Scales & Tales

Reptile Gardens is Open in 2014

With the arrival of spring, Reptile Gardens is once again preparing to open their doors for the new season. Opening day will be Saturday, March 29, 2014 at 9AM. It will be their 77th year welcoming visitors from all over the world. New at Reptile Gardens for 2014 is their latest claim to fame. Reptile Gardens has been officially designated the World’s Largest Reptile Collection by the Guinness Book of World Records. In addition to the amazing reptile and amphibian collection, their botanical gardens continue to get more beautiful each year.

The staff at Reptile Gardens spent the winter getting the park ready for the 2014 season. The Garden Department made many changes in the beautiful tropical Safari Room, the nation’s original indoor jungle. The Reptile Department renovated and redecorated the exhibits and all the snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, amphibians, and bugs are back home and ready to greet visitors. After a successful visit to the Tucson Gem and Mineral show, along with visiting countless vendors, the Gift Shop and the Jungle Outpost Gallery are filled with fun new T-shirts, a wall of stunning jewelry, lots of great rocks, fossils, and mineral, and many other items – souvenirs, collectibles, keepsakes, and art works.

The busy season in the Black Hills is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, however Reptile Gardens is open through November.

Visit early in the season, before the crowds, and take advantage of a reduced admission which includes a pass to visit anytime you like as many times as you like throughout the season. Make a plan to visit this one of a kind attraction this year and get ready to make memories!

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Searching for a unique holiday gift? Search no farther than Reptile Gardens!

As the holidays approach, many people begin the quest for gifts that are memorable and out of the ordinary. Add to the season the busy shopping malls and outrageous prices, things can quickly become stressful. Do not despair … unique holiday gifts for everyone on your list can be found at Reptile Gardens!

The summer season has come to an end; however, Reptile Gardens is open through the month of November from 9 am – 3 pm daily. And as an added bonus, all items in the gift shop are 20% off! Escape the cold bite of the chilly air and visit the Sky Dome where it is always warm and tropical. Not interested in seeing our reptile friends and botanical gardens? No problem, visit the gift shop for free!

Reptile Garden’s gift shop is not just souvenirs – it has many unique holiday gift options from around the world. You will find a large variety of rocks, fossils, and minerals as well as hand-made jewelry, tribal art, and collectibles. There are also t-shirts, plush toys, and fun gadgets that you will not find anywhere else in the Black Hills.

This year, avoid the stress of holiday shopping and find the unique gifts that you are seeking. Enjoy a relaxing shopping experience and save money at Reptile Gardens.

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Conservation is For the Birds – No, Really

Ever year, Reptile Gardens, located in Rapid City, South Dakota welcomes thousands of visitors. Some of the highlights of this unique attraction include the alligator, snake and bird shows. These shows are meant to educate, entertain, and inspire. One show in particular also helps to support biodiversity. By definition, biodiversity is the variety of life on earth including all plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms.

Queenie the cockatoo and Ruby the macaw have a small portion of the Bird Show dedicated to showing their money making – or shall we say money taking skills. Under the direction of Bird Department Curators Julia Kittelson and Becky Beaton, these talented birds accept donations from visitors and place money into a donation box. During the summer of 2013 this resulted in almost $20,000 in donations.
birds
Where does the money go? On Sunday, September 22, the Black Hills Raptor Center held Art on the Wing. The Center rescues, and cares for injured or ill birds of prey from around the country. This fundraiser consisted of various artists creating original pieces in their medium of choice, using the Center’s feathered friends as their muse. There was a People’s Choice vote for one dollar per vote, and a live auction of the pieces. http://www.blackhillsraptorcenter.org/

Reptile Gardens’ Curator of Birds, Julia, presented the Black Hills Raptor Center with a check for $2,700 during this event. These funds were also collected by the birds, Queenie and Ruby, during the summer daily bird shows.

Rapid City native Wally Van Sickle began a conservation effort in 1991 named Idea Wild. The purpose of the organization is to minimize the loss of biodiversity by empowering people who work on the front lines of conservation efforts in developing countries. This non-profit organization has supported over 2300 projects in 70 developing countries since its inception over 22 years ago. More information and detailed stories of their efforts can be found at www.ideawild.org.

On August 17, Bird Dept Curators Julia Kittelson and Becky Beaton presented $17,404 to Wally VanSickle during the event Concert for Conservation, which featured Kory and the Fireflies, held in Main Street Square, Rapid City.

Reptile Gardens is dedicated to preserving wildlife and their habitats and is proud to support many wildlife and conservation organizations.

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The Rich History of New Guinea Tribal Artifacts

The tradition of tribal arts and crafts is well-rooted in New Guinea, stemming back thousands of years to well before European explorers first sighted the island in the 1500’s. Many people wrongfully assume that it is located in Africa – which is forgivable since there is a nation in Africa called Guinea. New Guinea is, in fact, the second largest island in the world and is located northeast of Australia.

We are proud to offer this unusual tribal artifacts here at Reptile Gardens. At first blush we assumed it would be something that would have a very limited appeal, that assumption was incorrect.

It all started when Reptile Gardens’ founder, Earl Brockelsby, brought back some New Guinea artifacts to sell in 1966. There wasn’t a lot of interest back then but that changed over time. In 1986, Earl’s nephew and Reptile Gardens’ CEO, Joe Maierhauser, picked up where Earl left off. Since then, Reptile Gardens has sold thousands of masks, figures and other tribal artifacts, not only to folks from here in heartland America but also to customers in all 50 states and in over 37 countries.

Photo taken by Earl Brockelsby in 1966

Photo taken by Earl Brockelsby in 1966

When people walk into our Jungle Outpost Gallery featuring New Guinea artifacts and see all the hundreds of masks and figures, most assume it is African but we also regularly hear it referred to as “Tiki stuff.” So what is the difference between Tiki and New Guinea artifacts?

Tikis are Polynesian, from the island cultures far out in the Pacific that include Hawaii and New Zealand, far to the east of New Guinea. The peoples of New Guinea belong to the cultural group called Melanesian. Melanesia encompasses the large island of New Guinea along with numerous smaller islands and island groups located nearby. The final cultural area of this part of the Pacific is known as Micronesia and encompasses a widespread group of tiny islands to the north and northeast of New Guinea. Even broadly speaking, all three regions have very distinctive art styles.

New Guinea is divided in half with independent Papua New Guinea on the east and Papua, a part of Indonesia, on the west. The island is so rugged and remote that many tribes lived within relatively few miles of each other for thousands of years and yet never knew the other existed. Some of the most remote villagers saw foreigners for the first time within the last 30 to 40 years and even now see them only rarely. Those who were aware of their neighbors often fought with them, practicing ritualized warfare as well as headhunting. Headhunting is something that some older men still remember and practiced not all that long ago.

Overmodeled ancestor skull, middle Sepik river

Overmodeled ancestor skull, middle Sepik river

Because of the isolation of the villages, the number of languages listed for New Guinea is 832. Of those, 823 are living languages and 9 are considered to be extinct. It has been reported that New Guinea has one language for every 350 square miles. There are just 3000 languages in the entire world. So, the island of New Guinea, which is just 2/3 the size of Texas with a population similar to South Carolina, has over 25% of the world’s languages!

New Guinea has been famous for its incredible art for almost two centuries. The most beautiful and the largest quantities of art come from the villages of the Sepik River and its many tributaries. Roughly 260,000 people live along the Sepik. The artists of the Sepik River are rightfully considered to be some of the finest traditional artists in the world because of their technical skills and lively, visually exciting art.

Masks in the Korogo village Men's House

Masks in the Korogo village Men’s House

Masks and figures are used in New Guinea for many events. They are used for both public ceremonies, like housewarmings, as well as for secret rites in the men’s spirit house. The images are generally of ancestors, tribal, clan, and personal, with such things as important clan totem animals and plants incorporated. There are also bush spirits, both benevolent and malevolent. Most ancestor figures and masks are made and kept in the men’s house. They call upon the ancestors to drive away evil spirit beings keeping the village and family safe. Family ancestor figures are often kept in the homes of the person’s direct descendants; some small ones are even carried in a person’s woven string bag called a bilum.

Although designs are somewhat standardized based on clan and family-owned imagery, there is a tremendous amount of room for personal expression. Most pieces are made of wood with additional decoration of mud, natural pigments made with berries, seeds, soot, lime, and clays, as well as commercial paints, boar tusks, hair, grass, fur, basketry, cassowary feathers, and shells.

Mwai mask, middle Sepik river

Mwai mask, middle Sepik river

Tribal Art is a very special type of art. It is rarely made strictly for its own sake. Many tribal artifacts have a ceremonial purpose but many are secular in use – decorated utilitarian items. However, all the decoration has a purpose and is rarely produced just for its own sake. Even the most aesthetically beautiful designs have significance. It is important to keep in mind that even when a piece is made by an artist strictly to be sold for the art market or the tourist trade it maintains its roots and basic design in the past and the powerful belief system that spawned it.

Bone dagger, Abelam people

Bone dagger, Abelam people

With just a basic understanding of tribal art you can get a great deal of pleasure from it. It is a powerful art form that is alive – filled with beauty and vitality. The imagery isn’t an important part of the lives of the people who create it, it is their life.

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Orchids – Nature’s Eye Candy

When you think of orchids in nature, what conjures in your mind – lush rainforests, exotic locations, and wedding boutonnieres? There are over 20,000 different kinds of orchids, not including countless thousands of hybrid varieties. Orchids live in on every continent of the world except Antarctica. This diverse and surprisingly hardy flowering plant comes in many shapes and sizes. We even have native orchids here in South Dakota. The flower of each variety has a unique and delicate character that is fascinating to the eye. Read on to discover just a few of the most common types of orchids.


Cattleya2
Cattleya Orchids: Derived largely from South America, these orchids typically have large showy blooms and are probably what most people think of when picturing an orchid flower, as they are otherwise known as the Corsage Orchid. They have a shorter bloom length than some of their relatives and are generally found in lavenders and whites.


Paphiopedilium
Phalaenopsis Orchids: These orchids are found throughout Southeast Asia and are one of the most common orchids sold today. Many hybrids have been created that adapt well to home environments. Bloom length can be up to three months and common colors are white, purple, pink and yellow. This orchid is commonly known as a Moth Orchid.


Cymbidium2
Cymbidium Orchids: “Boat Orchids” are native to Asia and northern Australia and were one of the first orchids to be cultivated. They are a little more tolerant to colder temperatures and will bloom from winter into spring. Colors include, but aren’t limited to: white, green, yellowish-green, cream, brown and red.


Dendrobium
Dendrobium Orchids: These are diverse group common to Southeast Asia, found growing in tropical lowlands and in higher altitudes. There are approximately 1,200 species making them one of the largest of the orchid groups. Common names for these popular plants are Bamboo Orchid and Singapore Orchid. Bloom length is approximately 8 to 10 weeks and common colors are white, purple, yellow, green and varying shades of pink.


Oncidium
Oncidium Orchids: The “Dancing Lady” can be found in South America, northern Mexico, the Caribbean and parts of south Florida. They put on quite a show with their long flower spikes containing dozens of blooms. Blooms last approximately 2 to 4 weeks and they are most commonly found in golden tones and yellow with shades of brown. The popular Chocolate Orchid is an Oncidium, which got its name not from its color but for its fragrance.


Paphiopedilium
Paphiopedelium Orchids: This orchid, also known as the “Lady Slipper,” is often identified by the unique shape of the flower petals. These beauties come from a huge area in the Old World, including India and China through Indonesia and the Philippines to New Guinea. Colors range from white to brilliant red, with everything in between. The Lady Slipper grows glossy foliage and large blooms that can last for months, making this orchid a favorite among many.


Miltonia
Miltonia Orchids: Miltonias are warm-growing orchids which come from Brazil. The flowers vary in colors – red, white, yellow and pink with different colored markings. The “Pansy Orchid” is one of the most fragrant of the orchids, making it a favorite for growing at home.


No matter what your orchid preference, this flower offers something for everyone. With a huge range of colors and shapes, and a history that transcends continents and time, it’s no wonder a beautiful orchid can capture your eye, and bring you a feeling of Zen. Visit the Sky Dome at Reptile Gardens, and be transported to a world of lush and exotic orchids, anytime!

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Gator Watch in Akron, Ohio!

If you happen to be at the All-American Soapbox Derby in Akron, Ohio the weekend of July 20 and 21, 2013, you may recognize something very familiar.

Ally Claar, age 11, will be competing with the best of the best soapbox racers in her Reptile Gardens inspired entry, the Ally-Gator. Ally qualified to go to the All-American with her race time in the Pikes Peak Soap Box Derby in June.

The Soap Box Derby is a youth racing program that has been running nationwide since 1934. The World Championship finals are held annually in July for each of the Stock, Super Stock, and Masters division Soap Box Derby races. Attendees and competitors are from locations around the globe.

More than 550 youth between the ages of 7 and 17 represented their home communities in the 75th All-American Soap Box Derby on Saturday, July 21, 2012. They came from 40 states in the United States, as well as from Canada, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, and qualified with the racers they had built and driven to victory in their home communities. This year again, the event is predicted to be well attended with entries from around the world.

Local champions from each of the Stock, Super Stock and Masters Division Soap Box Derby races throughout the world come to Akron in July each year to compete for scholarships, merchandise, and prizes in the All-American Soap Box Derby.

We will certainly be cheering for the Ally-Gator in this year’s event!
ally gator

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I Just Found a Deadly Coral Snake…Well No, Not in South Dakota You Didn’t.

 

Pale Milksnake

One of the most common snakes in South Dakota, west of the Missouri River, is a little-seen snake called the Pale Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum multistriata). These snakes are surprisingly common around here but are very secretive and so, people are often not familiar with them.  They love the rains in the spring and fall, which increases the likelihood of encounters with humans.

We get many calls from concerned residents and visitors to the Black Hills about the “Coral snake” they just found in their yard or while hiking. Coral snakes are highly venomous species of snakes native to the southern part of the U.S. There are also a number of species in Central and South America. US Coral snake species do closely resemble some species of milksnakes, including the Pale milksnake. However, our wonderful Pale milksnakes are totally harmless. In the case of US coral snakes vs the Pale milksnake, the old saying: “Red to yellow, kill a fellow – Red to black venom lack” holds true. But, I must add, with both milksnakes and coral snakes, this is not a hard and fast rule.

This is what a southeastern US Coral Snake looks like.

This is what a southeastern US Coral Snake looks like.

They use their bright colors to intimidate would-be predators and make those predators (and us) think they are Coral snakes. Bright colors, when found in nature, often indicate the animal either tastes bad or is potentially dangerous.  The milksnake’s color mimicry of the Coral snake is very effective in keeping them safe, except when worried citizens kill them thinking they are killing a deadly Coral snake.

Pale Milksnake

Pale Milksnake

This is probably my favorite native snake species in South Dakota.  Keep an eye out for them on walking paths and roadways. They often hang out under rotting logs or lumber and in other places they can hide and find their favorite foods. When you see them, don’t harm them – enjoy these little rodent-eating machines!  But, it is not just rodents. These snakes also feed on bugs, lizards and other snakes as well, including juvenile and young Prairie Rattlesnakes!!  Small and wonderful, Pale Milks rarely get larger than 24 inches. Most of the ones brought in to us are about the size of a pencil.

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Hold My Beer and Watch This!

So, now that we know how to avoid rattlesnakes and what to do if we encounter one. What should we do if we don’t follow Terry’s advice and leave all snakes alone?  What if the odd encounter happens where we unknowingly step on or sit next to a rattlesnake and the unfortunate occurs?

A large Prairie RattlesnakeBites from Prairie Rattlesnakes are very rare in South Dakota, in a normal year hospitals see one to two dozen rattlesnake bites to humans. And like I said, the vast majority of these are people who try to catch, kill, or tease them. Statistically, being a male between 16-25 years of age with some level of alcohol in the system is the number one precursor to venomous snakebite.  I suggest that “Hold my beer and watch this” is not an appropriate behavior when encountering rattlesnakes.

Rattlesnake bites are a medical emergency and prompt proper antivenom therapy in a hospital is the only accepted treatment for snakebites. Do not follow the advice of others who suggest any of the following. I repeat DO NOT:

Cut and suck the fang marks.

Apply a tourniquet

Apply heat

Apply Ice

Apply tobacco

Hook yourself up to your car battery

Use a stun gun

Take any type of drug or alcohol

Or any of the other recommendations that just sounds odd

 

DO THIS INSTEAD:

Remain calm, you have time and won’t drop dead in minutes

Call 911

Remove any and all jewelry from the extremity

Apply a splint to limit joint mobility if possible

Have someone transport you to the nearest medical facility

 

Fatalities are rare from rattlesnake bites in this country. There are 5-10,000 snakebites in the U.S every year with less than half a dozen fatalities annually.  In the State of South Dakota, to my knowledge there has not been a rattlesnake bite fatality in over 60 years. Quality rapid transport and prompt proper antivenom therapy in a hospital keeps fatalities to a minimum.

So, what should you do when you encounter that rattlesnake?  Immediately, stop, look around and try to find its location, move slowly away from it to a safe distance of several feet –several miles if you prefer. Please take my advice and leave them alone, there is no need to kill them in this situation and to put yourself in danger. Take a picture and enjoy the beauty of western South Dakota and its wonderful inhabitants! And finally, enjoy and tell that wonderful tale of your encounter with a rattlesnake to all of your friends and family on the patio under the amazing stars in the sky of this wonderful state!

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Why in MY Yard?

Snakes are an integral part of our ecosystem and are, in fact, the number one predator of rodents and other little creatures we consider pests.  These pests can be carriers of even nastier pests and diseases.  So, in fact, we should be grateful for our legless neighbors.

All that said, what should be done when we find that a rattlesnake has disrupted the sanctity of our backyard where we want our children and pets to romp and play without a care in the world? Naturally, the best thing to do in the event of a rattlesnake encounter is simply to leave them alone. The number one reason people are bitten by venomous snakes throughout this country is because of the attempt to catch, kill, or tease them when we find them. But I have kids and I certainly understand people not wanting to have rattlesnakes in or around their homes. But, catching, killing, or messing with wildlife of any type, for any reason, is a basic recipe for a trip to the Emergency Room. And in the case of a rattlesnake envenomation, a very expensive trip to the E.R.

Simply left alone snakes will generally continue on with their nomadic summer lifestyles. The venom of the rattlesnake is designed to secure their food, which in this case is rodents of various types, as well as defending themselves from all manner of natural and unnatural predators. Coyotes, foxes, badgers, skunks, wild turkeys, and birds of prey are all natural predators of the Prairie Rattlesnake.  And now, the garden shovel, rake, hoe, car tire, boot, six-pack of beer and shotgun are all unnatural predators of the rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes do not actively seek out confrontations with any of their natural enemies, humans included. A rattlesnake will always attempt to find a place to retreat, or hide to avoid being detected. So, if that rattlesnake does end up in your yard or garden, my professional opinion is to just leave him alone. Let him move on since chances are he is just passing through. Honestly, this is the safest way to interact with a rattlesnake.

Young Prairie RattlesnakeBut hey! Why did he choose MY yard instead of the neighbors? Rattlesnakes are reasonably intelligent cold-blooded reptiles that require just a few things to be happy:  Food, water, shelter, and a mate.  Unfortunately, our homes’ manicured lawns and gardens provide a 5 star resort for our scaly friends. Rattlesnakes have been found in all parts of Rapid City, from the outskirts to downtown. No area is completely devoid of snake activity. The best way to avoid an encounter with a rattlesnake is to take a look at your property and see if you can determine what is so attractive about your yard versus the yard next door. I recommend keeping your grass cut short, shrubs trimmed up from the ground a foot or so. Remove any and all trash piles, rock piles, woodpiles and other sources of cover and try to eliminate their food source by removing any rodent populations. Get rid of those four things that snakes need and your likelihood of a slithery encounter will be reduced dramatically.

But I know many of you will not be willing to wait for your snake visitor to move on. If you feel you must kill it then do be careful. Even though stories of snakes continuing to live for hours or days after losing their heads is completely false, muscle twitches can cause a severed head to “bite” for a while afterwards. So, it is possible to get envenomated by a dead rattler. I know animal control is quite busy during the summer catching snakes in yards and bringing them to us so you might be able to get them to assist you. Although honestly the snake will likely have moved on before they even get to your house.

Many people think that snakes like it hot when in fact they prefer temperatures closer to the ones we enjoy. A temperature of about 80 degrees is perfect for all aspects of a rattlesnake’s life. We have an increase in calls here and rattlesnake encounters out there beginning in mid-May to early June because the snakes are active during the day, same as we are.  As summer rolls in and the temperatures get higher, rattlesnakes start becoming active in the early morning hours, evenings and overnight, again, much like our own outdoor activity periods. We start gardening in the morning, mowing in the evenings and relaxing on the patio at night to avoid the heat of the day. So we continue our encounters until the fall. Mid-October finds the rattlesnakes back at their den sites getting ready for a long winter nap underground.

In part 3 I will discuss snakebite – what to do and not to do.

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Springtime Means Warmth and Flowers and, Yes, Rattlesnakes

It’s that time of year again – Spring in Western South Dakota. Our spring brings rain (maybe), sunshine, green grass, the occasional snowstorm, tourists, and of course rattlesnakes.

Pretty soon we will start getting frantic phone calls from local folk with snakes in their yard and from animal control with rattlesnakes in buckets that they got from those same yards. We will hear from people asking how to avoid them when hiking, camping and fishing, from those who want to know how to keep rattlesnakes out of houses, garages and yards, and, of course, what to do if they encounter a snake.

Photographed in the Badlands by Earl Brockelsby.

Photographed in the Badlands by Earl Brockelsby.

In order to answer those questions we must first begin by explaining a little about the natural history of our slithery adversary. The only rattlesnakes found in western South Dakota are known as Prairie Rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis). These snakes communally overwinter (den) throughout the area, with some undisturbed den sites numbering in the hundreds of snakes. They must stay far enough underground to stay below the frost line, which is about 6 feet here. Rattlesnakes use the same den sites year after year, decade after decade, even century after century as long as it is undisturbed by humans and our construction machines of progress. I get calls every week from people who believe a snake den has spontaneously erupted under their house or in their back yard. Fortunately, this does not occur, as the snakes continue to use the same dens they have for years. As snakes begin to emerge for the year, usually in mid-April, they will stay close to the den for some time – several weeks in fact. They enjoy the day’s warm sunshine but stay close to their dens for protection from the overnight low temperatures and occasional snowstorm.

By early to mid-May, rattlesnakes begin moving farther and farther from their overwintering areas on the lookout for food, water, mates, and temporary shelter.  Female snakes usually stay relatively close to home for the summer months, normally within a mile or so of the den. However males can be found traveling five or more miles away from their dens over the course of the season.  They are fueled by Spring fever – promises of romance and fresh rodent populations to ravage.

This is when the calls start coming in. My answer to most of the questions is simply: We have chosen to live in western South Dakota in all its glory. Part of that glory is things like bees, box elder bugs, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes.  We should count ourselves fortunate to not have the crime, traffic and smog of big cities! It is a simple fact of life that rattlesnakes inhabit all areas of Western South Dakota – the prairies, streams and lakeshores, the Badlands, to the top of Harney Peak, even our towns, cities and backyards.

One should always keep in mind the possibility of encountering our only dangerous species of snake – the Prairie Rattlesnake.  It is also important to remember: ALL the other types of snakes in this area are harmless to humans. There are no coral snakes, puff adders, or anything else dangerous.

The snakes were here first and so they were the original beings with unwelcome neighbors moving into their yards. That would be us, the humans, the stewards of our planet. So, how do we cohabitate? That’s what folks want to know, well, that and of course the best way to get rid of the snakes?

Stay tuned for part 2 – What to do to avoid rattlesnake encounters and what to do when you do meet one.

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