Naturalist's menagerie helps dispel myths and fears

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am


Lithe and graceful, Blondie glides effortlessly across the back seat of Goatee Toni's Land Rover Discovery. She's just finished a fashion photo shoot with Rick Genest, aka Zombie Boy, the tattooed Montreal native who appeared in Lady Gaga's Born This Way video.

And while other models might brag about their brush with fame, Blondie flicks her tongue and keeps mum. You wouldn't suspect a thing, until Toni told you where she'd been.

Blondie is a three-year-old albino python, and Toni Ip, or Goatee Toni as he's more often known nowadays, is her keeper.

Ip is a Hong Kong-based naturalist with a menagerie of more than 1,000 animals in Fanling. The 31-year-old, who moved back to Hong Kong from Brooklyn 10 years ago, looks more like an Asian hip-hop artist than zookeeper. But he makes a living taking his scaly, furry and feathery friends to schools, parties, corporate events and fashion shoots.

It's a novelty, he says, but also educational. 'Many adults are negative about reptiles, about snakes, about lizards. But actually they've never seen a real one. Never. But they're still scared. It's strange.'

Blondie is incredibly docile, not once attempting to bite or thrash about in Ip's hands. And once he shows how harmless she and the other creepy crawlies can be, crowds let down their guard and become mesmerised.

His website shows dozens of pictures of children and adults allowing tarantulas, lizards and snakes to roam across their hands and necks.

If you stress them out, says Ip, handling Blondie firmly and lovingly, even snakes get tense. 'Some of them will even poop and pee.'

Blondie doesn't look tense, but she seems shy, looking in every direction for an escape. As she finds the opening of the bag she came in, she makes a move.

'Look, she's back in the bag on her own,' coos Ip. 'This is what they do every day - hide. These animals are kind of secretive.'