesting to watch. They’re not what people perceive them to be.”
Organizations such as the NEHS “try and spread the good word” about reptile ownership, says McCall. Snakes are “real easy to keep,” she says. “And you won’t find a quieter pet.”
She likes holding them: “They’re like pure muscle. Snakeskin has a neat feel — it’s cool, not like leather. They’re almost glasslike on the belly.”
Once a month, her organization holds its board meeting and an educational program in South Weymouth. They do outreach to groups such as Cub Scout packs, and they present at events like the Marshfield Fair. NEHS will have a table at the Reptile Expo in Manchester.
McCurley no longer participates in such events. He’s big enough that he doesn’t need to, and he says, only half-joking, that he’s becoming more “antisocial” as he gets older.
But he is deeply passionate about his animals, and he seizes every opportunity to talk about the business and the practice of specialty breeding. On Saturdays and Sundays at 4 p.m., Zoo Creatures holds an educational tour for interested customers.
Ball pythons, which can grow to 6 feet, and reticulated pythons, which average 10-20 feet, are industry favorites for their generally docile behavior. Zoo Creatures also specializes in milk snakes, corn snakes, boas, and other nonvenomous species.
Despite their image as ruthless mankillers who will bite or strangle anyone in their path, the snakes McCurley breeds are typically quite docile and predictable, he says. With 20 employees at present, he has trained hundreds since opening his storefront, “and I’ve never had a single claim, ever.” His insurance guy is actually a snake lover himself, he says.
As he talks, he grows more animated. In fact, McCurley seems to thrive on the misperceptions that blanket all snakes.
“No other animal has such a shroud of nonsense around it,” he says.
If McCurley is one of the better-known snake breeders in the business, he’s also one of the loudest voices in the “herp” community decrying a recent rash of legislative efforts to curtail the sale and ownership of exotic pets.
US Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has campaigned to ban certain exotic animals owing in part to rising concerns about nonnative snakes in the Everglades. In 2012, the US Fish and Wildlife Service invoked the conservation law of the 1900 Lacey Act to prohibit the importation and interstate transport of several species of snakes, including the Burmese python and yellow anaconda.
“My industry is dying,” McCurley says, standing in one of the humid rooms on the second floor of his facility as an employee calmly moves Miss Piggy, a prized 21-foot-long reticulated python, into a bin so he can clean her cage. “We’re being shut down by the government and state and federal legislation.”
Fellow breeders and distributors such as Pat Jackson, a small-scale dealer who works as a 911 dispatcher in Fall River, worry that the so-called “Constrictor Rule” could lead to further restrictions.
“That’s the whole fear of our industry, that they’ll keep going down the line,” says Jackson, who specializes in two species — ball pythons and bearded dragons — that have not been proposed for restriction. Isolated but widely reported incidents such as one in New Brunswick last year, where two boys on a sleepover were apparently killed by an African rock python, have helped polarize the debate.
Education is key to allaying the fears that such accidents inflame, says Jackson, who says he has about 140 snakes currently in his “reptile room.”
“I’ve converted a lot of people at work. They bring their kids over, and then it’s a different story — they realize how beautiful these snakes can be.”
The crowds at shows such as the New England Reptile Expo feature plenty of kids and lots of adults with piercings and tattoos, says McCall. “Not all of us — I don’t have any of that stuff — but [snakes] do seem to appeal to slightly off-center-type people.”
Plenty of children are beguiled by them, too. At Zoo Creatures, 9-year-old Casey Phelan says he’s attended two birthday parties the store hosted, one in the party room — “the Cave” — and one at a friend’s house.
“I put a snake around my neck,” he says with a big grin. “It was heavy!”
He and his father, Chris, are stopping by to pick up crickets to feed their bearded dragon, Rocky. They can come look at the snakes, Casey’s father says, but they won’t be bringing one home.
“My mom hates them,” says Casey.
Despite the occasional horror story, interest in snakes and reptiles as pets remains strong. McCurley suggests that the Internet has played a significant role, enabling hobbyists like Jackson to learn more about maintenance and breeding.
Like most of his peers, McCurley was fascinated with snakes as a child, growing up in Lexington. Later, in the 1990s, he became infatuated by “designer” snakes – the idea of creating new genetic expressions by breeding.
“Same healthy animal, different paint job,” says McCurley. Though it’s a brisk day outside, he’s wearing a tank top and camouflage shorts; his signature braided rattail hangs down his back from beneath a backward-facing baseball cap.
When he first started breeding snakes as a hobby, leucistic snakes (which lack pigmentation) were “the Holy Grail,” he says; an albino ball python can cost as much as $7,500.
“I didn’t have that kind of money,” McCurley says.
So he decided to do his own breeding. “You have to manipulate temperatures, cycles, humidity. I’m all self-taught.”
Visiting on a recent weekday from South Carolina are Ross and Debby Swiechowicz, who breed and sell reptiles as Jungle Jewels. They’ve been making periodic trips up to New Hampshire to help increase NERD’s profile among snake owners in the South, bringing back as many as 100 snakes each time.
“I have extremely high standards,” says Swiechowicz. “It gives us a lot of credibility” to work with McCurley.
McCurley emerges from a back room holding a baby cayman, which fits easily into the palm of his hand.
“Will he bite me?” asks Debby Swiechowicz with a smile. McCurley gently hands her the animal so she can take a cellphone picture of it, mouth agape.
McCurley excuses himself to answer his own phone. The ringtone is a theremin — the eerie instrument familiar from a thousand horror movies.
When he returns, he laughs about the 2006 movie “Snakes on a Plane,” which played shamelessly on the public’s irrational fear of the slithering serpents he’s devoted his life to.
“That to me,” he says, “would be like wonderland.”