Just twenty minutes east of Peterborough, on Highway 7, is a little gem of a place of which not everybody is aware. It is called the Indian River Reptile Zoo. Being a newcomer to the Peterborough area (actually I lived here in 1985-86 for one previous year of undergrad at Trent, but we won’t get into that!), I wanted to check out the place and see what it was all about and report back to the good folks at Arthur who asked “who’s got a car to go check out that reptile place?” So immediately, my curiosity was jolted and, being the keen cub reporter with the only four wheeled transportation conveyance at the story meeting, my hand immediately shot up and I said “I’ll go do the reptile place, I’ve never heard of it, sounds cool!”

So off I went to see the wizard, (actually the lizard), or more aptly, a fascinating collection of reptiles, mostly all rescued from either border seizures whereby people were trying to smuggle them into Canada illegally as pets or to sell on the black market, or from unwitting pet owners who bought them from a private source and were not aware of the responsibilities of owning a reptile such as a snake. In many cases, the snakes often escape from their owners and then need to be rescued from being ‘at large’ amongst the general public, where they could possibly cause harm, or be harmed themselves.

I had the honour of speaking with Kyle O’Grady, the curator of the museum, who was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to give me the grand tour of the facility and to share with me some of his passion for reptiles, as well as his wellspring of knowledge concerning all things reptilian. Kyle originally hails from the Niagara Falls region of Ontario, and is ‘living the dream’ so to speak here in Peterborough, a place he knows well from having vacationed here in his younger days, by making his living working with reptiles.

Kyle’s love of reptiles goes back to a very young age, and he said that he has been very lucky to have had people in his life who have helped him learn about them. This self-taught expert on reptiles taught me things about snakes and crocodiles that I never dreamed could be true. With all the bad press and ‘image problem’ so to speak concerning reptiles such as snakes and crocodiles, it is no wonder that Kyle and his organization feel that they “definitely have an advocacy role to play.” As Kyle puts it, the zoo needs to speak for and to “tell the story” of reptiles to the community, because, as Kyle puts it when one of these reptiles is rescued, “it cannot speak for itself, it has no voice, so we must speak for it.” Definitely sounds like a man on a mission! I was impressed by this young man’s zeal for his chosen vocation! Good on you, Kyle!

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) seen at the Indian River Reptile Zoo. Photo by Peter Stuart.

An example of a reptilian ‘factoid’ that I did not know about, and that Kyle filled me in on, is that turtles, for example, are nature’s original ‘cleanup committee,’ in that they play a key role in eating dead, dying, and sick animals. So when the turtle population gets decimated by habitat destruction, poaching, or road kills, the ecosystem gets unbalanced, and too many dead animals do not get naturally disposed of. Also, did you know that snakes eat mice? Have you ever had a mice infestation at your house? I have! So in this case, snakes are Mother Nature’s original pest control mechanism. Put away that rifle, folks, and let the snakes look after the mice! I also learned that crocodiles are what Kyle called an ‘apex predator,’ meaning they are at the top end of the food chain and are what Kyle calls a ‘keystone species,’ meaning that the environment that they live in relies heavily on crocodiles managing the species population through their role as apex predators, and to decimate the crocodile population throws the entire ecosystem out of whack as a result.

Another myth that Kyle dispelled concerning crocodiles is that the mothers supposedly eat their young, which was previously thought to be true, but it is now known to be false. Scientists have now observed that mother crocodiles are very protective of their young, but that sometimes, other males or females will come into a rival female’s nest and kill her young as a way of fending off any future competition for resources from other crocodiles. Also, it was once thought that because mother crocodiles delicately cracked their eggs once they were laid, and carried their young in their mouths to the water’s edge, that this meant that the mother crocodile was killing her progeny. But as it turns out this was not the case, she was just carrying them to the water’s edge.

The biggest collection of crocodiles that the zoo currently has is a collection of one hundred yacare caiman crocodiles which were rescued from a private home in the Toronto area in 2015, which was the biggest rescue of its kind in Canadian history. The owner had been keeping them inside a chain link enclosure on a concrete pad, with limited access to water. Needless to say, they are much better off where they are now! I was also amazed to learn that crocodiles and birds are more closely related to each other than crocodiles are to any other reptile. This Kyle told me comes from a scientific analysis of their mitochondrial DNA, which has borne this out.

The Indian River Reptile Zoo has been open to the public since 1999 and was originally the brainchild of a man called Bry Loyst, who opened it as a rescue facility sometime before that, and who also had a passion for all things reptilian. In addition to its advocacy and recreo-touristic role, the Indian River Reptile Zoo also offers a crucial public safety measure which is rare in Canada. It stores anti-venom products which are often used in the case of snake bites, and as Kyle observed, “Our products have been used as far away as western Canada.”

Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) seen at the Indian River Reptile Zoo. Photo by Peter Stuart.

The facility is also eco-friendly in that it is heated with geothermal power, which I thought is pretty cool. Out back there is a collection of dinosaurs which move and make noises like real dinosaurs and which continues along the reptilian theme of the facility. They are a great draw for young children and I saw a lot of young parents with very young children at the facility, which was heart-warming. Further out back beyond the dinosaurs, the zoo has a nature trail which they have developed in partnership with ORCA (Otonabee Regional Conservation Authority). There they are developing milksnake hibernation dens as a conservation measure. This species, according to Kyle, is a species of interest in Ontario, but not yet endangered.

Wow! I left the facility replete with new knowledge about reptiles. My only regret was that the facility is only open until the weekend of Friday to Sunday, October 27-29, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The facility will re-open on May 1, 2018 and will then be open seven days a week from 10:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m. Cost of admission for adults age 19-59 is $20.00 + tax, for seniors age 60+ and youth 13-18 is $15.00 + tax, children age 4-12 are $10.00 + tax, and children under the age of 3 get free admission. Discounts are available for groups of ten persons or more and persons with special needs get a 50% discount. The facility is a registered charitable organization, so donations are welcome. For more information you can visit their website at: www.reptilezoo.org. Or call them at 705-639-1443. Or if you have an emergency concerning a reptile, or a human interaction with a reptile, such as a bite, you can call 705-868-2618, or 705-957-1039.

The Indian River Reptile Zoo: your ticket to ride for all things reptilian! Go check it out folks, you’ll never again think ill of that ‘snake in the grass,’ or think ‘reptiles are a croc, man!’ Because believe me, after one visit to that place, my ‘reptilian worldview’ has been forever transformed for the better. Thanks Kyle!