Ssssssssssnakes… and more.

From what we read, The Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, South Dakota manages the largest private collection of reptiles in the United States. But a place called “The Reptile Gardens” in western South Dakota surely has to be a tourist trap… right? It has to be the place tourists go to see jailed gators and cooped-up crocs jump at raw chicken for our amusement right? It couldn’t possibly have educational benefits and be run as a real zoo might… right? We had prepared ourselves for the worst, and were about to be quite positively surprised!!!

We pulled off the highway and strolled up to a colorfully-painted, well maintained and extraordinarily clean building with pretty flags flying high in the Dakota winds. From the outside, this was already changing our perception.

We bought our tickets ($15 each!), were given a list of “shows” for the day and directed that the huge round structure straight ahead was our starting point. As we walked toward the glass-domed reptile habitat, we weren’t sure what to expect.

We decided to head left (as there were a few rambunctious children to the right) and browsed well-designed habitat after well-designed habitat each with creature treasures of all sizes. Designed perfectly featuring anecdotes about the creatures (some are movie stars), famous encounters and exciting facts, each glass enclosure built toward the next.

Soon we met “Maniac!,” the largest salt water crocodile in captivity. At 15 feet 8 inches long – that’s a dwarf’s length longer than Kimmer and I combined – he was an absolutely captivating site! As he lay motionless in a pool that barely hid his entire frame, I just knew he was dreaming of a prime wildebeest dinner sidling up to the bank of his pond for a much needed drink of water.

Maniac! Is definitely a key attendance draw, and after spending a few moments with him, it was time for the smaller gators to earn their keep at the alligator/crocodile show. We made our way to the show floor – an astroturf covered “cement” pond holding at least three dozen sun bathing dinosaurs. In a few moments, the host, a young alligator handler opened the door to the pit and delicately directed many of the crocs and gators into the water – to help clear a path for his upcoming stunts and snack time.

He did all the typical things that we all had come to see – holding a medium sized gator’s mouth closed, feeding the gators and walking precariously among them. But the short 10 minute show was more about education. He discussed conservation, habitat and more, but with humor that kept the audience enthralled. It was very entertaining, one of the best animal shows we’ve seen.

We made our way back to the dome to walk through an open-air atrium in the center that featured free-roaming animals including birds, turtles and lizards. Everywhere you looked there was another animal within arms’ reach, or scurrying beneath your feet – literally.

Up the stairs and above the atrium, was the largest display of snakes. I am very afraid of snakes (especially after hiking through the Badlands with both eyes out for rattlesnakes). And while it was intimidating, you have to remember that these poisonous predators are behind glass – though sometimes it feels like their tongues could reach right out and flick you. These snakes represent some of the most dangerous snakes in the world, many of which can only be seen in captivity at the Reptile Gardens.

After an hour or so in the dome, we made our way to our second animal show – The Bird Show. For those who don’t understand why birds are included in the Reptile Gardens, you must think about the physiology of dinosaurs which are believed to have taken two paths – one toward more obviously related reptiles and amphibians of today, and the other road toward feathers and upward into the sky. The young host again did not disappoint with education mixed with humor and entertainment. Very well-done.

There were a few other exhibits but we still had more exploring in the city. So we shared an Indian Taco (flat bread with taco meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato piled on top) which was yummy, and spent some time exploring their expansive and interesting gift shop.

Reptile Gardens is really amazing, and well worth the $15/person admission. For more information or to plan your tour, click here. (http://www.reptilegardens.com/visit/)