Cape Fear Serpentarium is a 10,000 square facility located in the historic district of Wilmington. The facility was founded by herpetologist expert, Dean Ripa in 2001. Visitors browse the facility on unguided tours which lead past five massive bays containing serpent constrictors and in excess of 40 varieties of venomous snakes. Nearly 60 separate display unite offer a glimpse into the habitats of venomous snakes and species of lizards from around the world. Over 150 animals await curious visitors on any given day.
The Cape Fear Serpentarium is housed inside the historic Wilmington Iron Works building. Renovations to restore and convert the historic building for the new occupants took nearly two years to complete. The interior displays at this Cape Fear Coast attraction are register as some of the largest in the entire world. Ripa worked diligently to design animal habitats which permitted excessive room for movement and mimicked nature in every manner possible.
Visitors get to witness the animals conduct their lives as they would in the wild, a feat which is unique to only a few serpent zoos. Through safe observation practices, visitors can see the snakes and lizards, mating, engage in instinctive combat live feedings.
Ripa is a Wilmington native who began a love affair with venomous snakes at the tender age of ten years old. The young Ripa hiked around the swamplands searching for the dangerous reptiles. When he was 13 years old , he spent two weeks in intensive care for a bite from a venomous snake. As a result of the bite, Ripa struggled with the loss of some function in his right hand for two years. Unknown to his parents, the undaunted Ripa had collected and caged some of the most venomous snakes in the world when he was just 15 years old. Species which were a part of Ripa’s first collection of reptiles included Blacm Mambas, King Cobras and Gaboon Vipers.
The industrious teenager crafted “reptile mansions” in attic his home and cared for the deadly snakes away from the watchful eyes of his parents. During his early twenties Ripa packed a suitcase and headed to Africa in search of venomous snakes to bring back to America for zoos, private collectors and habitat study in laboratories. Ripa became one of, if not the first, international snake hunter. Ripa’s reptile hunting excursions led him to 30 countries on five continents. Due to the remote areas of the world he visited, Ripa contracted schistosmiasa, malaria and dysentery. He once got lost in the Amazon jungle and even found himself stranded in the mountains of New Guinea. Ripa has survived a dozen bites by venomous reptiles and an encounter with armed gorillas during a military coups in both Suriname and West Africa.
Ripa is credited as the first person to ever witness venomous Bushmaster snake perform their mating ritual. His observance of the mating ritual confirmed the theory that the Bushmaster species brooded or “sat on” their eggs until they hatched. While this act may not seem extraordinary, it is a rarity among venomous reptiles to exhibit such maternal care. Nearly all Bushmaster snakes in captivity in the United States are descendants from Ripa’s collection. He was able to “recreate” hybrid of the Bushmaster which had become extinct for over one million years.
The Cape Fear Serpentarium has been the focus of multiple television, print publications and scientific tours. Ripa’s reptiles have delighted viewers of the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Attache Magazine, just to name a few. A litany of noted experts, government leaders and celebrities have traveled to the Cape Fear Serpentarium to view Ripa’s unrivaled collection of reptiles. Notable visitors to the indoor zoo include Costa Rican President ,Oscar Arias and actors Fred Ward and Christopher Lloyd.
Four separate exhibit areas showcase close to 100 different species of indigenous reptiles and exotic snakes. While tours are non-guided, the facilities staff is on hand to educate and entertain guests while walking through the handicap accessible facility. School field trips and group tours can be organized through the indoor zoo’s educational department.
The Venomous section of the indoor zoo features the likes of the King Cobra, Gaboon Viper, Blackheaded Bushmaster and the Cape Cobra. Over 20 other species of venomous snakes are also housed inside this popular section of the Cape Fear Serpentarium.
The Non-Venomous/Constrictors section of the indoor zoo houses species such as the Carpet Python, Giant Anaconda, Emerald Tree Boa and Burmese Python. While these reptiles don’t bring venomous fear factor, they are just as intriguing and deadly. Visitors discover not only the habitats of these massive snakes, but how the creatures hunt and feed. The facility strives to provide the animals intrusted to their care with as feeding experience closely related to what they would have experienced in the wild. Providing the reptiles with a healthy and natural diet also permits visitors to experience the snakes in a manner which would otherwise require an excursion into the snake’s wild and often deadly world outside of zoo.
Cape Fear Serpentarium’s Crocodile exhibit showcases salt water crocodiles, Siamese crocodiles and Nile crocodiles. Unlike crocodile or alligator habitats in some zoos, these massive reptiles are not confined to a space so small that it is hard to imagine how they can even turn around. Although the creatures may not project typical beauty, their grace is evident as you watch them swim or float throug the water.
The Great Lizards exhibit contains at least four species of exotic reptiles. You will see how the Green Iguana conceals itself from predators, acquires food and ingests water. The Argentine Tegu will captivate your attention as the majestic looking lizard maneuvers around its’ habitat and interacts with its’ companions. The Blackthroat and Savannah Monitors are also a popular attraction at the Cape Fear Serpentarium. The swiftness of their movements and ability to quickly traverse rocks and shimmy up tree branches always draws smiles from visitors of any age.
Cape Fear Serpentarium offers a myriad of educational resources, programs and special rates for teachers and students throughout the year. Reptile themed crafts and coloring pages can even be printed from the indoor zoo’s website as an extension project before or after visiting the facility. Lesson plans designed for multiple grade levels can be printed, at no cost, for the indoor zoo’s website, to help prepare and reinforce what students will discover on a visit to the Cape Fear Serpentarium.