Have a taste for the unique and extraordinary? The Cape Fear Serpentarium, located in downtown Wilmington, is just the place to get your fix! I’ve had the privilege of seeing many fine reptile exhibits and snake collections, but the Serpentarium still amazed me. The 10,000 square foot structure features 54 exhibits with up to 150 animals on display at any given time. I found specimens of every kind of venomous snake, and even some crocodiles and poisonous lizards! Snakes such as the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Anaconda, Burmese Python, Spectacled Cobra and the Bushmaster of South America are housed in the Serpentarium.
The Bushmaster is one of the rarest and deadliest snakes in the world — it’s as deadly as the saying goes, “if you are bitten, go find a tree to sit under and wait to die.” These snakes have diminished greatly in number due to the loss of habitat in South America. Little was known about these snakes until the research of Dean Ripa, owner of the Serpentarium, was released. Through his work, it has been discovered that there are three distinct species of Bushmaster snakes, and possibly a fourth. The Blackheaded Bushmaster is one of these species, and the Serpentarium has the only captive breeding population in the world! If you see this rare snake at any other institution, it stemmed from the Serpentarium’s reproduction program.
Despite the toxicity of the Bushmaster’s venom, it cannot compete with the death toll of the Spectacled Cobra. Its habitat is in densely populated areas with little access to quick treatment of bites, and people in those areas usually walk barefoot. Spectacled Cobras claim an estimated 20,000 lives each year, and almost two million each century!
The Serpentarium also has several species of rattlesnakes on display, one of which is unique to the Wilmington region. The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake’s habitat ranges from southeastern North Carolina to Florida. However, due to habitat destruction and collecting and killing of adults, very few diamondback rattlesnakes survive in our state. Diamondbacks differ from their smaller and more abundant relative, the Timber Rattlesnake, in their distinctive diamond-shaped skin pattern. Eastern Diamondbacks are now protected in North Carolina, and are one of our largest snakes in the state.
While venomous snakes kill the greatest number of humans, most people fear becoming a meal for the large Anaconda or Python. This is a very rare event, as most people are simply too large to be consumed. However, the Serpentarium displays the African Rock Python — one of two species of snake that have actually consumed humans. These large snakes are opportunistic feeders, eating young crocodiles, goats, warthogs and even the occasional human. The most recent attack was in 2009, when a farmer stepped on a specimen and was dragged up a tree by the snake. Luckily, he managed to escape by using his cell phone to call for help.
There were many species of deadly snakes on display, and it was easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of beautiful reptiles. I greatly recommend reading all of the plaques by the displays; each one tells a unique, and often surprising, story about the animal.
I encourage all locals and tourists to visit the Serpentarium, and make sure to check out the live feeding events they offer on weekends!
Cape Fear Serpentarium
20 Orange Street
Wilmington, NC 28401
Monday – Friday 11:00am to 5:00pm
Saturdays & Sundays 11:00am to 6:00pm
Hours may vary seasonally
By Luke Edwards, WDI Intern