Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see the world’s longest lizard species! Witness Lawan, the deadly eighteen-foot reticulated python!
Both are on display at the World of Discovery and Reptile Zoo on Jackson Rd. But this new Ann Arbor destination is no tourist trap. Its mission is to educate about the conservation, rescue, and rehabilitation of these often misunderstood animals, explains Mark Creswell, co-founder with his wife, Jane, of the Great Lakes Zoological Society (GLZS), which runs the zoo.
“We saw a need for education about reptiles because so many people have a negative reaction about them,” says Mark, fifty, an easygoing man with an affirming conversational style. “Many [people] don’t give conservation a second thought, but these animals play an important role in a balanced ecosystem.” Creating a family destination that could also serve as a rescue and recovery center for neglected, injured, and unwanted reptiles and amphibians–whether surrendered pets or animals obtained through a relationship with the DNR and similar groups–had been a dream of Mark’s since he and Jane first started a reptile rescue in 2003 in their Chelsea home.
Former Pfizer employees who started their own consulting firm when the drug-maker left town, both Creswells have always loved animals. (Growing up in Texas, Mark spent his first allowance money on a book about amphibians.) But eventually, they had upward of fifty rescued reptiles, mostly snakes, in their basement.
“We had paid staff to care for them even then, but we saw a greater need to help iguanas and lizards, and we knew we needed a larger space,” Mark says. In 2008, they formed the nonprofit GLZS (glzszoo.org). The animals were temporarily housed in a building on Enterprise Dr. until they found the space on Jackson, near Baker Rd.
After more than eight months of renovations and the installation of an elaborate air-exchange system to keep its diverse animal population at healthy temperature and humidity levels, the new building opened last fall. The no-frills 6,000-square-foot space houses nearly 100 animals, representing about sixty species, plus a gift shop, and a classroom where staff present to schools and groups as well as birthday party guests. There are no extra fees for groups and birthdays, Creswell says, beyond the price of admission (free for kids ages two and under, $5 for kids ages three to eleven and seniors, and $7 for ages twelve and up). “Through word of mouth we’re becoming a popular spot [for groups] because it’s an economical choice, the kids have fun, and at the same time they’re learning,” he says.
The organization works with retired teachers to match its educational program to AAPS grade-level expectations, and focuses on observation and interpretation–not simply fact-sharing–to help kids draw their own connections and conclusions. At any one time there are several rescued creatures in the classroom that are used to spark discussion, including Stevie, a bearded dragon who didn’t receive proper vitamin supplements as a juvenile and has metabolic bone disease that caused a curvature in his spine.
Zoo curator John Lebert says animals often end up at the center when owners move and can’t bring their pet along. Some are referrals from the humane society. Others have grown too large for their enclosures, and their owners don’t know how to manage them anymore. This was the case with a black throat monitor lizard that came from a college student more than two years ago. “What’s amazing is with proper care and the right enclosure, that lizard has grown at least ten times in size since he came to us,” Lebert says. Some animals can go to a new home once they recuperate, including Stevie, who was recently adopted by a family. (Potential owners are educated about proper care and diet, required humidity and lighting, and about the responsibility and time commitment involved.)
Creswell says owners often don’t consider its lifespan when investing in a pet. Rocky and Apollo are twenty-two-year-old North African Sulcata tortoises–the third-largest species of tortoise in the world–who’ve had several owners through the years and found a home at the zoo. “They were the size of silver dollars when they were babies, and now they’re ninety pounds each,” he says. “They’ll get even bigger and could live to be 100.”
A walk through the zoo is like a trip around the world. There are rhinoceros iguanas from the island of Hispaniola hanging out on tree limbs. Caiman lizards of South America–which are slaughtered by the thousands for their skin–take a dip in a small pond. A pair of venomous Mexican beaded lizards can be viewed behind glass. And a “puppy-dog tame” Asian water monitor lizard will crawl across a zookeeper’s back. More than half of the varied creatures at the zoo are rescues or donated. Keepers occasionally take a snake or lizard out of an enclosure to introduce it to guests. Jan Zuidveld invites visitors to pet “Rose,” whom he calls “a sweet twenty-five-year-old lizard.” The Northern Australian blue-tongued skink, calm in Zuidveld’s steady hands, sticks out her tongue.
Intern Joseph Hill, an EMU biology grad, says he’s had an interest in crocodile monitors–the largest species of monitor lizard in the world–since he was a kid and first visited the Toledo Zoo. He has one at home, and now here he has the rare opportunity to attempt to breed them in captivity. Only six zoos nationwide have succeeded. The Reptile Zoo has two female lizards and one male, each housed in a separate enclosure, because when not breeding they will kill each other given the chance. Hill built a tunnel connecting the enclosures as well as nesting boxes for the females, so that when the time comes, the lizards will have ample opportunity to breed. Meantime, visitors can view them behind glass in their connected rooms. “I’m hoping in the next year we’ll have babies hatching!” he says.
Expanding the breeding programs as well as the educational offerings, and eventually the facility itself, are among the Creswells’ goals. The board just hired executive director Eric Tobin, and the center has zookeepers on staff and many volunteers. “We’d really like to become a resource for the community and partner with other organizations,” Tobin says. Right now, he says, the zoo is drawing people from a forty-five- to sixty-mile radius and is on track to bring in some 30,000 visitors in its first year. “We’re working to increase our level of sustainability and hope to double the size of our exhibit space so we can expand our rehab and rescue efforts.”
Of course, some visitors just like to gaze at creatures like Lawan, the eighteen-foot reticulated python, a gift from a snake breeder in Howell. Creswell says it takes three people to change the water in her locked enclosure–one to change the water and two to watch the 150-pound snake for any signs of sudden aggression. “You’ve just got to show respect for an animal that large,” he says.