The slithery, cold-blooded world of reptiles is a powerful passion for Michael Eric Haug of Ravenel.

He has 85 snakes and some crocodiles at his home.

"I've got a good collection, I've been into animals my whole life. Ever since I was little," he said.

Sure, snakes seem creepy to some, and the venomous ones require careful handling. For Haug, though, there is a serpentine beauty to the crawling critters.

Haug's fascination with serpents was fueled when he and his dad caught copperheads that they took to the Edisto Island Serpentarium.

"He finally just asked one of the owners for a job," said Judy Johnson, who does marketing for the reptile preserve.

"He's probably one of the nicest young men you will ever meet," she said.

Haug, 20, said he loves going to work.

"I get paid to play," he said.

He is one of the most experienced hands at the tourist attraction where he started working six years ago. He takes care of between 400 and 500 snakes.

"He breeds them," Johnson said.

He also provides medical care for the serpents, she said.

No snakes

At first, his mother was less than enthused with his idea of a pet serpent.

"She told me she would never have a snake in the house," he said.

After getting good grades, though, he was allowed a ball python.

Now he is part of a traveling serpentarium snake show that

visited North Charleston for the 15th annual Charleston County Earth Day Festival last weekend.

While at North Charleston's Riverfront Park, Haug talked with a curious crowd about the sorts of serpents on display.

The eastern diamondback rattlesnake enclosure with its clear wall facing the crowd was mostly draped in cloth. Haug worried about the snake hurting itself by slamming into the glass as it tried to strike people looking at it. So the visitors were asked to take a peek at the snake from an angle at an end of the cage.

In addition, the serpentarium brought to North Charleston a ball python, a canebreak rattlesnake, a water moccasin, a copperhead and a king snake.

The copperhead, he said, is the most common venomous snake in this region.

Haug and Ken Alfieri put on a snake show at the festival for an attentive crowd. Haug appeared on stage with the python draped around his neck. The children were told to back up at least five feet when the venomous snakes were brought out.

Snakebit

Has Haug ever been bitten? Sure, but not by the poisonous ones. "And nothing else counts," he said.

Handling potentially lethal snakes requires common sense, experience and an ability to read reptilian body language for behavioral cues.

Serpents can be unpredictable.

"Snakes can't read a book. So they're doing what they want to, not what the book says."

Snake myths abound, including the one that serpents chase people. That's not true, he said.

"They're slow and stupid. They can't really move that fast," he said.

Viper hunt

Haug and other serpentarium staff were called to a Mount Pleasant apartment complex in early April when the shed skin of a deadly Gaboon viper was reportedly found.

"We hunted the whole area," he said.

If, in fact, there was a viper on the loose, it would be dead by now because the temperatures had dropped into the lethally cold range, he said.

He wondered if the whole thing was not a joke of some kind because the snake skin was found on April Fool's Day. The skin, which was in pieces, should not have been so brittle, he said.

"You can't hunt a hoax," he said.

He worried that such incidents will play into recent attempts to ban ownership of exotic pets.

Dogs and snakes

As a child, Haug said he did not care about Matchbox cars and GI Joe action figures. Living in the woods put him in touch with animals.

"It just kind of came naturally," he said.

His girlfriend, Victoria Sineath, a Jacksonboro waitress, helps him feed and care for snakes.

"She's slowly getting into it," he said.

He has canines, too, including a pit bull/lab mix and an Australian cattle dog that spend time around the snakes.

"They tolerate them. I've tried to train them to hunt snakes. They won't do it," he said.

At one point, he had 250 snakes at home. That may seem frightening to some, but for Haug, all that slithering and hissing is welcome. The belly-crawlers are really quite remarkable, he said.

"How many animals do you know that can survive just fine with no arms and no legs?"

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.