In search of entertainment for the young guests at her 4-year-old son’s birthday party, Ann Shapiro wanted something different.
“I have an older daughter, so I’ve gone through all the clowns and different things. The kids don’t always appreciate the clowns. I wanted something I knew he would really enjoy,” Shapiro said.
In L.A. Parent magazine, she saw an ad for the Lizard Lady--Melanie Pickrell, 36, of Van Nuys, who brings an entourage of snakes and lizards to children’s parties--and Shapiro knew she had found the perfect entertainment for her dinosaur-obsessed son.
At the party, about 12 children sat enthralled for an hour as Pickrell showed them a 7 1/2-foot-long Burmese python, a Dumerils lizard, skinny brightly colored milk snakes, corn snakes, tortoises, a chameleon and other reptiles.
“Chameleons are white when they are sick, green when they are relaxed, and green and black when they are nervous. Now watch as she changes colors,” Pickrell, a part-time preschool teacher, instructed the children. The tiny triceratops-shaped creature’s skin, initially a pure bright green, transformed into a black-and-green circular pattern.
The children, crowding close to see and touch each reptile, oohed and aahed appreciatively at each new discovery. “They’re beautiful!” birthday boy Michael cried in delight.
Pickrell said her hourlong snake display, which costs $100, has elicited similar responses at each of the nearly 30O children’s parties where she has performed since she began in August.
“The kids love it,” Pickrell said. “They don’t have the preconceived ideas about snakes that we do. They love dinosaurs, and reptiles are like dinosaurs.”
Pickrell works part time at All Children Great and Small preschool in Los Feliz, where she came up with the idea for the Lizard Lady when she saw how much the youngsters loved studying reptiles.
At first, Pickrell borrowed most of the animals for her show from Slither City, a Van Nuys pet shop specializing in snakes, lizards, bugs and other unusual pets. Eventually, she decided to buy her own because the store kept selling off her favorites. She has been known to borrow an occasional reptile at a client’s request.
Despite some parents’ laughing speculation (“What would happen if she forgets something and leaves it in your house?”), Pickrell said the snakes are not a threat to the children. She has not had a snake bite nor had a snake slither out of sight.
“There is a difference between a tame animal and a wild animal, and these are really tame,” Pickrell said. “Snakes don’t bite to eat people, they bite to defend themselves, and these snakes know that people aren’t going to hurt them. They are used to people feeding them, being around them.”
Shapiro said she was not concerned that some of her son’s friends could have been afraid of the creatures, and she did not give advance warning on the invitations.
“Younger kids have a lot of animals in their classrooms, so they are used to different animals,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell them too far in advance because then they might get wound up about it. I wanted to let it happen naturally and let them enjoy it.”