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Londonderry woman's animal shows started with her foster children

Special to the Sunday News

November 10. 2017 6:27PM
Londonderry animal educator Michelle DeBye shows off a Simson Python. (Kathleen Bailey/Special to the Sunday News)

LONDONDERRY -- Michelle DeBye knew she was spending too much money on mice and rats when she ran up a pet store bill of $200. "Mice and rats can give birth to 20 babies at a time," she explained. "So I began breeding my own. Now I have about 50 mice and rats I'm breeding to feed my reptiles."

It's all part of the circle of life, at least at the DeBye home. DeBye is the owner, operator and only handler for Michelle's Menagerie, a collection of 15 mammals, 14 birds, 11 reptiles and three arthropods, from which she has crafted 13 different programs. She has a seven-day-a-week career as an animal educator, explaining the characteristics of mammals, birds and reptiles to audiences from "3 to 103."

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When DeBye was a child, she didn't particularly care for animals. "I was grossed out by them," she admitted, relaxing in the basement kitchen of her house, which also doubles as her "party room."

"When I had my first child, the baby was easygoing. I was home all day and bored to death," DeBye said. She and her first husband began taking in foster children, and DeBye began searching for ways to reach and connect with these often-hurting kids. She was in Massachusetts at the time and said, "I never felt I earned the money the state was giving me."

Pet therapy was just gaining steam in the '80s, and DeBye created her own version, finding a pet for each new foster child.

"I told them the pet was just yours," she stressed, and it helped these children who had often had everything taken away from them.

DeBye developed a system, where the child first did research on their potential pet. In the 1980s, that meant a trip to the library. DeBye and the child made a list of what the new pet would need, and plotted out their trip to the pet store. The process helped children with their academic skills, and gave DeBye a window into their pasts. "One girl asked me, 'Can we buy extra food for my pet?' It turned out there was never enough food in her home, she was always hungry." Another child would ask for extra blankets, and DeBye would provide them for the pet - and the proud new owner.

Older foster children were often angry, and they would come home and talk it out with their pets, DeBye said.

Her career as an animal educator began when her foster children asked if they could take their pets to show and tell. DeBye was reluctant to let the pet sit in a box or cage for five hours, so she told the children she would bring the pet into the classroom.

"It took on a life of its own," she recalled. "I would go into the pet store to buy guinea pig food, find an animal I liked and buy it:"

When all the children were in school she took a job as a guide at the former Stone Zoo, and became trained before the facility closed. She began doing birthday parties, and it evolved into "Michelle's Menagerie," she said.

DeBye was a secretary before her marriage, and finds that the organizational skills help with running her own business, she said.

DeBye will travel or host a program at her home. The family kitchen has a flat-screen TV, industrial-strength coffee maker, family-size ice-water and lemonade jugs, and a double table with vinyl tablecloths. "We can be ready at a moment's notice," she said.

She's a popular enrichment educator in several school districts, and tailors her programs to meet curriculum needs. That's why she has so many different options, she explained, as a cageful of birds chattered in the background. "Before the standards were rewritten, I had three programs: the basic program, the rainforest and the desert." With expanded expectations, she crafted programs to meet specific curriculum standards, she said.

Snakes alive!

Reptiles are a big part of DeBye's programs, and she has amassed a collection from four different classifications. "The only group I don't have," she said as she led the way into her animal room, "is alligators and crocodiles. I don't want to buy a cute baby alligator, have it grow up and not have a way to house it."

She keeps only small reptiles now, after a bout with cancer 10 years ago. "I couldn't lift anything heavy, so I gave my large reptiles back to Zoo Creatures, where I bought them," she said.

But there's plenty to keep her busy with five snakes, one turtle, one tortoise and "some cute little lizards," she said.

As she took a bearded dragon named Duncan from his cage, DeBye said she's been handling reptiles since she went pro in 1989. "They are the hardest to like," she admitted. She apprenticed with Kevin Curley, a renowned reptile breeder. "He taught me everything. He'd say, 'This cage has to be warmer.' 'This cage is warm enough.'"

Laypeople often have misconceptions about reptiles, DeBye said. They don't realize the reptiles are cold-blooded, and can't digest their food without the right amount of heat. Desert reptiles need a dry environment, rainforest reptiles need more humidity. And, she reiterated, "If the temperature is not exactly right, they won't eat."

Some snakes eat once a month, some every other week, she said.

People also think reptiles have "wet, slimy skin and they don't want to touch them," DeBye added. But the scales are often smooth and dry, more like fingernails, she said.

She's often called by anxious homeowners to help them find a snake in their yard, and DeBye points out how important that snake is to the environment. "I tell them, 'He's helping you,'" she said with a smile. "A snake in the yard can reduce an overpopulation of mice, rats or other rodents."

She also sets the record clear on hibernation, noting that reptiles don't hibernate - they "bromate."

"They empty their bodies of all food before they spend time underground," DeBye explained. "If they don't, the food would not digest, it would spoil and kill them."

And she has one word for people trying to help a turtle cross the road: don't take it back into the woods it came from. "You can do that 100 times, and they'll still cross the road," she pointed out. "Help it in the direction it's going, not the direction you think it should go."

Her husband Paul isn't an "animal person" but supports her work, she said. The couple has two standard poodles, a breed DeBye chose deliberately. "Standard poodles love other animals," she said. "If something escapes, a poodle will not chase it."

She once had a new parrot in a new cage. The parrot managed to get out somehow, and DeBye didn't know it. "An hour later, I heard my two poodles doing this weird whining sound," she recalled. "They knew the parrot didn't belong on the floor, and I was able to pick it up and put it back in its cage."

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