Reptile Gardens entrance.
Reptile Gardens' warm, inviting entrance leads to cold-blooded thrills.

Reptile Gardens

Field review by the editors.

Rapid City, South Dakota

America's largest reptile attraction isn't in a Florida swamp. It's Reptile Gardens, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and it's there because local boy Earl J. Brockelsby (1916-1993) really liked slithery things.

Earl J. Brockelsby: Man Bites Rattlesnake.
From a young age, Earl Brockelsby bonded with snakes.

"Dad always claimed he had an understanding with snakes, a simpatico," said John "Johnny B" Brockelsby, Earl's son and resident Reptile Gardens historian. As a teenager, Earl would stand at the side of the road and stop cars by pretending to bite a live, wriggling rattlesnake (although he never really did). Another of his tricks was to politely lift his cowboy hat and reveal a live rattlesnake contentedly curled up on his head.

Black Hills Reptile Garden.
A busy day in 1937. The main attraction back then was the rattler pit.

Visitor reactions to these antics convinced Earl that he was on to something, and on June 3, 1937, he opened Reptile Garden (The "s" was added years later). It was a stucco-fronted roadside shack that Earl built at the crest of a steep hill where cars often overheated. "They'd pull into the parking lot to let the car cool down," said Johnny B, "and that's when Dad would pop out of his little building and try to get them to pay ten cents to watch him jump in a pit and play with snakes."

Snake show.
Angry cobra, cautious trainer at the snake show.

As time passed, more tourists visited the Black Hills -- and nearly all of them visited Reptile Gardens. Earl expanded his square footage and then eventually built a huge "Sky Dome" facility along US Highway 16, a busy boulevard of attractions. Earl also broadened his zoologic universe to include alligators, crocodiles, giant tortoises, and lizards. Reptile Gardens now has the largest reptile collection in the world -- roughly 225 species -- as well as tropical parrots, birds of prey, thousands of exotic plants (the "gardens" part of Reptile Gardens) and an entire prairie dog town with pop-up plexiglass bubbles for close human interaction. "He wanted to add a lot of things for people that might not be fans of snakes," said Johnny B.

Reptile Gardens works hard to put happy faces on its animal inhabitants. Alert to changing public tastes, the attraction buried Earl's snake pit and retired its performing animals in favor of more up-close mingling and natural encounters. But the attraction has never abandoned Earl's sense of showmanship. Visitors enter Reptile Gardens armed with a map and a snake show schedule. They can pet a live python. They can "fish" for alligators with chicken scraps at the end of a bamboo pole.

Inside the dome.
Tropical plants thrive year-round inside the Sky Dome.

The soaring Sky Dome shelters two floors of temperature-and-humidity-controlled reptiles, including a 217-pound albino snake named Marilyn (a sign notes: "Rare - Exotic - Beautiful - Deadly"), as well as Komodo Dragons, geckos, iguanas, cobras, and vipers. A "World's Most Dangerous Snake" display is enhanced with photos illustrating the gruesome effects of a venomous bite. Two funhouse shape-shifting mirrors from the 1939 New York World's Fair are unexpected, but Johnny B explained their purpose. "Dad originally put them just before you went into the gift shop. He thought that if people were in a good mood they'd be more likely to buy something."

Reptile Gardens prairie dog dome.
Plexiglass bubble brings visitors close to the action in Prairie Dog Town.

Outdoors, visitors stop to gawk at Maniac, a 16-foot-long crocodile flown in from Australia. The paddock full of giant tortoises is a long-time kid pleaser, and a cartoon turtle mascot ("Shelly") wanders the grounds, posing with families. There are goofy photo ops, including a 60-year-old mini-Mount Rushmore -- which saves tourists the trouble of driving out to the real thing -- and snapshot-friendly spots where visitors can pretend to be swallowed by a cheerful gator or squeezed by a friendly snake.

We squeezed in some fun at Reptile Gardens.
Reptile Gardens has mastered the art of the photo-op.

About those snakes: Earl, who was interviewed countless times, always said that snakes were unfairly vilified, and that if you could convince a snake -- even a venomous one -- that you meant no harm, it would never attack you. This approach worked for Earl; he handled thousands of deadly snakes in his career -- once capturing 465 rattlers in a single day -- and was never bitten by one.

"It was crazy," said Johnny B of his father's life-long intimacy with snakes. "I have no idea how he did it and why he never got bit. All I know is I have no desire to try it."

Reptile Gardens

Address:
8955 US-16, Rapid City, SD
Directions:
Seven miles south of downtown Rapid City, on the southbound side of US-16.
Hours:
March-Nov. Summer daily 9-6, fewer hours Spring-Fall. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
800-335-0275
Admission:
$19 summer, lower prices Spring-Fall.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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