Don’t be surprised if you recognize her — she’s a woman of many hats.
Roswell resident Marita De La Pena belly dances. She keeps snakes. Sometimes, she belly dances with snakes.
She teaches special education at Sierra Middle School. She teaches dance at the AscenDance studio. She and her husband, J.D. Lorbiecke, have five children, a full-time job in itself.
Are you winded, yet? We’re just getting started.
De La Pena, 32, starts her day at 4:30 or 5 a.m. and takes an hour of “me time” before getting her husband and children up at 6 a.m.
She works at Sierra until 3:30 p.m., runs errands after work until about 5 p.m., eats a quick dinner, goes to the gym or to the dance studio, then ends her day working in the zoo until about 11 p.m.
De La Pena and Lorbiecke indeed own a zoo, where they house a variety of reptile and invertebrates, most of them tarantulas and snakes.
The couple shares a unique passion for animals. In addition to reptiles, De La Pena’s family has pet dogs and used to care for a goat.
“There’s a lot of beautiful stuff out there,” says De La Pena.
The zoo has a YouTube channel, Deadly Tarantula Girl. The show is aimed at educating the public about the beautiful creepy-crawlies of the world while also teaching viewers about animal conservation and safety around potentially dangerous species.
The deadly tarantula girl herself is particularly concerned with how venomous species are portrayed in mainstream media.
“Our country kind of thrives on the scary things, the dangerous things, the evil things; so things are kind of blown out of proportion,” she says.
She says that most venomous species won’t attack humans and many don’t have enough venom to kill a human victim.
The way to handle such critters when encountered is to use caution, she says. With a rattle snake, for example, it is best to quietly and slowly move away from the animal.
“That’s typically going to be a no-brainer when you come across anything venomous,” says De La Pena.
What sounds exotic — and in many cases is — is standard fare for the couples’ children.
“They’re almost immune to the beauty and amazement of it all. It’s very common to them.”
He children’s science teachers have been beneficiaries of the zoo, receiving the shed skins of snakes and tarantulas as they become available.
Another beneficiary has been museums throughout the U.S. and Canada. De La Pena says a giant centipede kept at the zoo eventually ended up in the hands of the Bronx Museum in New York City, and other animals have gone to the Smithsonian.
De La Pena developed an interest in aquariums in her 20s. What started as a hobby got serious when she met her husband, who she says was a “major player” in raising and breeding exotic species of invertebrate in the 90s, before the hobby became mainstream.
A few years prior to getting serious about reptiles in the early 2000s, De La Pena picked up belly dancing as a low-impact exercising activity to help her manage her fibromyalgia.
It took a while to link snakes with dance, she says. She started dancing with snakes publicly about two years ago. She has one piece where she dances with a 13-foot long Burmese Python named “Sescha.”
De La Pena says one thing that drew her to belly dance was its eclectic origins. She says she identifies with the dance in part because she is of mixed race, though she does not know the specifics of her ethnic background.
“I feel like I’m kind of a blend of the whole world,” she says. “In a way, [belly dancing is] kind of my own way of telling my own story through dance. … It’s beautiful and it’s different and then, it’s me.”
De La Pena has a lot on her plate, but she manages to balance work, art, hobbies and her family by keeping firm priorities.
“Obviously, my children come before anything,” she says.
She comments that she’s fortunate her work schedule matches the schedule of her children’s schools by default, and that she’s nearby when necessary. She describes it as a “noninvasive way to be very involved.”
De La Pena expresses a special pride for each of her activities. As a teacher at Sierra, she does work that she views as “something that matters.”
“Teaching is my passion and my heart,” she says.
She also views her zoo and YouTube channel, which is watched in over 150 countries, as productive in spreading messages not only about animal conservation, but about individuality and feminism.
“A lot of times, I think girls are taught that they can’t or they shouldn’t and I kind of want to blow that all of the water,” she says. “Yes, us pretty girls can put our fingers in the dirt and pick up that reptile.”