When Joe Kenney was a toddler, his mother, Diane, frequently took him outside his Abington home to look for frogs, bugs, or anything else that might distract him from asking for snacks. Because he had severe diabetes, he had to be kept to a strict eating schedule.
After they learned to live with the challenges of diabetes, his parents and preschool teachers discovered that Kenney also showed signs of dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read. Once again, animals helped him through.
"I was always looking for lizards, snakes, and whatever else I could find," said Kenney, now 17. "Once I found them, I wanted to keep them and make them a home. When I became frustrated with reading and homework, I'd let out my frustration by cleaning the animals' cages."
Now, in what was once the garage, he has more than 40 reptiles, many of them exotic, as part of an educational reptile-show business called Craz-zy Critters. (The spelling of "craz-zy," said the Abington High School junior, reflects the challenge he has reading and spelling due to his dyslexia.)
With the help of younger brothers Devin and Jonathan, and sometimes with baby sister Drew in tow, he shows his reptiles to children at birthday parties, schools, and town events.
"Joe not only educates the kids about the animals," said his mother, "but he warns the children and parents about buying exotic reptiles without knowing much about them. He'll show them how cute a baby iguana looks in the pet store, and then he'll show them how big an iguana can grow and how much room is needed to keep one."
Everything Kenney knows about animals he learned from reading, or watching his favorite TV shows, including "Corwin's Quest" and "The Crocodile Hunter Diaries." He also learns from volunteering at the Roger Williams Park Zoo every Sunday.
"Reading, for me, is really difficult," said Kenney, who wrote in his first-grade yearbook that he wanted to be a zookeeper. "But even when I was little, I loved learning about the animals."
Kenney's first exotic purchase was a pair of hedgehogs. "After that, it just caught on," he said.
In his menagerie now are eight snakes, including a red-tailed boa constrictor, a milk snake, a king snake, and a ball python. Four African tortoises, which may grow as large as 90 pounds and have a life expectancy of 150 years, live in the bottom tier of an animal "bunk bed" Kenney made. One has a flattened shell and needed extra attention, so a pet store owner gave it to Kenney, knowing he would take care of it. The others he bought from the store and from reptile shows he and his father frequent.
Residing nearby are a 5-foot-long black-throated monitor, an African lizard that will grow to be 8 feet long; two iguanas; and a few rats. He also has flying squirrels, which he got from a veterinarian; two ferrets; and a capuchin monkey that he fosters for Helping Hands, a nonprofit organization that trains monkeys as assistance animals for the handicapped. He hopes to soon add an armadillo to his collection.
"I just think they're really cool and very different from other animals," said Kenney, who will be featured in a March issue of Scholastic Magazine for his work with Helping Hands.
Kenney is licensed through the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. "Every time I want to get a new kind of animal I have to apply for a license by submitting a picture of its cage and lighting and proving that I know enough about it to care for it correctly," he said.
Kenney's parents laugh about their son's infatuation with animals.
"He actually carried on a conversation with Miley Cyrus" - the actress who plays Hannah Montana - "while working at the zoo, and literally bumped into Steven Tyler in a store," said Kenney's father, Jim, referring to the singer for Aerosmith. "He didn't know who either of them were. But when a bug specialist walked into the zoo, he knew exactly who he was before anyone else did."
Kenney has a paper route to support buying cages, food, and animals.
"I probably spend about $200 to $300 a month caring for the animals," said Kenney.
So far, his shows have been by word-of-mouth. "Parents will see me at a party or a library and then book me for their child's party." The average cost for a show is $100. He is covered by insurance through his parents' policy.
The reptile-show business is not without competitors, although there are few on the South Shore. Kenney's friend Dominic Penson, of Braintree, also does home parties and school shows with his home-schooled brothers. Their company, Xtreme Animals, charges $200 for a one-hour show, but the price varies depending on location. More-established companies charge upward of $250 for a show and have vans advertising their business.
But Kenney and his animals are at the mercy of his parents for transportation, since he hasn't gotten around to getting his driver's license yet.
Typically, they load 20 Rubbermaid containers, cages, and pillow cases into the family's SUV. Kenney encourages the children to touch the animals, hold some of them, and have their pictures taken with them.
"We're very proud of how he's fought through the challenges of diabetes and dyslexia," said his mother. "He's making honor roll in honors-level classes at school. He's a good example to other kids who struggle with disabilities. If they can find something they're interested in and their parents and teachers encourage it, it'll make it easier to deal with everything else."