OPEN THE LID of the terrarium next to Pete Marshall's bed and a squirmy, hissing mess is your reward.
About a half-dozen baby bull snake hybrids jockeyed to be farthest away from Marshall's hand as he reached in to pull out a specimen on Friday. They wriggled a lot, and hissed a lot — pretty stereotypical snake behavior, really.
"It's kind of cute when they try to bite you," said Marshall, 49, of Hayward. "They're big bluffers — they can't really hurt you, but they like pretending they can."
Marshall is an avid herpetologist, which is a fancy way of saying he digs snakes. Between the small terrariums in his house and big ones in his garage, he's got about 30 of the reptiles, ranging from the little litter of 8-inchers to a "typical Colombian red-tailed boa" more than 10 feet long.
Most are docile when handled, and Marshall brings them to various animal educational events around the Bay Area to try to break squirmy, hissy stereotypes.
"I was born in bayou country in Louisiana," he said. "I grew up learning about snakes through folk tales."
Those stories were rarely flattering, and often involved either a single behemoth snake or massive piles of little ones, all up to something nefarious.
When he was in elementary school, Marshall sought out additional information on snakes at the library.
The real deal may have been less exciting than pumped-up country tales, but he still found snakes absolutely fascinating and has ever since.
Marshall wears rattlesnake emblazoned T-shirts and has a chrome cobra on his motorcycle. A pin-up poster on the wall of his garage features a model clad only in a boa — the kind with scales, not feathers.
It's this fascination with the animals — and the facts — that he likes to spread to kids at various snake demos, along with other members of the Bay Area Amphibian and Reptile Society. His next show is at the Alum Rock Park Wildlife Festival in San Jose on Oct. 5.
"Yeah, the kids love reptiles," Marshall said. "We're always very popular."
He said parents tend be standoffish, but they usually want their children to go see the snakes.
"Maybe they don't want their kids to grow up to be afraid of snakes, like them," he said. "It's human nature for people to be afraid of things they aren't familiar with, and a lot of people don't know much about snakes and lizards."
He also advocates for the proper care of a pet snake, should someone go that route. For example, he suggests a corn snake as an ideal entry-level snake before getting into collecting more exotic breeds. He tells people to expect to feed their snakes their natural food, which happens to be small, cute, furry critters. And, don't expect it to be a reciprocative relationship.
"It's one-sided," Marshall said. "I'm fascinated with them, but they could care less about me. They don't return the favor. ... It's not the kind of pet you can take out and play ball with."
Eric Kurhi covers Hayward. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-293-2473.