Turtles and Gators and Snakes: Oh My!

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Last week, I wrote about the first part of my first hectic weekend in a row. There’ll be three of those weekends, so I won’t have any trouble figuring out what to write about for the next few posts! Meantime, however, those of you who were paying close attention might notice that I had mentioned having a really busy driving weekend but the truck-shopping activities I told you about already only took me as far as Friday. So what happened on the actual weekend?

Well, Saturday contained the Mother’s Day excursion I had mentioned was coming up, and that was a ton of fun. My family has a reliable pattern of never celebrating holidays on the actual date of the holiday itself. Birthdays are celebrated on whatever nearby day is most convenient; Valentine’s Day is typically anything except the same day everyone else is going out to dinner, you get the idea. So it made perfect sense as far as we were concerned to celebrate Mother’s Day on Saturday six days after everyone else celebrated it. And it was a much better fit with our own timing, since one of the kids was feeling under the weather on the previous weekend.

And what did we do with our Mother’s Day excursion? We went and petted snakes, of course! Isn’t that what most families do when they want a pleasant, relaxing day out? No? Well, maybe we’re just bizarre, then. That’s just fine; we like our weirdness. We also like our snakes.

The Reptile Zoo is an excellent little attraction in Monroe, Washington, about 45 minutes’ drive from where I live. They are open for visitors every day except Wednesday, and of those open days, all except Sunday offers an extra feature in which you can buy a time slot to pet at least one snake and another reptile of the zoo’s selection (they rotate them so as not to stress any one animal very much). The giant tortoises are always available for petting, without a time slot — but you are only allowed to touch their shells, not their bodies. This made a lot of sense to me. The tortoises don’t have to care very much what’s touching their shells.

The big tortoises, in open enclosures so visitors can pet their shells
The big tortoises, in open enclosures so visitors can pet their shells

We parked and got in line to buy our admission and our petting time. They wrote our time on the wristbands they gave us for admission, which was a nice easy way to remember when we were supposed to be there. Then they turned us loose inside the zoo.

The first thing you notice in the Reptile Zoo is the low light, the heat and the humidity. It’s all definitely set to the comfort level of reptiles, not humans. We had to go outdoors a couple of times just to cool off and get a break, especially since we were all wearing masks (it’s an indoor facility, and it was fairly crowded). They got pretty quickly soaked, and needed changing on a regular basis. Fortunately, we were well supplied, and the wristbands made it very easy to drift out to the parking lot for a while and then return. And the strange atmosphere made it feel definitely more exotic and interesting, even if it also made it less than comfortable occasionally.

The Reptile Zoo includes some animals that are not reptiles — the first room contained a scattering of frogs, toads, salamanders, and even a couple of tarantulas. I was delighted to see the frogs. I’ve always liked frogs, plus David Attenborough has a special on reptiles and amphibians that I’d watched recently (Life in Cold Blood) and I had been captivated by the frog behavior. Now I got to see some of the live specimens that I had been watching on video, including the tiny Poison Dart Frog from the Central American rain forests, and the enormous Giant African Bullfrog, which was roughly as big around as my head. I happily explained specifics of these frogs’ more entertaining behavior patterns to the kids, who seemed delighted.

African bullfrog
African bullfrog

We also played “Spot the Salamander” for a while, as some of the smaller amphibians and lizards weren’t easy to locate inside their tanks! Between their innate ability to camouflage and their fondness for hiding, even in a smallish tank it could be difficult to locate them. Same thing with some of the spiders. But it was a lot of fun to try! One of them stumped us for a good five minutes until M suddenly realized it was literally right in front of us, holding onto the front glass wall of the tank!! We had missed it there, because we were automatically looking past it into the tank itself, but this little newt was climbing the interior glass, and so we almost didn’t see it.

The star attractions of the Reptile Zoo are its alligators. It has one normal gator, a really enormous fellow who liked to bask right in front of the audience (they set up his heat lamps there on purpose), and a smaller albino gator, who seemed to prefer to swim while we were around. Both of them were in enclosures that included both water and land, and could go between them at will. Like the rest of the creatures, they seemed well cared for.


There were dozens and dozens of different snakes, including many of the most dangerous venomous snakes in the world. We met one little kid who was desperately searching for the one snake he most wanted to see: the King Cobra. Just as his family vanished into them other room, we located the King Cobra in a small side chamber with a handful of other snakes. Later, we located the little boy and his family, and led them back to it — to the utter enchantment of the little boy and the gratitude of his mother, who clearly didn’t want to disappoint her son. The kid regaled us with cobra facts — he’d clearly paid attention when he was reading about them! and we showed proper appreciation for his knowledge.

Black mamba
Black mamba: gorgeous and deadly

In the back, near that King Cobra, we also found a screen on which the David Attenborough special I mentioned earlier was playing on loop. It didn’t have the sound on, so you couldn’t learn much from it, but it was a marvelous array of shots of reptiles and amphibians going about their lives and behaving in all the ways they normally behave. I was very amused to find it there… I guess I’m not the only one whose interest in these creatures is closely tied to Attenborough’s presentation!

My personal favorite was the Eastern Indigo Snake, a glittering blue-black animal reputed to be among the most intelligent and curious of snakes. It lives in the southeastern United States, and I first met one when I was about seven years old and my parents took me to Florida for a family vacation. I was called on as a volunteer during a presentation on local wildlife, and they draped an Indigo Snake all over me and let me hold it for a while, as they talked about the species. Indigo Snakes neither have venom nor the ability to constrict… and yet they subsist largely on other snakes including the highly venomous Cottonmouth, which they are somehow successful at hunting despite the unequal armaments. I have loved Indigo Snakes since the day I first held one 45 years ago, and I enjoyed visiting the one at the Reptile Zoo. I was even more pleased that my kids had taken up my enthusiasm for the creatures, and were just as happy to see him, with the two who had already been at this zoo before explaining to K about Indigo Snakes and why they were so impressive.

Eastern Indigo snake
The Eastern indigo snake

The zoo is a strange combination of the sensationalistic tourist attraction and the respectful conservation center. They have the albino alligator and a two-headed turtle (really a pair of very conjoined twins), but they also have a small collection of species that are suitable for pets. If a family shows interest, and can provide evidence of their knowledge and ability to take care of it properly, they can walk away with a turtle of their own. It was all turtles when we were there, but occasionally they have a snake or lizard on offer as well.

Two-headed turtle
Two-headed turtle

Finally it was time for our petting session. They had an enormous rock python in a low nest for us to touch, as well as a smallish gator being held by the attendant. The gator had its mouth held closed with duct tape, which J found very funny. Alligators have an enormously strong downward bite, but very weak muscles for opening their jaws, making them very easy to hold closed for safely. J pointed out that the videos about alligators and crocodiles usually make it look as if the star holding the animal’s mouth closed is struggling to keep it contained, when actually even a simple wrap of duct tape can do it with no trouble.

The python was lazing around quietly. Pythons are patient, and if they don’t have anything specific that they want to do, they don’t do anything. In the car on the way to the zoo, the kids and I had been talking about how humans are particularly unusual animals in our ability to get bored from not doing much. Most creatures only act when it’s likely to benefit them — their survival, their comfort, or their odds of successfully reproducing. The rest of the time, they just lie around, and most species are very good at it. We’re definitely not… even when we think of ourselves as “lying around doing nothing,” we’re usually reading, or playing a video game, or fiddling with a puzzle. We voluntarily engage our brains and sometimes our bodies as well in ways which most animals just don’t think to. This snake certainly didn’t; she simply lay there, letting the world wash over her. But she was smooth and soft and excellent to pet, and she seemed to enjoy it to some extent.

Rock python in a tub for petting
Rock python in a tub for petting

After playing with the gator, and petting the python and some tortoises, we were starting to get overheated in the warm, damp zoo. We visited a handful of additional creatures including the giant monitor lizards, which made me very happy as I hadn’t been able to find them before. There were also some beautiful boas, and a full sized anaconda in all its watery magnificence.

Giant monitor lizard
Emerald tree boa

By this time, however, we were all beginning to be exhausted and overheated. We took a brief turn in the gift shop, which was much more comfortable a setting than either of the actual zoo areas, and the kids each chose a souvenir. A non-living souvenir, I should clarify — none of us brought home an adopted reptile that day. The turtles they offered were cute, but not really our thing for long term pet bonding. If they’d been willing to let me have an Indigo Snake, though… well, then it might have been a different story.

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