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In a World of Exotic Creatures

Entertainers Maria Gara & Steven Lee August Bring their Pets to the Stage and the Classroom

 

By Jaq Greenspon

“We met in a heavy metal bar of all places, in Chicago, in 91,” Maria Gara, entertainer and animal rescuer, is explaining how she met her husband and partner, Steven Lee August. “His friend liked me, so Steve’s job was to keep my sister busy while his friend hit on me. While we were talking, something came up about snakes and my sister was like ‘oh Maria has a snake and Steve has a snake’ so then we started talking.”

In fact, Maria had two snakes and Steve had at least four. “You also had an alligator in your living room and a hedgehog and a tarantula and a dove and a parrot,” Maria remembers, talking to her man and completely ignoring me. “I was like ‘this is so cool’!”

Within weeks of meeting, the pair rescued an iguana and a month after that, Maria joined Steve, who was already a performing juggler and magician, onstage as his assistant. After a brief run in Europe, the two came back to America and relocated to Las Vegas, where they’ve been since 1994.

Today, in addition to performing, they have become the “goto” folks for reptile rescue in the valley. “Honestly, being performers is what started the rescue,” explains Maria.

Steve continues: “Back then, in my warped view of it, I thought using animals in a show was okay, but it would be cruel to overwork them.” This is how he ended up with four snakes. His reasoning being that if you’re doing six shows a week, two shows a night, that would be cruel. But with four snakes, they’d only be working every fourth day. “But then I thought… Every time you buy a pet shop animal, one in a shelter ends up going dead because there’s always something in a shelter needing a home.”

25 years later, Maria and Steve are still working, still entertaining, but they are also home to a rotating menagerie of reptiles and arachnids they have rescued from various sources. There was the bearded dragon left in a garbage dumpster or the bird left in a shower stall after a TV shoot or from people who can simply no longer care for the animal they acquired for whatever reason. Oh yeah, they also have a hedgehog.

“It’s a Vegas thing,” explains Steve. “For us to exhibit snakes in a casino, all the casinos require a USDA licensed exhibitor. I am a USDA licensed exhibitor.” To a layman, this regulation makes sense. Until he explains the rest of it. “USDA regulates warm-blooded, fur bearing mammals. They don’t do birds, they don’t do reptiles. But the casinos say you have to have USDA to bring the snake in. I said they don’t cover it…” He trails off, his eyes glittering with mischief at the absurdity of the situation he found himself in. “I got a hedgehog. Hedgehog is covered, I got a license. If that’s what they want, that’s one of the hoops I’ve had to jump through – so as a result, we’ve always kept one hedgehog.”

Maria interjects at this point, to make sure it’s understood that the hedgehog thing isn’t just for the license. “We will rescue hedgehogs – they’re pretty easy to find homes for,” she says. Then she goes further: “We rescue arachnids – tarantulas, scorpions, Madagascar hissing cockroaches--”

“I’ll give you another funny thing.” Steve can’t help himself. Evidently, something his wife said has sparked another memory and he can’t resist sharing it. “When you go to casinos, they require health certificates on all the animals… So one day, Maria is doing cockroaches…”

“They just wanted cockroaches on display in a little tank,” she continues the story, filling in details. This seems to be their standard operating procedure – he’s the big picture guy while she fills in the gaps.

He nods at her and keeps going with his narrative: “So risk management says ‘we need health certificates on the cockroaches.’ So I go to my vet and I tell him… he goes “what are you in for today?’ ‘I need a health certificate.’ He goes ‘which snakes?’ I go ‘cockroaches.’ He was just laughing. He looks at them and goes ‘sure looks healthy - $50.’ I go ‘Here’s your money’.” The best part, of course, is that the casinos required it on every single cockroach that he brought in. And Steve charged them for the privilege.

He has to.

The rescue work he and Maria do is not cheap. And every cent of it comes out of their own pockets. “Sometimes, if someone gives me a lizard, they’ll say ‘here’s $50 for some food for it’ cause they know… I’m not somebody who solicits donations.”

“We do get some,” Maria adds. “But they know we’re not non-profit.”

“People assume we get money given to us, donations,” He shakes his head in the negative. “We don’t take any donations. Everything that’s paid for is paid for out of our juggling, magic work. I don’t want to be accountable to anybody. I want to do it, how I want to and when – Don’t donate, just hire us!”

Which is right about the time the topic of SnakeBabe.com enters the conversation. “That’s originally how we started to pay for this,” Steve explains, a touch of pride entering his voice. “As we did more and more rescues, I said ‘alright, the money you make off the adult website, that will go to help the animals, that way Steve and Maria can keep more of their money’.”

To this day, the site, which the still stunningly beautiful Maria hasn’t been active on in years, has a whole section in the free area devoted to the care and feeding of exotic reptiles and tarantulas. Because really, that’s what it’s all about for these two – educating the public about these often misunderstood animals.

According to the Humane Society, Steve points out, the average person will keep a pet for two years and then abandon them. This isn’t unique to reptiles, dogs and cats have the same problem, but reptiles don’t get noticed as much. “They’re very silent,” says Maria. “They don’t whimper. By the time they’re sick, if you notice they’re sick, it’s probably almost too late to save them. Reptiles hide their illnesses well.”

With all that in mind, Steve and Maria take their show on the road. They don’t incorporate the animals into their show as much as they incorporate their show in with the animals. “We’re more than just a petting zoo,” says Maria. “It’s really entertaining, it’s funny, Steve even does a magic trick in the show.” What they offer, to schools during the week (for a discount) and private parties, birthdays and corporate events evenings and weekend, is a full blown, high-end, (and shhh….educational) show. They don’t just stand there saying “here’s a lizard.” Instead, they take the time to really explain what’s going on with these critters, why they really don’t recommend them as pets, and what to do if you ever find one in the wild (hint: Leave it alone. An animal would always prefer to be free and in the wild. Especially reptiles.) But if you really want one, their motto is “adopt, don’t shop.”

“There’s always one for adoption if you really want one,” Maria says. “It might take a little longer, but we have a waiting list of people.”

You can find out more about the work Steven August and Maria Gara do (and hire them) by checking them out online:

snakebabe.com

Reptilerescue.com

Facebook.com/Reptilerescuelasvegas

YouTube goo.gl/AuSNdu

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