Rapid City, South Dakota
Snake farms and reptile ranches can exude a somber air. Whether their captive creatures bask in low-walled, swampy pens, or sprawl motionless in rows of glass-fronted terrariums, these establishments can be slightly depressing. The tourism draw is sometimes just a highway-worn family's hope that it's close to snake feeding time...
One notable exception is Rapid City's Reptile Gardens, a popular attraction in the Black Hills region. Year after year, it works hard to put happy faces on its inhabitants.
Entrepreneur and reptile-hobbiest Earl Brockelsby first opened Reptile Gardens in 1937, planning to capitalize on vacationers in the region (Earl had been a guide at a local attraction called "Hidden City," and he kept a live rattlesnake under his hat). Reptile Gardens expanded steadily, moving in 1965 to its current location south of Rapid City along Hwy. 16, now a busy boulevard of tourist attractions.
Seems like we visit RG more than any other reptile attraction in the US -- perhaps because of its convenient Black Hills location, its snazzy "Sky Dome," or just to match wits with a Tic-Tac-Toe playing chicken.
As the self-proclaimed "Largest privately-owned collection of reptiles in the world," Reptile Gardens provides a swarm of sights and animal performance shows (an equally scaled attraction that comes to mind is Gatorland Zoo, Kissimmee, Florida).
Visitors enter armed with a map and performance schedule, and can kill time between alligator wrestling demonstrations by checking out animal habitats. The Sky Dome, a building with a geodesic skylight, features two floors of fascinating captives. There's Marilyn, the albino 16 1/2 foot, 217 lb. snake. A sign notes: "Rare - Exotic- Beautiful - Deadly." Two rare Komodo Dragons --named Awas and Naga, -- geckos, vipers, and other exotics are kept in temperature and humidity-controlled environments.
In the Dragon's Lair, rattlers, cobras and pythons slither their stuff. Snakes are fed at the Mezzanine Level at 2 pm. Photo panels illustrating the effects of snake bites on humans -- on our must-see checklist -- are displayed nearby. A cartoon gator mascot wanders the galleries, posing with families. He'll even pose with the snake bite display if you ask.
Beyond the reptiles, RG hosts performing bird and mammal acts. Bird Brain, a clever hen, bests her human opponents in matches of electronic Tic-Tac-Toe. It's 25 cents a match. A sign advises: "Bird Brain plays first with 'O' then you have 9 seconds to make your choice. Good Luck!" We watched as whole families went down in flames in a fight we have learned by experience is futile.
Outdoors, the giant tortoise area is a long-time kid pleaser -- Methusaleh the Galapagos Tortoise, was born in 1881 and is promoted as "South Dakota's Oldest Resident." The Bat Cave exhibits nocturnal creatures in an underground-like warren. And RG runs a Wings of Adventure bird program, with feats of intelligence and training by cockatoos, falcons, and hawks.
The premiere event is the Bewitched Village Trained Animal Show,an unusual Old West town full of strangely transformed furred and feathered citizens who still act like the humans they once were. The show, basically the same we saw on our first visit in the 1980s, is presented by a new generation. Behavioral tricks and gimmicks are woven into complex tales of animal intrigue. A goat busts out of jail, dance-hall chickens entertain at the saloon, and a pig mines for gold.
Next to the Old West set is a fine Mount Rushmore photo op, saving visitors the trouble of driving out to the real thing.
Reptile Gardens has been around long enough that it has erected a few subtle nods to its own history. We noticed a park bench that memorialized an animal trainer -- pictures of classic animal tricks were engraved on it.