- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - A cozy, one-story house on Jacksonville’s Westside blends into its neighborhood off Normandy Boulevard like every other house on the block.

But walk up to the front door and the sign is pretty clear: “At this location you could be harmed by anything with 0 to 8 legs, scales or the Herper should you whine.”

Herping is the act of searching for amphibians or reptiles and the people inside do just that.

Entire rooms are converted into reptile lairs. Hot tubs and fish tanks are turned into alligator and crocodile ponds.

Bob and Liz Shumaker live at the home and when they aren’t working their day jobs - Bob Shumaker runs the air conditioning and refrigeration at Baptist Medical Center and Liz Shumaker is a secretary at MV Marine - they spend their time feeding and maintaining a house and backyard with over 100 reptiles.

The Shumakers own LB Reptile Experience and they live with their stars of the show.

Their passion started when Liz Shumaker’s son wanted a snake and once they got one the passion grew and grew.

They now take in rescue reptiles and have permits to own a wide variety of species.

“The zoo won’t take anything,” Bob Shumaker said. “If you call the zoo, they’re going to give you our number.”

Alligators, crocodiles, tortoises, lizards and snakes of all kinds slither and swim around different parts of the Shumakers’ property. The couple is happy to take care of them all.

They put on educational programs at schools, public libraries and birthday parties as well as other events to teach about the animals they’ve grown to love - and to help pay for the costs to care for them all.

Bob Shumaker said it costs about $12,000 a year to feed all their pets and their electric bill is usually about $800 a month.

Most of the reptiles they use in the shows have been rescued by the husband and wife team as a separate part of their business and they bring about 15 to 20 reptiles to each event.

“Those guys have to be completely tame because this is hands-on,” he said. “It’s not a show, it’s a reptile experience.”

It usually takes about a month for the Shumakers to get an animal used to their home’s environment, and they never bring animals that will put the audience in danger.

The reptile experience changes depending on the crowd and sometimes the crowd comes to the Shumakers’ habitat.

Groups of children from home schools often come to the house to get the whole experience, Bob Shumaker said.

If the show is for an experienced crowd of snake experts, they will bring some of their more exotic varieties.

“We have things that you’ve never heard of and we have things that the zoos don’t have,” Bob Shumaker said.

When they put on exhibitions for children they try to concentrate on education and they show the kids which reptiles make good pets and which ones don’t.

They start every show in the schools or at the birthday parties with a small iguana to show the kids how cute they are when they’re young.

Then they bring out JoJo or Elvis who are about 7 feet long to show the audience what the cute iguana will look like in 10 years.

They have some volunteers who help feed and handle the reptiles a few times a week, and an employee who helps clean the cages.

“We can’t do it all,” Bob said.

The couple splits up most of the work.

Liz Shumaker is passionate about the snakes so most of her time is spent with them.

A single family donated 20 boa constrictors in the last month and the couple is also snake sitting for a family that is out of the country, she said.

Their snake family grew again in July with several egg hatchings of rare mixed-breed snakes.

“We even had two (snakes) in one egg,” said Bob Shumaker, who handles the snakes regularly but most of his responsibilities revolve around the lizards.

Most are in individual habitats in the yard and he said his neighbors can hear him talking to them in the evenings when he’s tending to their needs.

He talks to the various lizards like someone would talk to a litter of puppies they’ve watched grow up into well-behaved dogs.

The Shumakers, who have been married 13 years, take a break from their pets each evening to have dinner, but their phone is always close by.

That’s because at any minute they could get a call from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission because they are licensed nuisance alligator trappers who are on call every hour of the day.

“That’s our third job,” Bob Shumaker said

The commission sends the Shumakers emails during work hours but at night all it takes is a phone call.

“Our guys captured an 11-footer on Monday,” Bob Shumaker said of his team of volunteers.

He said when the volunteers capture an alligator that large they take it to Palatka to be processed and the meat and skin is theirs to sell.

“We’re all volunteers,” Bob Shumaker said, referring to when the FWC calls with a nuisance alligator.

Karen Parker, a FWC spokeswoman, said there are about 40 nuisance alligator trappers in the state and they are allowed to do whatever they want with the reptiles they remove.

She said they use the money from skins and meat to pay for their expenses since they are not paid by the commission.

Residents can call the Nuisance Alligator Hotline in the Lake Okeechobee area at 866-392-4286 and they will reach out to one of the licensed trappers throughout the state.

People interested in getting on the state list of trappers can file an application and when trappers are needed in certain regions the applications from the previous 12 months are considered.

“The one thing we don’t want to happen is someone to go and attempt to catch a gator on their own,” Parker said.

She said it’s dangerous and against the law.

The last alligator fatality in Florida was in 2007, according to FWC statistics.

“An alligator may be deemed a nuisance if it is at least four feet in length and the caller believes it poses a threat to people, pets or property,” according to the Commission website.

The alligators in the Shumakers’ yard are all under 4 feet. It’s against the law to own anything larger without at least 2.5 acres and the correct permits.

The Shumakers attended this years’ One Spark festival in downtown Jacksonville and they said their plan is to have a booth at the 2016 crowdfunding event.

Bob Shumaker said he hopes to raise enough money to buy some land nearby so he can move his pets instead of giving them away.

For now, when their pet alligators get too big they have to send them to a similar company in the southern part of Florida where they have more land.

___

Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com

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