Snakes Alive! by Bonnie and Bill Neely

On the waterfront walk (20 Orange Street) in Wilmington, NC, is an amazing new type of “aquarium” which is a MUST SEE, especially for those who love to watch crazy “Australian Steve” and “Fear Factor” on TV!  Cape Fear Serpentarium is celebrating its first anniversary this month and is becoming quite the tourist attraction.  Entering the large establishment, which is a bit dark, is only for those who appreciate reptilian species. For others, this place will definitely give you the “willies!” Housed in large, completely enclosed glass “rooms” are enormous specimen of most of the deadly snakes of the world.  The living display contains over 100 species of deadly animals, which are often shown on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

We could not believe the city of Wilmington would approve so deadly an attraction, but the museum is well-planned, and very carefully maintained. In each of the living dioramas, you will see different kinds of serpents.  They are beautifully displayed, each in a replica of his natural environment, and each with at least one companion of his own species.   It is fascinating to see these serpentine partners intertwined in each cage, giving the notion that they enjoy each other’s companionship, having warm hearts even though they are cold-blooded! This way of containing species for study is  kinder than the lonely states of animals we see in some zoos.

Cape Fear SErpentarium”But what on earth will they do with the deadly offspring?” I asked Dean Ripa, whose life-long dream is realized in this Serpentarium in the town where he grew up.  Most pairs of “friends” in the displays are same sex snakes.  The breeding program is planned for specific matings at specific times.”

“What do you do with the offspring?”  I queried. “Lots of babies go to people who are reputable collectors, or to public facilities for observation and to licensed researche centers.”

966dca50Gestation for snakes can be from three to six months, depending on the classification of snake.  The most unusual characteristic of the species is that one genus lays eggs and another genus has live young.  Cobras, Mambas, typans, coral snakes and other hatch from eggs,  from a dozen to 120 in a clutch.  But Vipers (the word derives from “live-bearing”) give birth to live young.  The fer-de-lance can have as many as 100 live babies at a time.  The deadly Bushmaster is the only egg-laying “viper” and has up to a dozen eggs.

993b5880In the Serpentarium large explanatory markers tell all the life facts of each snake and give maps showing their natural domains around the world.  Symbols of snake heads ready to bite show the degree of deadliness of each type.  Most have several of these deadly symbols beside them. You’ll see a 250 pound Reticulated Python who is 23 feet long, Black Mambas, Spitting Cobras, Tropical Rattlers,  Gaboon Vipers, and the world’s largest collection of Bushmasters. There are 130 snakes representing every part of the world.  All the species displayed are deadly.

The only open-topped glass environment contains a “komodo dragon” (monitor lizard), which cannot climb.  This World Class atmosphere was created by a Hollywood set crew.
992bc8d0Cape Fear Serpentarium is the dream and carefully planned work of Dean Ripa, who was fascinated by snakes as a young child.  At the age of four he was trying to catch a snake in a field near Wilmington when he was bitten.  A farmer ran out with his hoe and chopped up the snake, called Dean’s parents, and rushed him to the hospital.  “Everyone was in a panic, and I was scared to death.  We thought it was a venomous snake, but it turned out not to be.  The knot that formed on my leg was the clue, but we didn’t know that then.  I was plenty scared, but it didn’t stop my fascination for all sorts of creatures.  I was always in the woods or in ditches, wading in streams, collecting all sorts of living creatures, but snakes fascinated me the most. As I got older I began to read about exotic snakes in other countries and wanted to catch them, too.”

As soon as he was old enough Dean began his travels, which ultimately took him to 30 countries in two decades.  He caught and sold every kind of snake he could find.  It required filling out lots of paperwork to bring the snakes into the United States.  “I didn’t make any profit but I was able to support my trips in this way. What I sold from one trip paid for my next trip. I would spend about six months at a time in another country, living in the jungle and small villages.  Local villagers helped me collect the snakes, and I would send them back to the States to private collectors or to myself.”

Ripa has paid the price for his passion; he has been bitten ten times by venomous snakes in Africa and South America and was near death many times.  In Africa he was bitten in the jungle by a hognose (jumping) viper.  Fortunately he was accompanied by an American who injected him with the antivenom immediately.  He couldn’t walk and had to be hauled out by the native villager’s mule.  They reached the coastal settlement of a few huts, but there was no medical facility for  50 miles across a sea, so he just stayed there in a village house for ten days, where the locals nursed him.

On another occasion Dean was bitten by a deadly Bushmaster, whose bite kills at least 80 percent of its victims.  Within seven minutes Dean was unconscious, and within thirty minutes he had no blood pressure or pulse, cyanotic skin, vomiting, extreme abdominal pain  swelling.  Fortunately, he was close to professional care and although he lost the use of his arm for six months, he lived to tell the tale.

991b3860The Serpentarium is worth a lot of time for the educational benefit, especially for children old enough not to be frightened.  It is beautifully laid out and extremely educational, if you and your children are not feint-hearted! Be sure to check it out. Call 910-762-1669. Tickets are $7, and the establishment is open weekdays 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., week-ends till 6 p.m.

99094b80You will also want to stop at the Visitor Center in town to learn about the marvelous historic homes and buildings so beautifully preserved and restored throughout this historic city.  It is a wonderful place to spend a holiday!
And while you’re in Wilmington, enjoy the many sites at the waterfront, including the ships you can tour or hire for a ride on Cape Fear.  There are numerous eateries and shops on the wonderfully restored waterfront, which is a main tourist attraction in Wilmington.