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A SIGHT MOST SLITHERY

Midway between the big robotic Western diamondback rattlesnake and the even bigger robotic Nile crocodile stood Pat Schiavone, surrounded by wide-eyed kids, holding a very real Eastern king snake named Abby.

This species, black with white rings, is not poisonous, but can inflict a nasty bite, Schiavone, a member of the Buffalo Museum of Science Education Department, told the second- and fifth-graders from the Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School, which is next to the museum.

"It would hurt. And because the teeth are barbed, you couldn't pull away," she explained. "You'd have to wait until she let go, once she decided you were too big to eat."

The information didn't stop most of the youngsters from reaching out to touch Abby, who didn't seem to mind. She remained calmly curled around Schiavone's hand.

Other children seemed as fascinated by the scaly, slithery things preserved in jars in glass cases along the wall, as they were by the robots and live specimens.

The scene Friday in the museum exhibition hall announced two things:

"Reptiles: Real & Robotic," the latest in a popular series of traveling shows featuring animated animals, has slithered into town.

The museum owns an impressive collection of reptilian artifacts -- one few people other than curators and researchers ever see.

Robots have become an educational and entertaining staple for the museum since the first traveling exhibit brought animated dinosaurs to town in the late 1980s.

They are such reliable crowd-pleasers, in fact, that three robo-shows have been scheduled this year: "Reptiles," which will run through May 6; "Backyard Monsters," arriving in May; and "The Robot Zoo," due in September.

"Kids today want interactivity," noted Renata Toney, museum public information officer. "Without it, our attendance would really suffer."

In addition to the rattler and the croc, the current lineup includes an alligator snapping turtle, a Jackson's chameleon and three prehistoric critters that were neither mammals nor reptiles: fierce, furry therapsides -- described as powerful mammal-like predators with razor teeth that died out during the dinosaur era.

The program offers steak along with the sizzle: live reptiles like Abby, used in education programs at the museum and Beaver Meadow nature preserve; side exhibits from the museum's research collection of more than 1,100 reptiles; and specimens preserved for display purposes, including freeze-dried lizards, turtles and snakes.

The research reptiles are seldom brought out of storage, noted Dave King, an exhibit designer in the museum's Zoology Department.

"We're trying to do more of this, to make people aware of the extent of our collections," he said.

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