August 01, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The bearded dragon isn't a fire-breathing monster.

The gray dragon doesn't threaten anybody; it clings to a teen-ager's shirt.

Shawn Hescock, 15, walks around the herptile exhibit area at the Union County Fair, while the dragon, "Lizzie," clings without moving, accepting the strokes of curious children.

Shawn, of La Grande, and his friend, Brandan Hyder, 11, two members of the only herptile 4-H club in Union County, staffed the club's exhibit booth Thursday.

Brandan was the inspiration behind the club, said his mother, Joyce Hyder, the adult leader. Brandan had been a member of the herptile club in Redmond, the only other such club in the state. When the family moved to Elgin about a year ago, Brandan asked his mom to help start a club.

Now, six members — five boys and a girl — raise a variety of lizards together. The category herptile includes lizards, snakes and terrapins or turtles. There are no snakes or turtles in the club.

"Snakes are the only things I don't like," Hyder said.

Brandan owns a Mali uromastyx, which comes from the edge of the Sahara Desert and in other parts of Africa. He also owns a little western salamander that he found in his front yard.

"You can get a fence lizard and be in this club," Hyder said. "Most of these are exotics."

Lizards and other reptiles are relatively low maintenance, Brandan said. He takes his pet, "Steelix," from the terrarium at least once a day.

"You need to handle them; hold them," he said. "I like lizards. They're common in the world, and I like to research lizards."

"Lizzie" and "Steelix" eat a combination of greens and crickets.

"He gets so excited when we hand-feed him crickets that he'll bite your hand, but he never breaks the skin," Hyder said.

For the most part, members own a variety of lizards, including iguanas. Peering over a rock in a terrarium was a Chinese water dragon.

"They're fast enough to run on top of water," Shawn said.

The fair runs through Saturday.