Jim Stafford sang "I don't like spiders and snakes" in a 1974 hit. He didn't share his opinion on bearded dragons or hissing cockroaches. During the 2022 Steele County Free Fair you can get up close, and even touch, some of the aforementioned critters. The Great Outdoors Center will again host Barry Benjamin, owner of Happy Tails Pet Store at the Medford Outlet Center.

Last year was the debut of the exhibit and Benjamin claims fair manager Scott Kozelka was first in line to have a boa constrictor draped over his shoulders. But he wasn't the only one. "How much better of a smile do you get when a three or four-year-old is holding a nine-foot snake?" Benjamin said on Fair Talk on AM 1390 KRFO Thursday morning.

Steele County Fair
Roy Koenig/TSM

The snake picked up the named Steeley thanks to her participation. Fairgoers may be able to hold or feed his "friends" this year or even take a "Fear Factor" type challenge. "We're gonna have some black boxes with some fun things inside," Benjamin said.

"We're actually bringing upwards of ten new species to the Steele County Fair. And we're still going to have the snake out for interaction, beardies for petting and holding, and tortoises for feeding also."

Kozelka was thrilled with the way Benjamin welcomed the chance to be part of the fair in 2021, "Sandy Jirele got us introduced to Barry and Happy Tails Pet Store in Medford. Pretty much said what do you want to bring to the fair? How many of the cages or tanks do you want to use? And he said, 'All of them.'"

Benjamin thrives on the reaction, "Being able to interact and hands-on, that's the big thing that I like. People get to touch them, feel them, a lot of kids, of course," Benjamin said. "They're installed fears. Their parents will react, but the kids are all face-first into, for instance, the snake last year. Or the tortoise feeding. That was really great too."

Benjamin enjoys seeing how kids react, "Anytime you can open a door into an experience instead of close a door into an experience, it kind of makes someone like me very, very excited."

And when he was a kid, "There's so many things I could probably tell you that haunt my parents to this day that I brought home and kept underneath my bed or had a tank set up where they couldn't see it. And then later they would find out. I really love nature and all these animals."

Stars of the show are scheduled to include the following. Some have names.

  • hissing cockroaches
  • "Medusa," a leatherback bearded dragon
  • leopard gecko
  • Greek tortoise
  • "Vlad," a ball python
  • dwarf caiman
  • Armadillo lizard
  • Russian tortoise
  • curly hair tarantula
  • blue tongue skink
  • black king snake

Benjamin said he plans to schedule the feeding times in such a way that fairgoers can witness as much of that as possible.

He was also happy to report no escapes in 2021, though Rocket the red-footed tortoise made a break for it once, "He's about 31 years old and he's about 42 pounds, He likes to handle himself and he if can't go somewhere, he's a good little battering ram to keep on going forward. He tried to get out of the door, but he couldn't figure out the open, you had to pull instead of push forward."

Rocket sails along at about two to three miles per hour at top speed. Kozelka adds that one morning a snapping turtle from the DNR pond was roaming through the Great Outdoors Center.

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