Reptile Gardens seems an oxymoron to me. I think of gardens as plant life, beautiful colorful flowers. The word “reptiles” brings to mind exactly that: snakes, lizards and alligators. How can the two possibly coexist in one attraction? The Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, South Dakota, does it well, combining a botanic garden with the largest collection of reptiles on the planet, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, with 225 species and subspecies, over 1,000 animals altogether.
Earl Brockelsby opened Reptile Gardens in 1937 with a handful of reptiles he caught in the wild. People paid ten cents to see the exhibits and watch Earl handle deadly snakes and alligators. Reptile Gardens has come a long way since then. They no longer take animals from the wild; rather, they work exclusively with zoos. Yes, there are snakes and alligators, but gentle giant tortoises are a star attraction, and the grounds are filled with beautiful flowers.
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My first experience at Reptile Gardens was with the tortoises that like human company. The young one is 48 years old. Orville, who posed with me here, is 108.
Next I met eight-year-old, 75-pound Mikey. I must have gone temporarily insane when I volunteered to hold the Burmese python, although I did it only because two of the staff held the head and tail. Others in my group were braver than me and held Mikey alone.
We visited Reptile Gardens in the fall, after an early snow killed off many of the outdoor flower gardens. However, the Sky Dome’s tropical jungle atmosphere, full of colorful tropical flowers and birds, made up for that.
We saw other reptiles safely from behind glass.
Similar to what Earl did but on a much more sophisticated level, Reptile Gardens still has gator and snake shows. We didn’t get to see one on our short press trip, but I can imagine how captivating they would be. Between the shows, the interaction with the tortoises and the beauty of the tropical Sky Dome, I understand why Reptile Gardens is one of the top attractions in Rapid City. It’s beautiful, even if some of the critters are intimidating.
Reptile Gardens, located at 955 S. Highway 16 in Rapid City, South Dakota, is open mid-March through the end of November. Check the web site for rates and hours.
Disclosure: My visit to Reptile Gardens was hosted by the South Dakota Department of Tourism and Reptile Gardens. However, all opinions in this article are my own.
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