Originally Published: March 9, 2006 4 a.m.
PRESCOTT Getting acquainted with guests Wednesday morning at Taylor Hicks School was not for the squeamish.
A black widow, a tarantula, several lizards, a scorpion and several snakes, including a 70-pound, 12.5-foot Burmese python, caused fourth- and fifth-graders to gasp, laugh and scoot for distance during a visit from Phil Rakoci, director of Desert Wildlife Presentations.
The biggest hit, literally, proved to be the python, which Principal Brian Moore agreed (however reluctantly) to hold. Once she draped her body over his shoulders, she lifted her head to look into his eyes.
The children laughed and Moore squirmed.
Rakoci's Casa Grande-based business combines hands-on demonstrations with lessons featuring respect for wildlife and the environment, animal defenses and separation of fact and fiction in the world of spiders, scorpions, lizards and snakes.
During Wednesday's hour-long presentation, he showed students different types of animals, some from Arizona's deserts and some from Asia's rainforests.
"A tarantula is big, ugly and dangerous-looking," Rakoci told the students. "It doesn't have to be dangerous, it just looks dangerous."
If a fox begins to sniff a tarantula, most likely in preparation to eat it, the spider will release little hairs that sting the fox's nose and make it itch.
Because a tarantula has an exoskeleton, he explained, it would explode if it fell onto a hard surface from some height.
A tokay gecko, which hails from Asia, made its entrance with a shriek.
"This is the only lizard that can make a noise," Rakoci said.
Although the gecko had very small teeth, its jaw muscles are so strong that when it clamps down, its small razor teeth combine with its strong muscles to tear its food.
Next, Rakoci brought out a horned lizard.
"It's called a horned lizard but most people know it as a horny toad," Rakoci said, "and it looks like a turtle. That must be very confusing for this guy."
Horned lizards eat about 100 "big black ants every single day," he said.
Although 50 types of snakes call Arizona home, only one is dangerous: the rattlesnake, whose rattle is made of the same substance human fingernails are made of: keratin.
Rakoci brought the skin of a rattlesnake for the students to feel. He explained that snakes kill their prey in one of two ways: They either bite it and kill it with venom or they constrict it or squeeze it to death.
He lifted a small California King Snake, a constrictor, from a bag and showed the students how it curled around his hand.
"Rather than me holding onto it, it's holding onto me. That doesn't mean it's trying to kill my hand, it's just trying to keep warm," Rakoci said.
Finally, he lifted the python out of a container and wrapped it over his shoulders.
This snake, he told students, "doesn't waste its time on mice. It eats rabbits, fifth-graders, chickens, things like that."
He added, "I'm just kidding about the fifth-graders. She's still on fourth-graders."
Realistically, the python in its natural environment would eat rabbits, pigs, goats, monkeys and alligators.
Teachers, students and Moore had a chance to hold the python, before Rakoci made his closing statements: "Every animal here, they're out there to help us," he said, adding that while students probably shouldn't pursue the animals if they see them in public, they shouldn't harm them, either.
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