By Dan Howlett @DanHowlett85
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Videographer / Director: Ruaridh Connellan
Producer: Dan Howlett, Nick Johnson
Editor: Sonia Estal
Eric LeBlanc is a reptile enthusiast who owns hundreds of lizards and snakes.
He recently had to move dozens of the apex predators into his home when a fire at his reptile store killed some of his animals and injured many more.
Despite the danger the animals could pose he has no problem allowing his three children Erica, three, Larry, four, and Katie, seven, to handle them.
“The worst bite my daughter got was from a bearded dragon,” said Eric.
“My son got bit in the forehead one time by a ball python when he was around two-years-old.
“He opened one of the tubs after me and basically startled it – the python jumped up and bit him on the nose.”
Eric, 43, is in the process of repairing his decimated reptile store and is trying to raise his three children to have no fear of reptiles – particularly while many of them are living with him.
He added: “They make great pets. They don’t have fleas and are low maintenance so you don’t have to take them to a vet regularly like a dog or a cat.
“I have Shelby a seven-year-old albino lavender reticulated python – these are some of the biggest snakes in the world.
“Obviously the bigger the snake the bigger the teeth, so it’s dangerous – but Shelby is very placid. She is over 19ft long and believe me I know what she is capable of.
“When you hold her you can feel her moving you – she is like one big muscle.
“When she is playing with the kids she really pulls them.
“They can really feel the strength of her – you’ve got to have total respect for these animals and that’s what I have.”
Despite having a laidback attitude to his children being around the animals he insists they are completely safe and would never leave them unsupervised.
Eric added: “In this country everybody has an opinion.
“Some people think it’s safe for kids to shoot guns.
“I won’t let my kids shoot guns but I’m comfortable with them being around reptiles – I guess we’re all pretty individual in how we bring our children up.”
And he believes in an old school rough-and-tumble approach to parenting.
“My kids have been bitten by pythons and dragons but they’re always fine,” added Eric.
“Growing up I was bitten by snakes, dogs and lizards but my biggest accident was when I fell from a tree – anything can happen – kids will be kids.”
But there are some snakes Eric won’t allow near his children.
He added: “Every animal has a different temperament just like people – but these guys are giants who can do a lot of damage.
“My children have been taught how to approach them and can definitely tell if one of the animals is agitated.
“They’re really learning and know the difference between lots of different pythons and different kind of rattlesnakes – they absorb everything.”
Erica, Larry, and Katie appear to love their unconventional upbringing and have no fear of their pet reptiles.
Katie said: “I like snakes because they can be kind and gentle with you.
“They are nice and they don’t really try to turn around and strike at you.
“You have to start timid with them and hold it free.
“You need to be relaxed and know that it’s not going to hurt you.
“At first they may try and strike at you but once they know you don’t mean them any harm they’re really nice.”
Eric also owned a 7ft 2ins crocodile monitor lizard called Jellybean, which was allowed to play with his children – unfortunately he died in the fire last month.
Eric said: “The fire was the worst tragedy of my life. If it were just stock or merchandise that was burned I could live with that but the fact that it’s living animals makes it hard.
“Lots of them were my kids’ pets – every animal that burned had a name.”
Jellybean initially survived the fire but died as a result of his injuries.
“We got him medical attention and tried our best but he didn’t make it,” added Eric.
“He had a full tank of oxygen but the scales on his face came away – it looks like he made it to the worst part of the fire.
“In total we lost hundreds of lizards, geckos and snakes – it’s hard to deal with.”
The family is now pulling together, with the help of their community in northern California, to get the Reptile Outlet up and running again.
And despite the heartache from the fire and the bites he and his children have suffered in the past, Eric is steadfast in his commitment and love of huge reptiles.
“It is my passion and it’s my job,” he added.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get the shop up and running again.”