Rubbing shoulders with snakes and lizards

REPTILES are both feared and revered by people. Mary Cody paid a visit to the Reptile Zoo in Gowran to discover a new found respect for creatures that roamed the planet long before humans.

REPTILES are both feared and revered by people. Mary Cody paid a visit to the Reptile Zoo in Gowran to discover a new found respect for creatures that roamed the planet long before humans.

If the truth be told I had until last week harboured an ambivalent attitude towards reptiles seeing them as strange creatures completely alien from warm blooded animals.

However after spending a few hours with James Hennessy at the Reptile Zoo I found a deep respect and fascination with these beautiful animals, many of whom are endangered and possess the cures needed for our own survival as a race. Much of my ignorance stemmed from a lack of exposure to reptiles in my life and an over exposure to their depiction as frightening and deadly predators in film and television.

There is no disputing that some reptiles could literally eat you for breakfast as I observe the American alligator, a species who is believed to be on earth for a staggering 65 million years but there are many more who are friendly and present no threat.

It is humbling to be in the presence of such creatures, both the fierce and the timid and one is reminded of how us humans are part of the food chain. The zoo was set up by James Hennessy who candidly admits that he always had an interest in reptiles.

“I started out with the Royal Marines and was involved in several expeditions and travelled to the tropics. I always had an interest in reptiles and had turtles from the age of five. As a adult I also worked in adventure sports and had the opportunity to travel to Indonesia, Venezuela and East Africa,” he said.

Our conversation is interrupted as it is time for an alligator-snapping turtle to make an appearance for the visitors to the zoo. “He is as old as the dinosaurs and we have a breeding colony here and we there are old enough hopefully some of them will go back into the wild,” James explains. I am in awe of what is happening at the zoo. Real work is being done not only to save species but also to educate people in a real way.

James, who completed a Diploma in Zoology at Oxford is also involved in research and it is the information that he shares with me that makes my jaw drop. “There is research to show that the venom in scorpions can cure brain tumours without affecting any of the other brain cells. There is also a cure for diabetes that comes from the saliva of the Gila monster. It is complex and as species deplete we are losing information all the time. We are all so entwined,” he says. With creatures becoming extinct due to the actions of man one has to wonder what possible cures man has already destroyed.

“We are trying to take down the barriers to show people that reptiles are not evil, creepy creatures. There are more people killed by venomous snakes than there are by dogs every year. I have a passion to save the reptiles. The immediate reaction of most people is to be scared.

“Reptiles are survivors and they are self-sufficient and it is difficult not to be in awe of this. When you are dealing with an alligator who is on the top of the food chain and you are potentially on the menu it puts you in your place. It is humbling to work with reptiles,” he said. However James who feeds alligators and deadly snakes admits that he himself has a fear of spiders and taking care of the tarantulas is left to other members of staff.

The zoo is subjected to rigorous inspection and all potentially dangerous reptiles are housed securely. “I am the only person that feeds the venomous snakes and use hooks and tongs to feed them as it is potentially life threatening,” he said.

“There are two points to the zoo. One is that the creature is an ambassador for their species and by having them here we are helping to save them in the wild and the second element is the research element. We also have a breeding element so we can give animals to other zoos and therefore they do not have to be taken from the wild. Every animal that we have has a digital file and we give our information for research,” he said.

Spending time at the zoo dispelled previously held fears and I rubbed shoulders with snakes (non venomous) and spent some time as a guest in a lizards lair (who bear more than a passing resemblance to a chicken). I felt humbled, grateful and privileged to have such a wealth of knowledge imparted on me by James and the opportunity to be within centimetres of some of the most beautiful creatures on earth.

I cannot recommend a visit to the Reptile Zoo highly enough and look forward to my next one.