COLUMBIA — Fourteen-year-old Spencer Jordan’s young audience offered a mixture of silence and excited chatter as he pulled one reptile after another from his home-grown animal kingdom.
“We’re going to start with the bearded dragon (translation: desert lizard),” he told a wide-eyed group of youngsters recently at Saluda Shoals Park. “They are very docile, so they’re very nice to hold.”
The teenager should know.
Since getting his first ball python, Buddy, when he was in the first grade, the rising Irmo High School freshman has developed a growing interest in the field of herpetology — the study of amphibians, reptiles, turtles and crocodilians — and a passion for sharing that interest with others. For the past two years, he has visited Saluda Shoals every other Monday during the summer to teach basic lessons about reptiles to other teens and pre-teens. The lessons have primarily centered on snakes, which he believes too often are misunderstood.
“Snakes often get a bad reputation,” Spencer said recently between his two morning sessions. “People don’t have to like them. They just need to respect them, because they do serve a very important role in the ecosystem. Would you rather have 100 mice or one snake?”
During the roughly half-hour presentations, the teenager talks about such topics as the diet, physical traits and temperament of various reptiles and the ideal habitats of various species. He’s careful to note the differences between venomous and nonvenomous snakes and states a strong preference for the latter (he’s been bitten about 10 times over the years).
“I don’t want to be the person who handles those (venomous) kinds of snakes,” he said. “I know people who have them. The thing is, if you make one mistake with them, you could die.”
But he said those species are not the more prevalent in this area, and he gave his visitors the opportunity to touch and handle the lavender corn snake, western hognose and ball python he brought along with him.
“This is probably the nicest snake,” he said as some eager participants lined up to touch the 3-foot corn snake.
“Wow. That was so cool,” one youngster said after a close-up glimpse.
“That was creepy,” countered another.
Spencer’s home collection of reptiles includes two red-footed tortoises, a leopard tortoise, a bearded dragon, two corn snakes, a western hognose snake, two ball pythons, a tarantula, and two water turtles. He regularly rescues and relocates snakes from the yards and pools of friends and neighbors before any harm can come to them.
Spencer’s father, Mark Jordan, is also into herpetology and said his son comes by his interest naturally.
“It blossomed when he got older and got more snakes (after Buddy, now 10 years old). I told him a while back, ‘no more snakes,’ ” the elder Jordan said. “That was about five snakes ago.”
Jeanette Wells, the environmental educational center director at Saluda Shoals, praised the young teacher for his volunteer outreach and said his instruction likely was more meaningful for many of the youngsters because it came from a peer.
“They can see a child’s passion, even if they’re not interested in the same area,” Wells said. “It’s just that ‘I can do’ attitude that comes about.”
Spencer plans to study herpetology after graduation, but in the meantime he’s enjoying the opportunity to help educate others.
“I’d really like to be able to do it more in schools,” he said. “I love that people will come in (one of the sessions) afraid of snakes and 30 minutes later they’re asking to hold everything.”