Reptile House


(This column was first published in the April 25, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


Reptiles and amphibians receive a bad press.


They are the creepy-crawlies of our world, some of them slimy, some of them poisonous, all of them cold. And the poor snake is even under Biblical injunction: it is the subtle serpent that misled Eve.


But there are people who favor these unusual animals. I count myself among them.


It was a delight therefore to be able to spend a recent morning in the Reptile House of the Buffalo Zoo. My hosts were head keeper John Kast and keepers Penny Danielewicz and Celeste Czarniak. Kevin Murphy, the zoo's animal curator, is also a herpetologist so this field is very well represented here.


The first thing I learned on my visit is that early morning is a perfect time to explore this building. Too often we see these animals stretched out or coiled motionless, but now many of them were actively exploring their cages. Whiptails, tiny lizards with yellow and black striped bodies and greenish tails, dashed here and there, sometimes running over each other; turtles lumbered about and some dove down to explore their pools; a bright yellow frog hopped forward and seemed to examine me as I peered at it; and even the giant boa constrictor raised its head and flicked its tongue -- perhaps to rate my fat content.


Because part of my visit was in spaces not on exhibit where some reptiles are only screened in, I was warned not to lean on cages. Although that showed how careful these keepers are, the warning was unnecessary. I like herps -- reptiles and amphibians, that is -- but from a distance.


The keepers were most generous in showing me the routines they follow each morning. I arrived as they were completing a careful check of all of their charges. Each keeper is responsible for a group of animals but on days off the others split their tasks.


They then spend much of their time cleaning and misting cages, changing water supplies and feeding the animals, coming together for some of the larger jobs. I joined all three in the alligator's big room while John and Penny scrubbed rocks and walls. Although Celeste stood guard with two poles for defense while I cowered in a far corner, the gator seemed unconcerned. It even plodded across the cage to allow John to wash where it had been resting.


Sadly, on the day of my visit, a little Mexican alligator lizard was very ill. It is a beautiful specimen, bright green sectioned by black squares, a dead ringer for the gecko of that TV ad. But even I could see that it was not well. Its mouth gaped and, when it moved, it only dragged its hind legs.


The zoo veterinarian had already suggested that it be euthanized. It was clear, however, that Penny was especially attached to the lizard and everything possible was being done for it. When I left it was resting in heated water where it was being carefully monitored. I doubt that the little fellow will survive.


Venomous animals receive special care and beginning keepers must spend many months training before they are allowed to handle them. I stayed well back while John lifted a big rattlesnake into a receptacle so its cage door could be repaired.


Not yet on public exhibit are some beautiful Parson's chameleons from Madagascar that federal agents had seized from illegal importers. Celeste had just combined the cages of a male and female that still maintained their distance, those strange eyes swiveling to look at us.


Surely most remarkable of the collection are the endangered giant Japanese salamanders, which reached out their dinner plate-sized heads to suck in the fish John gave them.


I came away from this pleasant morning with high regard for these well-maintained exhibits and still more for these dedicated zoo professionals.-- Gerry Rising