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A zoo featuring reptiles, birds and other small- to medium-sized critters at Lebanon Valley Mall has outgrown its space there, but plans to move the menagerie into downtown Lebanon have run afoul of city ordinances.
So now, the owners of the Innocent Reptile Experience are looking for a location that’s a little more rural.
“We’re going to buy some land and build a new facility,” Morgan Innocent, who owns the zoo and retail space along with her husband Sean, told LebTown. “We’re looking at a place in Jonestown, and at some other places where our chickens and some of our other animals can be outside.
“I want to make sure my animals have enough space.”
When the zoo opened at the mall along Route 422 in February 2022, they had just over 100 animals in their collection. Now, Morgan said, they have more than 300 – and they simply got too big for that location.
Read More: Spiders, lizards, snakes & a gator: New zoo opening at Lebanon Valley Mall
She dismissed rumors that the zoo was evicted from the mall, saying the Reptile Experience had a good relationship with mall management.
“We felt we were outgrowing the space,” she explained. “Our zoo took off a lot quicker than I thought. It was really cramped in there.”
She noted that the attraction drew a lot of people to see and interact with their animals, which is one of the reasons they want a bigger facility.
City site doesn’t pan out
They thought they’d found the location they needed in the city. Although the property near Snitz Creek Brewery offered triple the space, Morgan said, they didn’t count on zoning issues that barred them from keeping their menagerie within city limits.
“We thought it would be a more friendly location if we had classes, or school visits,” she said. “And it had enough room for us to provide upgraded enclosures for our animals.”
But, after talking with city officials, the Innocents realized they were looking in the wrong municipality.
“Originally, we thought it was going to be a really good idea,” Morgan said. “But after talking to council, it’s just not there yet. They really take their time to make decisions, but I only had a window of 30 days” to close on the property in question.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be so difficult to move into the city,” she explained. “We had to put a deposit down on the property, but then the city said it was going to be more than four months before they came to a decision. To put a zoo in Lebanon, it’s going to take baby steps. They’re very cautious … we have venomous snakes, and they want to be sure they’re not going to escape.”
It’s important, she stressed, that the zoo is a good fit in its new location.
“We need a good relationship with the township. We need to create strong relationships with our neighbors,” she explained. “Even if we have six acres, we’re still connected to someone.”
300+ critters in foster care
Currently, the zoo’s 300+ inhabitants are in two foster homes outside of the city.
The zoo numbers among its more dangerous residents a population of deadly snakes, including a West African bush viper, two western diamondback rattlesnakes and a banded copperhead, and an alligator named Scrappy. They are among the exhibits that can only be viewed from a safe distance, and with a zoo employee as a chaperone.
“We also have a lot more birds now,” Morgan said. “We’ve also been trying to focus more on mammals, too. … We’re trying to get permits for more exotic mammals. People can’t keep a hedgehog, so we’re trying to make a safe place for them.”
The zoo has been the recipient of several animals – including two goats and some chickens – that were dropped off by owners who, for various reasons, couldn’t retain them, she said.
Morgan said she and Sean are hoping to buy a property for their zoo within the next 30 to 60 days. They’re also planning to buy a new home that’s closer to their zoo.
The new site, once open, will also include their retail store for exotic animal supplies, she noted. They also would like separate facilities for the more dangerous residents – the snakes and gators – and the harmless critters. “We also want something where the animals can be safe,” she added.
Altogether, Morgan said, they’d like about 5,000 square feet
Rather than building a new zoo facility, she said, they’re planning to purchase pre-built modular units that can be rearranged or expanded as necessary.
“They just have to transfer them to our property, then hook up water and utilities,” Morgan said. “So it shouldn’t take too long after we buy a property … before we reopen.”
Traveling exhibits are still on the move
The Innocents didn’t always plan to run a zoo. His background is in psychology, hers is in nursing, they told LebTown in 2022. And together they owned a dog … until Morgan came home one day with three tarantulas.
Sean wasn’t thrilled at first, but he grew to love them. And as their mutual passion for reptiles, arthropods and other critters grew, they ended up making a vocation of it. Initially, they ran Innocent Feeders, a retail store selling crickets, roaches and other tasty snacks for local reptile owners, in Annville. That side occupation grew into the zoo they opened early last year at the mall.
Other species in their collection range from a Nile monitor to a red-footed tortoise, axolotls and ball pythons, bearded dragons and leopard geckos, an Amazon parrot and even a cat. They host community events, from birthday parties to an educational zoo summer camp and a Youth Leadership Program.
Longterm goals for the zoo include obtaining 501c3 nonprofit accreditation to facilitate donations as well as accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Although they are currently between locations, the Innocents are still booking events for the spring and summer.
“We’re still traveling” with their exhibits, Morgan said, “even though our actual zoo probably won’t be open right away.”
Despite a few bumps, in the road, she’s confident they’re on the right track.
“We’re excited,” she said. “We’re optimistic.”
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