Snakes, spiders, lizards and crocodiles. Is your skin crawling yet? Historically, these animals have given us uneasy feelings that range from the heebie-jeebies to flat-out, phobia-induced terror.
Hollywood has certainly done its part to perpetuate this idea with movies like Anaconda, Eight-Legged Freaks, and Lake Placid. But Reptilia, Canada’s largest indoor-reptile zoo, aims to change our perception of these scaly creatures. They think reptiles are cool – not just because their blood is cold. They want you to see these unique animals up-close and get the ultimate reptile experience.
With locations in Vaughan and Whitby, Reptilia features over 250 reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids, and offers shows and programming which are both interactive and hands-on.
“We have Canada’s largest crocodiles here,” says Samantha Medina, Special Projects Manager at Reptilia. It’s true: Nile crocodiles can grow up to 16 feet and weigh over 1,500 pounds. Induna, Reptilia’s Nile crocodile, is right up there in weight, tipping the scales at over 1,000 pounds. He is also as long as his king cobra zoo mates but is a little shorter than the 20-foot pythons that live nearby.
With poison dart frogs, rattlesnakes, geckos and more to round out the attraction, Reptilia has quite the collection. But did you know about 75 per cent of its animals are rescued? Sadly, many were pets that people didn’t want anymore.
“Reptiles can live a long time,” Medina explains. “People get bored with them, or perhaps these pets belonged to kids who have grown up and moved away, and the parents don’t want to keep them. Whatever the reason, these animals are no longer wanted in the home.”
Other animals at Reptilia were rescued from the illegal pet trade. Believe it or not, there is a robust industry of people smuggling animals into Canada which are illegal to own as pets – animals like alligators, crocodiles, and pythons. When smugglers are caught at the borders, Reptilia works with various authorities to take these animals in and give them a home, rather than let them be euthanized. Those animals essentially become ambassadors to help the zoo educate the public. Some are placed in Reptilia’s Adoption Program. In other words, if these rescued reptiles and amphibians are suitable for pet ownership, the zoo will do its best to find them homes.
“We teach our visitors not only about responsible pet ownership and how to properly care for animals but also about things like ecology and how to help protect the planet through our daily actions,” she says.
For those reptiles that are waiting to be adopted, and for those that must remain at the zoo, they spend their days bringing joy and wonder to everyone who visits. There are all kinds of reactions to this scaly menagerie when people come for the first time. According to Medina, the most common and satisfying one is amazement. Children especially are wowed when they come face-to-face with animals they don’t see every day.
Reptiles Have Personalities Too
Any animal owner will tell you that their pet has personality be it a dog, cat, or bird. As people, we bond with our animals. It’s the same with reptiles in many cases.
“Our reptiles are individuals,” she continues. “The more we get to work with them and know them over the 26 years we’ve been open, the more we start to see that.”
That is why one of the main goals of Reptilia is to teach empathy. Let’s be honest: reptiles are often misunderstood. People see a snake in their backyard, and they are inclined to flee or kill it. Reptilia seeks to teach its visitors that reptiles and amphibians are as deserving of respect as their mammal counterparts.
“People see reptiles as undesirable animals, unlovable, and cold-blooded,” Medina says adding with a laugh, “they are cold-blooded, but we want to teach people that these animals are not scary. They’re not mean. They should be treated with respect as every other animal, and they are an important part of our ecosystem.”
When visitors to Reptilia walk away with smiles and a new understanding of these mysterious and wonderful creatures, that is the part of the job which Medina and her colleagues find truly rewarding. Equally rewarding is the opportunity to touch people’s lives in such an unforgettable way.
“I have people tell me they remember coming here 20 years ago for a birthday party,” she says. “Now they’re bringing their children here. Or others will remember how we came into their classroom 10 years ago. People develop an emotional connection when they get to touch an animal. That connection is deep-seated in memory. That’s what’s so lovely about working here: you get to impact people’s lives and change them for the better.”
Reptilia is located in Vaughan at 250 Rutherford Road, or in Whitby at 1400 Victoria Street East. Visit them online at www.reptilia.org for more information.
Written by: Katie Ryalen