Ken Panse, “Reptile Wrangler”

Job: “Reptile Wrangler,” Douglasville

What I do: Crikey! Georgia has its own crocodile hunter.

Ken Panse, who bills himself as the “Reptile Wrangler,” visits schools, state parks and birthday parties with his menagerie of snakes, turtles, frogs, lizards, iguanas, tarantulas and even an alligator to educate and entertain children and their parents and teachers. He has written a book and is pitching a pilot for a television show.

Panse (pronounced “pans”) even looks a bit like the late, celebrated crocodile hunter Steve Irwin.

Panse, 46, loads his critters — that’s what he calls them — into cloth sacks and wicker baskets for the trips to the shows.

“There are elements of anticipation, as things rustle in the baskets,” he said. “I start small and end up big” — sometimes with his 12-foot albino Burmese python.

Kids love to handle the critters that aren’t dangerous, he said. And a favorite party photo is a line of children holding a big snake.

Panse has acquired his critters at animal shows and through wholesalers. He adopted some of them, but most of the time he has to say “no” to offers of unwanted creatures, he said.

Panse has been doing his shows — several of them a week — for about 12 years. He started showing just exotic animals, but, as Georgia’s state parks started focusing on native animals, he’s added indigenous species — such as timber rattlesnakes, snapping turtles and tree frogs — to his collection.

Panse said he’s often asked which is his favorite. “They’re all like children to me,” he said. “I can’t pick one over the other.”

But the star of the show is Igzilla, a 12-year-old iguana with orange skin.

What got me interested in this: “As a boy, I was reading Ranger Rick,” Panse said. He expanded his reading until he had finished the nature section of his hometown library in New York. “I just love animals,” he said.

That led to an enthusiasm for tropical fish and a job as a fish packer — the person who prepares tropical fish for shipment to aquariums and pet stores — and eventually to his own pet store. “That opened the door to reptiles,” he said.

His interest in reptiles also was fueled by an incident when he was 14. He and his father were fishing in Lake Taconic in New York, when a giant turtle stole their fish. Panse wrote a book called “Gigantus” based on the event.

Best part of my job: “When I take something out of its basket, and the whole crowd goes, ‘Ooooohh!’ ” Panse said.

After shows, he often is rewarded with hugs. “They just love you for bringing the animals,” he said.

Panse’s 17-year-old son, Zach, is his helper in the show. “It means a lot to me to spend time with him,” Panse said.

Most challenging part: “Caring for and maintaining a large collection” of 30 critters, who “all have different needs,” he said. They all have special diets and requirements for temperature and humidity.

Lizards, frogs and toads eat live crickets, which Panse also raises. Snakes eat pre-killed mice that he buys frozen. The vegetarians, such as the iguanas, eat a salad that Panse’s wife, Stephanie, prepares with leafy vegetables, carrots, corn, broccoli, zucchini, grapes and melons.

The food bill is hundreds of dollars a month, he said.

What people don’t know about my job: “Reptiles are not trained,” Panse said.

He’s learned how to hold each animal to present it properly, without risking scratches and bites for him or members of the audience.

Panse says he reads the animal’s body language and behavior. Snakes, for example, have a highly sensitive sense of smell. Just by the smell, the snake can determine if another animal is something to fear or a potential meal.

He said he has to use the same brands of soap, shampoo and laundry detergent so his own smell won’t confuse his animals. And he has to wash off other odors, such as gasoline, if he’s going to handle an animal.

What keeps me going: “I have a passion and love of wildlife,” Panse said. “I just love nature and being out hiking and camping.”

Preparation needed for this job: “I’m a communicator,” Panse said. “I communicate the knowledge I’ve acquired about animals to people.”

Mostly, Panse said, he is self-taught through more than 20 years of voracious reading, study and observation. He has learned about the animals as well as how to set up their habitats.

Panse has state permits from the Department of Agriculture to contain native wildlife, and he is required to report how many education shows he does each year. He doesn’t need any federal permits, because he keeps no protected species. He also registers his animals with Douglas County, where he lives, because “they like to know what’s out there.”

Panse attended college for two years — first at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and then at Orange County Community College in New York.

He worked for aquarium fish wholesalers in New York and Georgia before opening his own pet store, which he no longer operates. He began doing shows under the name Exotic Reptile Adventures before changing to the Reptile Wrangler.

Published 3/14/08
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photos by Karl W. Ritzler