An African spurred tortoise called Father Time and Leche, the Cuban rock iguana, were among the biggest kid magnets at the Red Deer Sportsman and Outdoor Adventure Show this weekend.
Despite the sight of taxiderm-ed deer and mountain goats at various trade show booths at the Westerner, children gravitated to the live animals every time — which doesn’t surprise Safari Jeff in the least.
The reptile show host, who recently relocated his family and menagerie of critters to Red Deer from Kamloops, B.C., knows from experience that the creatures kids find most fascinating are the ones they can engage with.
Jeff McKay routinely asks tykes at the end of his hands-on educational shows, “which animal was your favourite? And they almost always say the one they got the closest to . . .
“If they come nose-to-nose or touch something, it’s that experience, that personal contact, that makes the difference,” said McKay, who has been talking about reptiles for most of his life.
He said the goal of his live shows is to impart the idea that everything has a place in the ecosystem, even an anxiety inducing eight-foot boa constrictor, like his albino snake Bonita.
Although all of his dozen reptiles — including a cool, turquoise, turncoat of a chameleon — were born in captivity, McKay understands that many wild creatures are losing their rightful place in nature.
For instance, he believes the recent discovery of rats near Medicine Hat indicates too many snakes have been eradicated from that part of the province.
“Medicine Hat is the capital of Canada for bull snakes and rattle snakes, so I thought people there would have a better understanding.” But McKay found the opposite was true — there was more fearfulness in the community.
He hopes some good comes out of the rat infestation: “After years of killing snakes out of fear, more people will realize they have a place.”
McKay grew up in Ottawa, fascinated by creatures scaly and slimy.
He recalls overturning rocks and logs at the family cottage to find salamanders and frogs.
At age 13, he asked his parents for an crocodile. Rather than turning him down, his mother sent him to talk to a reptile expert at Ottawa’s natural history museum.
McKay recalled so impressing the herpetologist with his knowledge of reptiles and amphibians that he was asked to become a volunteer interpreter — a role he held for years. “And a week later, I got my crocodile,” he added.
Today, Safari Jeff doesn’t advocate owning exotic pets, and stresses he would never own a reptile for which he couldn’t create a proper environment.
He hopes his show instills a conservation message in kids and adults.
“I have hunted and fished all my life . . . for the purpose of eating. I was raised by my parents to respect wildlife and just take what you need.”
The married father of a young son and daughter said he moved his family to Red Deer because of its central location, which he said, will make touring easier across Western Canada in the winter and to Eastern Canada in the summer.
“And we really love the people here,” added McKay, who’s friends with Gordie Johnson of the group Big Sugar.
Johnson, who lives between Auston, Tx., and Red Deer, gave him a good review of this community, added McKay, who also appreciates Red Deer’s size.
McKay revealed he has plans by early 2015 to open a reptile cafe and play zone for kids in Red Deer. He’s still seeking a location.
Part of his motivation is the chance to raise his family with less time spent touring.
The reptile show host, who performs more than 220 live shows a year and has appeared on YTV’s The Zone, Canada AM, The Pet Guys, and other TV shows, said
“I’ve been doing this for 27 years across Canada. I’m looking to slow down and get off the road, set up something full-time.”