Scales & Tales

Bird’s Eye View from Reptile Gardens, Volume 2

I hope everyone survived the winter – and I hope winter is done for all of us in general. We are now in our spring season here at Reptile Gardens and we opened our doors on March 4th! If you are interested in seeing our new additions to the lower ring of our Dome and check out the spring bird and snake programs, along with all the other exhibits and the tropical flowers, now is the time to come. SkyDome

The crowds are still small and the entry prices are lower so if you want to save some money and get a jump on the summer, our spring season is the one for you. And, if you are from the region it is very beneficial to visit now and get your season passes, available even with the lower spring price! No extra charge for the season pass, pay once and return the rest of the season for free.

exhibitThe Reptile department has put in a few new exhibits, including the already very popular baby alligator and baby turtle aquarium. Around the lower ring of the Dome we have had a fantastic artist, Andy Hade, working all winter on fun informative signs and now on a mural that is already starting to look great.

And watch for our fun new “Fact or Fiction” wall coming soon. Along with that, they are finishing up a glass wall that encircles the gator arena, which will not only keep all of us safe but also allow everyone a better view of that ever-popular show. That’s just some of the changes you can find this spring.









The Bird department is doing spring bird programs – they are small compared to our summer shows but are in a very intimate setting, allowing Guests to ask questions and see our birds up close. We are, of course, preparing for our summer shows, which requires quite a lot of training and planning. Every year we try to offer you something a bit different so we have to write a new script and plan out the birds’ behaviors. This year we are trying some new behaviors with our birds and adding a few new bird species, so we are looking forward to an exciting summer program.summer-show

With the snow currently melted (hopefully till next winter) it is the perfect time to grab the kids and get outside! We hope to see you all soon! And, if anyone has a lot of extra time on their hands this summer and is interested in a seasonal position, we are currently hiring in a few of our departments. Want a summer job? Just check out our website where we have online applications for you to fill out.

Keep your eyes to the skies for more accounts from a Bird’s Eye View! Watch for behind-the-scenes staff member interviews that are coming in the near future.

Assistant Curator of Birds

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Here We Go Again and Again and Again! A stupid snake story rears its ugly head one more time.

This photo has been floating around the Internet since 2010 and now for the new year 2017, here it is again. So, I will rerun the post I made about it during its 2012 appearance. Some of the “facts”  have changed a bit from the last time it showed up as it always the case with pure fabrication.Stupid Snake story-1

Will these stories never go away? I suppose not.

Here is the story it came with this time around:
“THIS IS NOT A PYTHON! This is a 15 foot Western Diamondback rattlesnake – the largest ever caught on record. This snake was found Near the St. Augustine outlet, in a new KB homes subdivision just south of Mesa AZ. A little research revealed the following: One bite from a snake of this size would contain enough venom to kill over 40 full grown men. The head of this snake alone is larger than the hand of a normal sized man. A bite from those fangs would be comparable to being stabbed by two curved, 1/4 inch diameter screwdrivers. The knife being used to draw out the fangs for the bottom picture has a blade around 6 inch long. This snake is estimated to have weighed over 170 pounds. Notice the girth of this snake as compared to the cop’s leg in the first picture. A snake of this size could easily swallow a 2 year-old child and dogs, pigs, etc. A snake this size has an approximately 5 1/2 foot accurate striking distance. (The distance for an average size rattlesnake is about 2 feet.) This snake has probably been alive since George Bush Sr. was President. Now just ask yourself: What has this snake been feeding on and where are its offspring?”
Now, let’s debunk this thing again:

  1. This isn’t in Arizona, it is in St John’s county Florida, says so right on the sheriff’s car! Tuscan Villa Court is in St Augustine, Florida. That took me 30 seconds on Google Maps to determine. This time around some enterprising person noticed the signs and moved the location to Mesa, Arizona instead of Laughlin Ranch, AZ on the border of NV. Boy this poor snake gets around well for dead animal.
  1. This is not a Western Diamondback, it is an Eastern Diamondbacks and Eastern Diamondbacks are not found in Arizona, they are found….in Florida.It is nowhere near 15 feet long, perspective, perspective, perspective. And get real – could one guy actually hold up a 170 pound (or even a 50 pound) anything on a long aluminum stick the size of a broomstick? Could you lift one of your friends of similar weight with that stick and then not have it bend in half? No, of course not. This nice big diamondback looks to be around 5 feet long and weighed probably around 10 pounds. Big, but nothing record-setting.


Given the actual facts of this snake’s size I realize the other points of the story become totally irrelevant. But, let’s mention them anyway, just for fun:

  1. A bite from this snake could possibly kill ONE person but that isn’t even likely, especially with antivenom. Check out where an Eastern Diamondback fits into the list of venomous snakes on the deadly snakes page on our website:
  1. This snake could not swallow a 2 year-old child or pretty much any pet except your pet guinea pig or pet rat.
  1. Maximum striking distance would be around 2 feet only because this is a slightly above average snake.
  1. The knife in one of the photos is actually just a normal pocketknife.snakestory3

Is a large Diamondback a dangerous snake? Absolutely. Let’s just not throw logic out the window when looking at such photos.

Here is how you make something look bigger or smaller than it really is. It is called forced perspective.



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Birds Eye View from Reptile Gardens

Hello all animal and plant lovers/nerds!

All of the staff and animals here at Reptile Gardens are just now settling down for, what appears to be, a chilly winter season. Everything is starting to shift gears from our busy fall schedule to an all ready chock full winter list of chores and updates!


Soaking up some sun in the dome.

The most common questions I get from friends and Guests around this time of year are “what do you do now?” and “where do all the animals and plants go?”  I always start with the simple answer of “ we basically are maids (clean and feed)” or “they go inside… duh!” (if I’m feeling sassy). There are, of course, much longer and more in depth answers that most people don’t always have time to listen to. What’s that you say? You are very interested and have all the time in the world? Well then you are in for a treat!

Staying inside where it's warm.

Staying inside where it’s warm.

My name is Teresa and I am assistant curator of birds at Reptile Gardens; fancy words meaning I have cleaned bird poop for many years and now help my boss manage the birds and people in our department. I am one of the 22 staff members that work here all year round. We keep this place going until we open in the spring. Our summer staff of 100 drops to 22, due to smaller crowds plus many employees return to school as students or teachers. It is almost relaxing to have such small numbers in the off season and is quite nice to have more one on one time with the Guests who visit us in the fall.

Then the end of fall shows comes and everyone is looking forward to even more alone time to start on projects. Sometimes it feels like winter could not have come soon enough but believe me, soon we will be missing the crowds and new faces and longing for the projects to end!

Basically what we are doing is prepping and primping. Two small words to describe a

Prepping for winter.

Prepping for winter.

whole lot of work! Every year all of the departments strive to improve our facility and bring new and exciting things to our shows and displays to mix it up for returning Guests. Each department starts planning changes for the summer and starts on plans that have been put on the back burner till we close. There are already new concrete sidewalks and the reptile and maintenance departments are finishing up the long process of putting up clear fencing around the gator arena. Pretty sure they can’t wait for all that work to be over with!

The garden department is now starting the looooong process of finding plants and sketching out plans for the many flowerbeds around the grounds. It sounds pretty simple but they always challenge themselves to change things up every year and that takes a lot of work!


Doing some maintenance before it gets cold.

The reptile and bug departments are constantly updating displays and always adding to the different collections of animals we have. While also constantly having to keep the temperatures high for their animals since South Dakota weather refuses to mimic nice warm jungles! And last but not least, the bird department works to keep the birds happy and healthy to the best of our ability while also welcoming a new member to bird department family. The curator of the bird department, Julia Kittelson, has brought a new bundle of joy to her family and we are so excited to include her in the large Reptile Gardens family!

Wishing you all happy and warm holidays (probably not quite as warm as our snake enclosures though). Drive safe and eat lots! Keep your eyes to the skies for another account from a bird’s eye view.

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Antivenin vs Antivenom

In conversation with friends and Guests it occurred to me recently that the average person knows virtually nothing about antivenoms. Not that most people should, it really doesn’t impact their lives. However, I have also found most people are quite fascinated when I tell them about this unique medicine.

 Antivenin vs Antivenom


Antivenin inventory

Antivenom is also known as antivenin (sometimes pronounced “antiveneen”). It was originally developed in France in the late 19th century at the Pasteur Institute and so the French word became the most commonly used name for it. Although many of us who have been in the business a long time still use the old term, the more common word these days is antivenom, the English version.

What Does Antivenom Do?

Snake venoms are extremely complex and vary considerably from species to species. In fact, research has shown that a single snake’s venom can vary markedly on a daily or, yes, even hourly basis. At any rate, because their effects are so different, I can’t go into the details of how each antivenom works. Suffice it to say its purpose is to neutralize venoms so they don’t kill you.

Where Do You Get Antivenom?


Antivenom supply

There are venom labs in a number of countries around the world that produce specific antitoxins for the snakes in their region or for specific regions of the world where it is needed. Since our collection of deadly snakes is second to none, we need antivenoms from most of the manufacturers, and lots of it. We get antivenoms from Mexico, Costa Rica, Germany, South Africa, Thailand, India, and Australia.

How Do You Get It?

Antivenoms are considered to be an “Investigational New Drug” by the United States Food and Drug Administration (even though they have been around since the late 19th century). So, therefore they are heavily regulated. Anyone buying, keeping, and potentially using antivenom is required to go through an approval process and to have been issued an IND number (Investigational New Drug number).



But once you get your IND # you don’t just go online and order from Amazon. The next step is to apply for a US government permit to import a specific venom lab’s antivenoms, the specific types being requested and quantities of each. Orders from separate labs require separate permit applications. The permit application process can take many months. It requires us to detail what we want and why we want it, provide information regarding what our bite protocol is, how we will be importing it, how we will store it, and how we will dispose of expired antivenoms if we don’t use them.

While applying for the import permit we also begin the process of contacting the venom lab to see what antivenoms they have in stock and, critically, what the expiration dates are on the stock we would receive. Some antivenoms are good for only two years. If we order just before a new production run then we could spend a lot of effort and money on antivenom that will expire just a few months after we get it. Therefore, we always try to get the freshest batches possible for the longest shelf life.

Temple Viper

Temple Viper

There are two main types of antivenom: vials containing liquid antivenom, which is rather delicate and requires constant refrigeration. If a shipment is delayed and the box is left, say, out in the sun on the tarmac or in a hot airport warehouse for too long then its efficacy can be greatly diminished. This is not something you want to find out when you need it. The other type is known as lyophilized which is freeze-dried and is then reconstituted in the vial at time of use. This type is far more stable and can take somewhat warmer temperatures than the liquid type. However, this type is considered by some in the business to be slightly less effective.

As soon as the permit arrives we complete the order with the venom lab and arrange a bank transfer for payment. They arrange the shipping but we have to contact our customs broker who is needed to clear the shipment through US Customs and get the package on to us as quickly as possible.

Because of the lengthy process we usually start working on getting fresh antivenom a year or more before our current stock expires. Once it finally arrives it goes in a special refrigerator that holds only our antivenom stock. When we have the new stock we dispose of our oldest stock as per methods required by US government regulation.

How Much Do You Need and How Much Does It Cost?

Quantities needed to neutralize a bite vary. We try to keep enough antivenom to neutralize a really bad envenomation by each and every species of snake we have. Some of our snakes are so rare that there is no specific antivenom for its bite so we stock up on one that specialists consider close enough to do the job – at least good enough to keep you alive.

The vials vary in size but for example:

  • A single vial of Boomslang antivenom costs $5500 and one could require up to 3 vials to counteract a serious bite.
  • A King Cobra bite could require 20 vials, although 50 is not unheard of. Fortunately it is a much cheaper antivenom (though also not as effective as others either) at just $40 per vial.
  • For a Taipan bite one might need 7 to 10 vials at $2100 per vial. A Gaboon Viper bite could require 20 or more vials which cost $315 each.

The synthetic American antivenom used to treat rattlesnake bites is often priced like a retail commodity with no regulation – a hospital pharmacy can charge whatever they want. We have heard of pharmacies in the US charging up to $10,000 per vial. Not long ago an individual was given 110 vials of antivenom for a prairie rattlesnake bite (although 10 to 20 is more typical for prairie rattlesnake bites)

Then, of course, along with the antivenom costs, you have to add in all the other hospital costs, intensive care and all which in the case of a bad viper bite could easily top a quarter of a million dollars.

Depending on what we need to replace, we normally spend anywhere from $10,000 to

This King Cobra is getting a dose of medication. Notice the large drop of venom.

This King Cobra is getting a dose of medication. Notice the large drop of venom.

$50,000 per year on antivenom. I consider it like any other insurance policy, something you must have but hope you never need. The good news: In our 79-year history we have never had to use our antivenom for a bite here at Reptile Gardens. On occasion we send antivenom to hospitals in other parts of the US when some zookeeper, or private individual who keeps venomous snakes, gets bitten.

At the end of each calendar year, we are required to send a detailed and very specific annual report regarding our antivenom stock, what we have on hand, if we used any including details of the use or if we sent it to someone else, what we imported, what we destroyed and how.






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Bird Brains: Training Exotic Birds and Birds of Prey

Have you ever had someone call you a bird brain? Usually that means that they are saying you’re not too smart. Yet, sometimes we use an owl as a symbol for being wise. Mixed signals, right? I think this is a pretty good example of exactly how little we know about what birds are thinking.

Unfortunately, birds can’t tell us what they are thinking, so we can’t be 100% certain about how they feel and what they want. However, that does make working with animals more fun. Gotta love a challenge! Instead of listening to them tell us what they think, we have to learn to pick up on their subtle hints.

Birds of Prey

Our Lanner Falcon, Gypsy

In my experience, the most successful form for training both exotic birds and birds of prey is positive reinforcement. Simply put, whenever they do a desired behavior, they receive a reward. Whenever they do an unwanted behavior, they receive nothing. Pretty straightforward, but not always so easy to execute. When people “train” their children or their cats or dogs, some type of punishment is often part of the training. When working with birds, punishment either does not affect them or far worse, it can cause them to become confused or aggressive. In essence, it really doesn’t work well for them.

The birds we have at Reptile Gardens, both exotic birds and birds of prey, are all trained using the positive reinforcement method and it is highly successful…for the most part. Have you ever looked back at something you have done and just thought, “Ooops!”? Well, that has happened many times in the bird department. We are training birds to do both show behaviors and general husbandry behaviors. Occasionally things don’t go as planned.

Exotic Bird

Ruby, the Green-winged Macaw

While in the parrot room, it happens quite often that one parrot will start to scream and all the others will follow suit. When that happens, the sound quickly becomes unbearable to listen too. After being in the parrot room for hours, scrubbing cages and listening to that sound, there are many things that you might want to yell to get them to stop. We aren’t sure when someone decided to shout “Stop!” while the parrots were screaming, but we are pretty sure someone must have. This is because our lovely, Green-winged Macaw, Ruby, now adds to the screaming with her own high pitched “STOP!” Of course, this does not make the parrots stop, it just adds to their loud chorus. That is not a behavior that we would like but has been trained.

Speaking of screaming, some exotic birds like our Moluccan Cockatoo, Queenie, has a less than pleasant habit of loudly announcing her presence while in the Safari Room of our Sky Dome. Often her yells sound like she is in peril so it causes people to go check her out to

Exotic Bird

Our Moluccan Cockatoo, Queenie

make sure she is okay. Parrots, as many pets do as well, tend to take any kind of attention (positive or negative) as a reward. So, whenever someone would go look at Queenie she would see it as prize for her screaming. Now it seems that if she is bored and wants someone to come keep her company, she will yell to her heart’s delight and magically a person will appear! It’s really disturbing when our birds train us! Now we have to try our hardest to ignore that behavior and hope it eventually goes away.

Birds of Prey

Our Lanner Falcon, Gypsy

Training our birds of prey is very similar to how we train our other birds like parrots and exotic birds, except for the fact that their only reward is food. Raptors really don’t seem to care if you give them praise or not. They are just there for the delicious rat and mouse pieces. Our Lanner Falcon, Gypsy, flies on stage while chasing a prop called a lure. The basic idea is that we throw the lure towards the falcon and pull it away at the last second so that he has to come back around again to try to catch it. This action is much like what a falcon hunting prey in the wild experiences. We do this 2 to 4 times depending on how Gypsy is reacting to the lure.

I’m sure it is pretty easy to see how things can go wrong. You have to be able to give him the lure close enough to the lure so that he feels like he might catch but not so close that you hit him with it. There is a very fine line between those two things! Either he gets the lure so fast that he barely flies around the audience, or he decides that you aren’t actually going to give him the lure so he flies away.  Both options are no fun. That is why, when you swing the lure perfectly, you want to do a little jig!

So whether it’s a bird of prey like falcon flying towards your face at top speeds or a parrot screaming happily in your ears, training is very specific and important. Oh, and next time some one calls you a bird brain, you can tell them how complex and awesome bird’s brains are and that the joke is on them!


Except for those owls who, frankly, don’t have a whole lot going on inside their skulls. Sorry owl lovers.

Teresa Aldrich

Assistant Curator of Birds

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Do They Mate For Life?

When our parrots and owls are on their walks through the park, curious Guests often ask “Do they mate for life?” I always say “Well… sort of.” There is rarely enough time to delve into the sordid details of avian love, but with Valentine’s Day approaching, I thought I’d give it a try!

PigeonBirds, a bit more than other animal groups, have a reputation for being faithful partners. Doves can be found in religious texts as symbols of innocence and fidelity, there are many accounts of the same bird couple returning to the same nest site year after year, and we have even named some of them “lovebirds.”

Well, the truth is, love is a many-splendored thing, and monogamy is more complex in the bird world than we used to think.


The large and colorful Cassowary

Monogamy is the term used when one bird pairs with one other bird for the long term. But it isn’t the only option. Our state bird, the Ring-necked Pheasant, is one of the species that utilizes polygyny – one male mates with multiple females. The brilliantly colored male often travels with his group of females to defend them from rivals during the breeding season. However, he has little to do with caring for the chicks. The flip side of the coin is polyandry, one female mating with multiple males. This is a bit rarer, but not unheard of – the cassowaries, jacanas, and phalaropes are among those species where the females mate with multiple males. A lady phalarope will lay a clutch of eggs for the father to care for, and then leave to look for more partners.

In fact, there isn’t even one form of monogamy. Some birds bond with a single partner, but only for as long as a single breeding season lasts – this seems to be the case with the Northern Cardinal and Black-capped Chickadee. Many songbirds have what is called “social monogamy,” where the male and female only consort socially with one partner. But if you did a genetic test on their hatchlings, you might find some oddballs! These are the lovechildren of quick trysts outside of the pair bond. “Genetic monogamy,” where a pair of birds is socially bonded and sexually exclusive, is much rarer. Finally, even the most faithful of birds can hit a rough patch, and yes, get divorced.

You can hardly blame past scientists for assuming the birds they saw devotedly preening each other were monogamous. Who can keep eyes on a bird 24/7 in impassable jungle? It was only with the development of genetic testing that we began to realize just how rare monogamy actually was.

Why stay together at all? Monogamy seems to be favored in species with comparatively long lifespans, slow reproductive rates, and needy babies (Emperor Penguins, Bald Eagles, Greater Flamingos, Military Macaws etc). Chances of chick survival in these species are often much better with two parents around to provide care.


A pair of Eclectus parrots, male on the left, female on the right.

Yet even in these groups, cheating and divorce can occur. And their cousins may thrive with a completely different system. A Military Macaw like our Bubba may never stray from his girl, but across the world, his little green cousin the Eclectus parrot is bringing a delicious treat to his red-and-blue lady huddled in her tree cavity… then flying a ways to give another treat to his other lady… whilst a different male brings tidbits to the female he just left! On rare occasions, Bubba’s neighbors might not even get the species right, resulting in hybrids like our Catalina Macaw, Nazca.


Nazca the hybrid Catalina Macaw

It may seem like science has exposed bird relations as a messy soap opera, but for me, it highlights something nature cherishes most: diversity. Diverse strategies and genes improve the chance of surviving the many challenges of life on Earth.

If you are spending Valentine’s Day with your sweetheart, enjoy yourselves! If you are not, try searching for videos of grebes doing their mating dance. It will make you smile, and maybe you could get a few pointers.

Julia Kittelson, Curator of Birds

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The REAL “Story of an Eagle”

This bizarre story has resurfaced on Facebook recently but it has been around for at least 8 years. In keeping with our policy of debunking totally incorrect animal photos and stories we offer you the truth about eagles. The original text of this recurring post is in quotes. Our factual responses to each part are below them in bold.


“The Eagle has the longest life-span of its species. It can live up to 70 years”
First of all a species is one type of animal, like the bald eagle or golden eagle, so, are they referring to one particular, extra special, eagle within his particular species? But let’s assume they actually mean genus or family, in other words, eagles in general. Generally speaking, eagles live around 30 years in the wild. Sometimes they do live longer in captivity due to a consistent food supply, veterinarian care, and shelter from extreme weather. But 70 years is not common and even quite unlikely. 

“But to reach this age, the eagle must make a hard decision. In its 40th year…”
In other words… 10 years after it should already be dead.

“…its long and flexible talons can no longer grab prey which serves as food. Its long and sharp beak becomes bent.”
“Its old, aged and heavy wings, due to their thick feathers, stick to its chest and make it difficult to fly.” (More on this later.)

eagle1 “Then, the eagle is left with only two options: DIE or go through a painful process of CHANGE which lasts 150 days. The process requires that the eagle fly to a mountaintop and sit on its nest. There the eagle knocks its beak against a rock until it plucks it out. Then the eagle will wait for a new beak to grow back…”
An eagle’s beak is made of keratin, like human fingernails. Like our fingernails, an eagle’s beak is constantly growing. Eagles tear at tough foods and wipe their beaks against hard objects like branches or even rocks to keep them clean. This process also helps keep the beak in magnificent shape throughout an eagle’s entire life. The loss of a beak in the wild would be certain death to any bird of prey.

“…and then it will pluck out its talons”
The talons are also made of keratin, like human fingernails. And so the talons too are constantly growing. Grabbing and killing prey keeps the talons sharp as well as prevents them from becoming too long. If they got soft, there would be something seriously wrong with the bird. The talons are what an eagle uses to catch food. To pluck them out would not only be extremely difficult and painful, but would also take away their ability to provide food for themselves. And, most importantly, when a raptor loses a talon in this fashion, it is possible it will not grow back and the loss of blood can be horrific. Therefore, it would die of starvation even if it survived the likely infection caused by “plucking out” its talons.

eagle3“When it’s new talons grow back, the eagle starts plucking its old, aged feathers.”
Birds naturally lose their feathers & regrow them in a process called molting. Eagles go through a molt roughly once a year throughout their lives. During a molt, old feathers naturally fall out and new ones grow in to take their place. There is no pulling of the feathers. Some bird species do lose most of their feathers at one time and are forced to hide until the grow back, but not raptors like eagles. Flight (wing and tail) feathers drop out one by one and are replaced one by one, not all at once so that the animal can continue to fly and catch food. Plus, jerking out its feathers could also cause permanent damage the feather follicle so no feather grows back. Without feathers, a bird is unable to fly. If they cannot fly they cannot hunt for food or escape predators that cross their path. Both cases would obviously lead to the death of the bird

“And after 5 months, the eagle takes its famous flight of rebirth and lives for 30 more years.”
Again, they just don’t live that long. But, “flight of rebirth”? Maybe they are referring to the mythical phoenix? Since these eagle “facts” are all total myth it must be a phoenix they are talking about…

eagle4 “Why is change needed? Many times, in order to survive we have to start a change process. We sometimes need to get rid of old memories, habits and other past traditions. Only freed from past burdens, can we take advantage of the present.”
We know the point of this thing was to be a lovely and inspirational story and we hate to rain on that parade. However, we feel we can just as easily be inspired by true stories about animals and should not need to make stuff up.

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HOW BIG IS BIG? Facts from the World’s Largest Reptile Zoo about Giant Reptiles and Snakes. – PART 2

As I mentioned in the first part of this post last week, our reward sign exists mostly to make a point that most reptile zoos fail to mention: not how big reptiles really get, but how big they really don’t get.

 But the Internet Never Lies!

In spite of regularly appearing stories on the Internet, there is no such thing as a 10-foot rattlesnake or a python or anaconda that was captured and found to genuinely be 40, 50, or 60 feet long or any other giant reptiles that were found in some remote part of the world—let alone the suburbs or a reptile zoo. I cannot begin to tell you how many people have guaranteed us their grandpa, or uncle, or father saw, held, or killed a 9- or 10- or 11-foot rattler. Yet, no one—not even other reptile zoos—has ever been able to verify this or bring us an actual rattlesnake that’s even 8 feet long. And, as we have thoroughly discussed in past blog posts, those many photos purporting giant reptiles, snakes and crocodilians on the internet are faked, often using forced perspective, or just outright lies. You can read two of my past posts on this subject here and here.


The African Connection That Never Panned Out

Some time ago I got a call from a man who said he was originally from South Dakota but now worked in the oil industry in Africa. He said he knew where 40-foot African Rock pythons were to be found. Apparently they were common in this one isolated remote area and he knew locals who would take him to capture them. Of course, he wanted to know if we would pay double the reward for a pair and also how to ship the giant reptiles to us. I told him without hesitation we would pay the reward for both a male and female pair of 40-foot pythons and even offered suggestions for shipping the giant reptiles to us. (I’m pretty free with our money when I know we won’t be spending it!) The maximum size for an African Rock Python, by the way, is about 20 feet. And guess what? Yeah, we never heard from him again.

The verified record for the world’s longest snake, the Reticulated Python from Asia, is 33 feet. And, although records for Anacondas are confusing, they probably don’t get over 20 to 25 feet. However, a big anaconda can weigh up to a massive 300 pounds! No crocodile species alive today—in the wild, or in a reptile zoo—can reach a fabled 30 or more feet.


Reticulated Python

Green Anaconda

Green Anaconda


Maniac, Cassius, and Lolong

The biggest crocodile species on earth is the Saltwater Crocodile of Australia and Southeast Asia. The absolute maximum length for a Saltwater crocodile, according to our friend George Craig at Marineland Melanesia on Green Island in Australia, is probably 22 or 23 feet. George has spent his life working with crocs – he knows his stuff. Our own giant Saltwater Crocodile, Maniac, is 15 feet 7 inches long so he has some growing to do.

Cassius the Crocodile, Green Island, Australia

Cassius the Crocodile, Green Island, Australia

The largest crocodile ever confirmed was Lolong in the Philippines and he measured 20 feet 3 inches. He was in captivity at reptile zoo in the Philippines for only a short time and unfortunately died in 2013. George Craig once again has the confirmed largest crocodile in captivity, Cassius, and he would easily measure 18 feet in length if he were not missing the tip of his tail and bit of his snout from his days chasing boats with outboard motors. Check out George’s Facebook page for some really cool stuff!

 South Dakota Giants

 The records for giant reptiles in South Dakota are a bit less exciting:

  • The Prairie Rattlesnake, the only rattler found within about 400 miles of Reptile Gardens, has a record length of 71 ½ inches (a whole two feet and one-half inch short of that $25,000 reward). Honestly, in South Dakota a really big rattlesnake would be 4 feet long.

    Prairie Rattlesnake photographed in the Badlands

    Prairie Rattlesnake photographed in the Badlands

  • If you captured one of our often seen Plains Garter snakes that straightened out to a whole 43 ½ inches, you’d have a world record.

    Plains Garter Snake

    Plains Garter Snake

  • The red-bellied snake is rarely seen but common around here and would be a record setting giant at a mere 16 ¼ inches.


    Red-Bellied Snake

Next time you visit the Reptile Gardens, have a look at our reward sign on the upper level of the Sky Dome. Nearby you’ll find the words: “How Big is Big” and underneath are lines painted to show the record lengths for giant reptiles, there’s a line for a python and a line for an 8-foot rattlesnake. I know, I know, that rattlesnake you saw in the Badlands last summer just had to be bigger than that line we have painted on the wall! All I can say is: bring him in and we will give you $25,000.

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HOW BIG IS BIG? Facts from the World’s Largest Reptile Zoo about Giant Snakes and Reptiles. – Part 1

We have a sign on the grounds—which can also be seen on our website—that lists various reptiles and how much we would pay for really large specimens. We’ve had many thousands of questions over the years about this sign. One of the reasons we’ve had so many questions about how large reptiles (especially giant snakes) can get is because their size may be the single most misunderstood thing about these already very misunderstood animals.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Are Those Rewards For Real?

 “Can they actually get as big as the ones on your reward sign?”

Yes, but each would be a world record for its species.

“Would you really pay that much?”


“If you’ll pay $25,000 for an eight foot rattlesnake, would you pay $12,500 for one four feet long?”

Sorry, no. How about 10 bucks?

Probably the most famous reward on our list is the one just mentioned that says we will pay $25,000 for an 8-foot rattlesnake. There are only 3 of the 100 or so varieties of rattlesnakes in the world that could even come close to growing to 8 feet – and none live around here. The 3 biggest rattlesnake species are: the Western Diamondback, the Eastern Diamondback, and the Mexican West Coast Rattlesnake. We get calls and visits every year from folks who see “8 footers” all the time and intend to bring us one.

Mexican West Coast Rattlesnake

The Mexican West Coast Rattlesnake is also known as the Mexican Green Rattlesnake.

How Many Do You Want?

I remember receiving a call from a woman in North Carolina who wanted to confirm our rattlesnake reward. I assured her we would definitely pay her – with the usual stipulation that it must be delivered to us live and in good condition. Her concern, she told me, was not that we would pay or even that they would have to deliver it in good shape. But, she wanted to know, how many we would take at that price? She said she hated to send “the boys” out to catch five or six 8-foot rattlesnakes if we would only take one. I told her to have the boys catch the first one and we could negotiate from there on all the others they would find. I never heard from her again.Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

In fact, we never hear from any of those giant snake catchers again. I guess those darn “giant snakes” look so much bigger in our minds than they really are. Our reward sign has been posted for almost 60 years and we have yet to pay any of the rewards even though wehave upped the rewards numerous times over the years.

Our reward sign exists mostly to make a point as to how big reptiles really get, or more accurately, how big they really don’t get.

We often hear stories about giant snakes in this area that were seen crossing the highway so long that they stretched all the way across the road from ditch to ditch. Sorry to burst your bubble but that’s impossible, well, unless the road was only about 6 feet wide (or the snake was chopped in two). Maybe it was just moving really fast. The region’s biggest snake is the Bullsnake with a record length of just 8 feet.



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Reptile Gardens Wins TripAdvisor’s 2015 Certificate of Excellence Award

Reptile Gardens has officially been awarded the 2015 Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor for the fourth consecutive year. We’re extremely happy to have been awarded this certificate for the last four years. Our staff has a tremendous amount of pride in ensuring that our guests have an experience that is truly memorable. Every day we strive create those memorable experiences by welcoming, engaging, entertaining, and educating guests of every age. This award is the result of a culmination of reviews from people around the world, and we are honored and humbled by so many people sharing their wonderful experience. From our family to yours: Thank You.

In addition to receiving TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence, Reptile Gardens has also received acclaim from the Guinness Book of World Records as being the World’s Largest Reptile Zoo. However, we’re not just about reptiles. We’ve worked hard to create an exotic, relaxing, and beautiful botanical garden that features very happy and very healthy tropical plants in a very non-tropical South Dakota. Take some time to stroll through the gardens and Tortuga Falls to visit Darwin, the Australian Kookaburra. Whether you’re visiting the Black Hills or are a local resident, Reptile Gardens welcomes everyone to an adventure that the whole family can enjoy.


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