Have you ever wanted to see snakes unhinge their jaws to tear open and swallow defrosted infant mice four times the size of their heads? Ever wanted to feed a giant African tortoise a small piece of lettuce? How about witness an alligator jump three feet out of the water to devour a piece of chicken tied on a stick? Explore these guilty pleasures when you visit the 15,000 square foot warehouse that is Providence's Regal Reptiles.
It wouldn't be hard to walk right past thi unmarked warehouse in West Providence. The parking lot is gated off like all the other surrounding buildings and there aren't any windows. As my friend and I lock our bikes up on the bent street sign on the other side of the structure's fence, we have a difficult time finding the entrance. A small, uninviting door on the side of the building with a tiny vinyl sign lets visitors know they're about to enter the strange world of reptiles.
After entering the side door we stumble through a narrow hallway of broken down boxes and file cabinets. Ripped flyers pave the way to an alien buffet of family fun. Inside, the warehouse is bare with cold cement floors. We're unsure where to stop until a woman comes out and asks for the $7 entrance fee; in exchange we get a reptile-shaped stamp for the night. She tells us the feeding frenzy starts at seven.
Right at the entrance, a tank of water houses a bizarre beast, an alligator snapping turtle. The world's largest freshwater turtle species looks more like a gaudy garden statue than a reptile; it has an air of prehistoricism to it, like it's been transplanted from the Cretaceous into the 21st century. I don't realize it's alive until I see it 30 minutes later, when it's in the exact same position, but at the other side of the aquarium. When Fearless Fox Fay, the co-owner of the mini-zoo , asks if we want to see it fed, "Duh!" is the only thing I can say. She dangles a frozen mouse into the tank and in one swipe the toothless, shelled creature engulfs it. He has room for two more.
The ancient snapper lies next to the 6,000-gallon alligator and caiman pond, where every weekend Regal's handlers Safari Shawn, Fearless Fox Fay and their dozen or so gators put on their Feeding Frenzy demonstration (that's where the chicken leg tied on a stick comes in). It looks like the creatures spend most of their time in a huge alligator piggy pile in the corner of the cage on the astroturf landing. Safari Shawn, the tall lanky one with brown hair past his shoulders and a backwards baseball cap, starts out the show by roughly dragging them one by one into the murky pond water. The alligators come to life when Fay, the squat, old woman with bug-eyed glasses, dangles chunks of thawed chicken above their heads. They hastily flop out of the water, crashing up against the Plexiglas that shields the kids as they snap at the first bite.
Birthday Insurance Policy
Fridays are a popular night to host a birthday at Regal, and tonight we're watching the show with about 30 tweens and toddlers. After the gators' stomachs are full, the nine-year-old birthday girl Mia is allowed to enter the cage. It seems kind of dangerous to have a small child running among a dozen six-foot-long alligators, but if Mia or her parents cared they weren't showing it. For the demonstration, Safari Shawn makes a series of attempts to grab the largest gator. Once he picks it up from the pool, he slaps it down on the landing, duct tapes the gator's mouth shut and gets the birthday girl to sit on it. There's a faint sense of na√Øvet√© in the air that makes it seem like everything is going to turn out all right, even if the gators have a thousand pounds of biting power. I guess Mia's parents signed a waiver.
After the main alligator show, Safari Shawn disappears into a backroom. He comes out again and again with new critters. He throws scorpions on the children's shirts and places tarantulas on their heads without a flinch from any of them. Then he brings out the showpiece, a hundred pound yellow boa constrictor. When it gets put around our necks it feels like it could crush our heads like tin cans.
Following the mini-adventure presentations put on by Safari Shawn, we head over to the pen of African Spur Thigh Tortoises, wrangled by two young handlers Sarah and Mel. They're in charge of giving out the small pieces of lettuce for the partygoers to feed the animals. Sarah, the 8-year-old niece of Safari Shawn, tells me all about her pride and joy, the two-foot-long baby alligator she's holding nonchalantly. Its snout is clamped shut with electrical tape. "This is my Lovie, she's mine. She is my Lovie. She is two years old, and I love her." Sarah chats as she stands across from me in the giant tortoise pen, which houses about a dozen of the gigantic creatures.
Mel, who is unrelated to the owners, handles the snakes like she's the cat's pajamas. She has two around her neck, a big python and a smaller red corn snake. Mel asks if I want to hold the larger python, and because I'm a huge fan of the motto "when in Rome..." I agree, assuming it's not going to bite me. When she puts it in my hands, I really don't know what to do with it. It feels like a giant muscle, like a four-foot tongue with scales. I place it around my neck, because that's how I've seen it done on the Animal Planet, while I shudder and feel the goose bumps rise all over my body.
At first I'm skeptical that two tweens are flopping snakes around without supervision, but after talking with them, they seem to have a handle on things. When one young boy is playing with the snake a little too much, it starts to get rowdy and ready to attack. Mel takes it away before anything terrible happens. She tells me a little more about the snakes at Regal, not the Latin names or where they live in nature, but the real nitty-gritty about how to keep a snake alive, safe and happy. "We only bring out the snakes that we haven't fed. If you play with a snake the same day they eat, they puke and die." Good to know, Mel.
The Halfway House
I'm no herpetologist, but it seems that the some of reptiles are kept in sub-par conditions. Regal is undergoing an expansive renovation, trying to keep all their reptiles in order. But until they are finished, some of the cages are unorganized, cramped and dirty. And also, how disruptive is the noise that comes from a flock of shrieking fifth-graders, running through the reptile maze like banshees? Do reptiles even have ears? Mel and Sarah seem to be fighting a constant battle with the kids who want to treat the snakes like spaghetti, but Regal's wranglers tell us that reptiles are some of the easiest pets to take care of; they don't need a lot of space and they don't poop that much.
Even if their handling of these reptiles seems iffy, whatever the standard is for reptile habitats, the zoo is founded on positive intentions. Regal Reptiles has been working as a government sanctioned safe house for rescued reptiles for over a decade. They accumulate their babies from people that have bought animals such as anacondas or alligators on the black market and then are unable to take care of them once they get too big or dangerous. Regal rescues them, brings them back to health and gives them a home, as it is illegal to reintroduce these animals into the wild.
Regal Reptiles is located at 425 Washington Street near downtown Providence. It is open from 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM daily for a $7 fee. If you're feeling sassy and want to have a scaly and slimy birthday, they also offer private birthday parties.
ZACHARY SMITH B'11 already booked one for June.