Shaffer: Joe Morgan's specialty is artificial critters, made to order

March 31, 2013 

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    Visit Morgan Reptile Replicas at 5546 N.C. 49 N just outside Liberty in Randolph County, or call (336) 622-3720. For more information see the website at www.reptilereplicas.com.

— When he retired, Joe Morgan embraced a hobby he’d been fiddling with for decades: making life-like snake models out of liquid plastic and Fiberglas foam – artificial eyes affixed with putty on request.

He built a whole catalog of wriggling, crawling, slithering reptile fakes, from a 13-foot Burmese python to a baby sea turtle busting out of its egg.

At 69, he has hand-molded more than 250 types of artificial critters, a line of specimens so popular worldwide that they have appeared in a dinosaur museum in Germany, at a poison control center in Utah and – most triumphantly – in an episode of “As The World Turns.”

But Morgan remains humble, insisting that he even though he may be the world’s only reptile-replica craftsman, you’d better call him “one of a few” just to be safe.

“I sent out a Gila monster last week – last Thursday, I believe, by next-day air,” he says. “I look for things don’t many people do.”

Morgan’s samples fill the back room of the Liberty Artisan & Craft Gallery, which he opened in Randolph County with his wife, Gail. Inside, you can choose from beekeeping supplies, birdhouses made from cowboy boots, soy candles or coffee and sea-salt foot rubs – all made locally.

But the real eye-poppers sit coiled on Morgan’s shelf: puff adders, yellow-bellied racers, tiger salamanders – a gallery of crawlies brought artfully to life from beasts that either met their ends under a tire or through some malady of the cold-blooded.

“None of these are real,” he says. “I want to stress that. I don’t want some game warden in here.”

Not long ago, the National Aquarium in Baltimore sent Morgan a sea turtle that had expired, asking him to make a mold from its majestic shelled body and produce copies for posterity. One of them now swims across the wall of his exhibit room.

A college in Washington requested one of Morgan’s snakes for research purposes, hoping to observe how a native squirrel would react when they dropped it into its habitat.

The producers of “As the World Turns” needed an eastern diamondback rattlesnake to perch – just for a flash – on an unsuspecting character’s car seat during an island vacation episode. Morgan never saw it, but his sister did.

But all the animals who arrive in Morgan’s mail, some of them complete with the required permits, are dead before he presses them into a rubber mold.

“It’s hard to tell a snake to be still,” he said.

Some people, and I’m one of them, think snakes ought to be elevated as pets, mascots and national emblems – animals maligned by irrational prejudice. A whale eats Jonah, the lions corner Daniel and the only beast to walk out of the Bible with a damaged reputation speaks with a forked tongue.

But Morgan, who nearly stepped on a rattler as a child, holds them in high regard. When he worked as a park ranger in Greensboro, he fashioned his own snakes as visual aids. He lingers over the scales, the fangs, the rattles, the skin patterns. Lots of people paint barns or lighthouses. Morgan recreates serpents.

They move quickly. They hide under woodpiles. They vanish into holes. You don’t get much chance to study them up-close – simple as a garden hose yet intricate as a bead necklace – until Morgan catches them mid-slither.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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