There’s an alligator eating marshmallows in a back room at Lebanon Valley Mall.
Most of the 100-plus critters on display at the Experience are easily contained in a small- to medium-sized tank, and visitors to the attraction are welcome to explore at their leisure. But Scrappy is nearly 5 feet long from tooth to tail, and he’s kept in a back room, along with the zoo’s four venomous snakes – a West African bush viper, two western diamondback rattlesnakes and a banded copperhead – and guests can only view those creatures from a distance, and always with one of the Innocents as a chaperone.
The Reptile Experience is currently open only by appointment. The owners say they plan a soft opening for the free zoo on Feb. 14, with a grand opening on the calendar for Feb. 21. After that, Sean says, the zoo will be open for people to browse nearly 40 species of reptile and arthropod, from an Argentine black-and-white tegu to a Nile monitor, a red-footed tortoise to an ornate box turtle, and from a sunbeam snake to a pair of axolotls.
“We will gladly pull out one of our ball pythons for you,” Sean promises. “If you’re scared of snakes and want to get over your fear, come in. We have several that are very tame and docile.”
Surprised by tarantulas
The Innocents got their start as zookeepers innocently enough. His background is in psychology, hers is in nursing, Sean explains.
In their first year of marriage, some seven years ago, the couple had only a dog as a pet – until Morgan came home one day with three tarantulas.
“I didn’t speak to her for three weeks,” Sean says with a laugh. “But I grew to love them. Now, I’m the one who’s more likely to pull them out to show people.”
Accordingly, the Reptile Experience also includes a section of arthropods: several varieties of spiders and scorpions. (Don’t worry, they’re securely contained.)
Sean says his wife had grown up with tarantulas as pets, and she sometimes collected snakes, too. He, on the other hand, had owned a bearded dragon, so he was familiar with keeping a reptile. (He admits, however, that “three years ago, I wouldn’t be in the same room as a snake. Now, my collection of snakes is bigger than hers.”)
They turned their mutual passion for creatures into a business, operating since April as Innocent Feeders in Annville. The 800-square-foot Annville store sold mostly crickets, roaches and other tasty snacks for local reptile owners.
“Then we got in a few reptiles to sell, and everything sort of took off,” Sean says. “We quickly outgrew Annville. This place kind of fell into our laps.”
The new location is about double the size of their old one, he says. For one thing, he says, that means they can have a lot more animals in display.
“We want to show them,” Sean says. “We want to teach people about reptiles. They’re not scary creatures – they’re actually quite enjoyable.” In fact, he notes, some of the animals on display are from the Innocents’ private menagerie. “We moved most of them here so we could have them on display,” Sean says. “I want people to see and enjoy them as much as I do.”
They have a teenage volunteer who enjoys researching the animals and preparing information sheets on each species so people who visit can read up on the animals they see. Also, Sean says, they love answering questions and helping people decide if herpetoculture – keeping live reptiles and amphibians in captivity – is right for them.
“My favorite guy is this Asian water monitor,” he says, pulling a several-inch-long lizard from its tank. The monitor, named Karma, quickly climbs up Sean’s arm and flicks his beard with its tongue.
“He’ll be getting a 5 1/2-foot-long enclosure built soon,” he adds. “He could get to be 7 feet long, roughly.”
A sloth in their future?
Lebanon Valley Mall is in Northern Lebanon Township, and Sean says township regulations regarding an establishment such as the Reptile Experience are a little more stringent than they were in Annville.
“They want to know what type of reptiles we have, and if anything is venomous,” he explains. “A bit of their worry is what we would do if anything went wrong – a snakebite, or a fire in the mall. They want to know what reptiles are here, what reptiles are sold, what’s going in and out the doors.”
The state Department of Agriculture is also doing a walk-through of the facility before its grand opening, he says.
Initially, Sean says, most of the reptiles are there to see, enjoy and learn from. Eventually, they hope to begin selling some of their animals, especially as breeding programs for the bearded dragons and leopard geckos begin producing stock.
Some of the animals will always be there as pets and exhibits, however. Among them – besides Scrappy, of course – is a chatty yellow-headed Amazon parrot named Guacamole and a fluffy white cat named Snowball.
Someday, Sean says, they hope to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which would allow them to further expand their exhibits. “We want to get a two-toed sloth,” he confides. “That’s one of our goals.”
Scrappy, by the way, came to the Reptile Experience via Joie Henney, who lives in York County and hosted an ESPN show called “Joie Henney’s Outdoors” from 1989 to 2000. Henney, a former Marine, successfully treats his depression with Wally, another Florida gator who has been certified as an Emotional Support Animal, and Sean says Henney will help the Innocents with Scrappy’s care.
Eventually, Sean says, he and his wife hope to expand the business to a larger storefront in the mall. The retail section would stay in the current location, he says, and they’d set up a bigger, more interactive zoo in the new space.
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