Behind the scenes look at a 81-year-old tourist attraction

Published: Jun. 15, 2018 at 11:47 AM CDT
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Maniac - he's one of the largest crocodiles in captivity and seeing him eat is a rare and incredible sight. In fact, the hours and hours of work behind the scenes to take care of the hundreds of creatures at Reptile Gardens is something we rarely get to see - until now. Today, Kayleigh Schmidt is taking you on an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the creepy, crawly, deadly attraction.

For many, the gator shows are the highlight of Reptile Gardens, but there's more to the 81-year-old tourist spot than meets the eye.

"We have 150 exhibits that are readily viewed by the public, but there's a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes. So on a daily basis, I'm cleaning cages, I'm feeding hundreds of animals," Curator of Reptiles Terry Phillip said.

"I am in charge of the amphibians. I take care of our big bug display, so I get to do the tarantulas and the centipedes. I feed all the little critters in here, and most of the lizards and turtles that we have," Reptile Department Assistant Curator Kathy Maguire said.

Maguire makes the feedings look easy, but that wasn't always the case.

"When I started, that was one of the hardest things I had to get used to was putting my hand into a bucket of mealworms. Now, I can do it without batting an eye," Maguire said.

In a weeks time, Maguire goes through 12,000 crickets and 5,000 mealworms for her animals.

Just a few feet away, the 16 feet 2 inches long saltwater crocodile causes some flinching during his bi-weekly feedings. Maniac eats every two weeks this time of year, but during other portions, it's even less.

During his last feeding, Maniac got about 20 pounds - 17 pounds to be exact - of three great big chickens.

"In two weeks when I feed Maniac again, he's gonna get some rabbits, he'll get a little bit of fish, little bit of horse meat, bison heart, beef, liver, so it's a real variety of food that we offer all of our animals here," Phillip said.

Not only is feeding this big guy an adventure, but so is feeding during a gator show and safety is a big priority.

"When you have 35-40 animals that are 2-400 pounds that are lumbering around after you for that piece of chicken in your pocket, you know they don't really differentiate the chicken that we're offering them or the skinny little legs we have sticking out of our bodies," Phillip said. "So we have to be really careful about how we learn to interact in those environments around the animals."

And of course, they learn how to become alligator wrestlers.

"Training for alligator wrestling takes several weeks to a month, really depends on how well the staff takes to our protocol, but what we're doing is we're not really involved in gator wrestling - those days are decades long gone. What we do is we teach our staff how to properly interact with the animals in a very, very safe manner for both animal and handler," Phillip said.

Restraining the alligators and crocodiles is beneficial if the reptiles need to be moved to another facility or get a medical exam.

Reptile department staff learn how to get their knees into the animal's armpits to help restrain the body, hands on the lower neck (safety zone) and slide their hands over the jaws, closing it as they go along.

"Once you have the alligator's mouth shut, you can wrap some tape around there and then you have an alligator that's perfectly safe to move around," Phillip said.

Staff has perfected their skills over 100 years. A lot of their restraints and management techniques at Reptile Gardens. Phillip, along with other reptile department heads, offer handling, husbandry and restraint programs to other zoos nationwide.

But, there's more to experience than just reptiles.

"The beauty of the Reptile Gardens is it's not just snakes, you know, we have 50,000 flowers that we input into the ground every year. They're busy doing it right now so the place looks absolutely amazing," Phillip said.

The bird show is a draw for those less interested in the creepy critters.

"We do a lot of training whether the bird is free flighted or whether we just want it to sit calmly on a hand because it is quite an accomplishment to remain calm when there's quite an audience out there," Curator of Birds Julia Kittelson said.

They also offer enrichment every day for their birds. Staff will create a toy out of cardboard or wine corks and newspaper. They also walk their parrots up to the dome each morning and evening and have a chance to partake in keeper talks with people they pass by.

Plus, the bird department cares for more than 65 birds from around the world.

"My favorite is the green-winged macaw. She's like a rainbow, normally they'd be hanging out in South America," Kittelson said. "The owls - also very enjoyable. These ones are usually found in Europe and Asia. They're actually tied for largest species of owl on the planet, so it's kind of a unique opportunity not only to be this close to an owl but to be this close to an enormous owl."

"It's fun for the whole family. We really specialize honestly in making memories. It's kind of a tagline we came up with and it's really very true, Phillip said.

Reptile Gardens is featured in this year's Guinness Book of World Records for the second time as the world's largest reptile zoo. Elevent of its employees modeling with a variety of the park's most exotic animals takes up two pages. Only two other private businesses received the two-page treatment.

If you want more information on Reptile Gardens, you can visit their website or an article on their world record in the links to the right.