With Reptiles Alive LLC celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, I wanted to share some of the amazing moments and memories of how it all started.
A question I get asked quite often is “Why do you like snakes so much?” My love of snakes began when I was very young. My grand-mom read me the story Rikki Tikki Tavi. When I saw pictures of cobras in the book, I thought these were the most amazing and wonderful creatures imaginable! I asked mom for a pet cobra. She said no.
Although I couldn’t have a pet cobra, both my parents and grandparents were amazing in fully supporting and encouraging my interest in snakes even though none of them had any interest in scaly or legless creatures. My parents allowed me to collect a small menagerie of local snakes, turtles, and frogs to keep in my bedroom. Grand-mom would “snake-sit” my pets when I was away on family vacations. During one snake-sitting occasion, my northern brown snake gave birth to 20 teeny-tiny baby brown snakes at grand-mom’s house. (Baby brown snakes are about two inches long and thinner than an earthworm. Teeny-tiny!)
On a few occasions, some of my pets would escape. True stories: Dad found a bull frog in his shoe one morning; Mom found a large spotted salamander creeping across her bedroom floor one night; and my younger brother found a gray tree frog stuck to his bedroom mirror and thought a rock had somehow gotten stuck there. And of course there was the occasional snake slithering down the hall. For some reason, most of the escapees headed for my parents’ room.
I spent most of my childhood days in the swamp behind our house searching for snakes and other critters. When I wasn’t out in the swamp, I read every reptile related book I could find at the local library. Writing in my “herpetology journal” was how I spent colder months when the reptiles in my neighborhood were hibernating. Yep, I was a herp nerd. No doubt.
I was lucky enough to live near Hidden Oaks Nature Center, a place that not only could I visit nearly every week to see captive snakes, but also had a kind staff naturalist who encouraged my interest in herpetology and let me begin volunteering at the center when I was only 9 years old. (Thank you Nancy Cooley!) One of the first live reptile shows I performed happened sometime in the 70’s at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.
During high school, I continued volunteering at the nature center and also became a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. As a reptile rehabber, I began rescuing not only injured wild reptiles but also taking in unwanted pet reptiles and sometimes assisting animal control agencies with reptile “situations.”
While attending Northern Virginia Community College, my vertebrate zoology professor Walter Bulmer reaffirmed my passion for reptiles and natural history. He led us on many awesome field herping expeditions to places including the Great Dismal Swamp where I learned how to catch amphiumas, bats, and songbirds. (Fun RA fact: Caroline’s zoology teacher Mr. Bulmer is RA wildlife educator Tony Bulmer’s dad!)
At George Mason University, I was finally able to take Dr. Carl Ernst’s graduate course in herpetology. This was a dream I’d had since I was in 4th grade and my parents purchased his book Turtles of the United States as my birthday present. I met Dr. Ernst then and asked if I could take his class. He laughed and said “Maybe in 10 years or so.” And I did take that class. One of the best courses ever.
After graduation, a I worked at a variety of interesting jobs: snake removal technician at a pest control company; wildlife educator at a local zoo; and park ranger and naturalist.
I had been presenting educational live reptile shows part-time since I was 9, but wondered, could I really make this work as a full-time business? I took the chance and quit all my other jobs to focus on creating my dream: an organization with a mission dedicated to showing people how awesome and important snakes, reptiles, and other misunderstood animals really are.
In 1996, I founded “The Reptile Lady,” soon to be renamed, “Reptiles Alive LLC.”
Next: Looking Back at the first 20 Years of Reptiles Alive LLC