- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

The people at the National Zoo's Reptile Discovery Center hear some pretty everyday questions from visitors to their world-class collection of reptiles and amphibians.

Such as: "Does it bite?"

"Yes, anything with a mouth will bite," animal interpreter, or docent, Steve Garron answers patiently.

"Can the snakes eat a person?"

"Not really," he tells visitors. "There are very few that really can swallow a person they can't get past the shoulders."

How about this favorite: "Is it real?"

The creatures exhibited in the Reptile Discovery Center nearly 600 of them are quite real, from the turtles to the snakes to the crocodiles to the lizards. Although none typically comes from the wild, being supplied instead by breeders and collectors, the species are indigenous to all the continents, save Antarctica.

The National Zoo's reptile exhibit opened the doors of its magnificent Byzantine-style building in 1931, wooing squeamish visitors inside for a whirlwind tour of the "snake house." Nearly 60 years later, following intense visitor studies, exhibit design and interpreter training, the Reptile Discovery Center was created.

Perhaps the most apparent new element is represented in the hands-on learning modules demonstrating different characteristics of the animals. The major philosophical change, though, revolves around the relationship between the staff and volunteers and the zoo visitors.

"Although we did have a volunteer program, role was very limited," Mr. Garron explains, "but with the Reptile Discovery Center, the volunteers have become an integral part of the program and are the front line to the public."

On a typical weekday, he explains, two to four animal interpreters can be found traversing the center, discussing the animals with visitors and giving feeding and other demonstrations. On weekends, six to eight interpreters may be scheduled.

They know their stuff. Mr. Garron has been a reptile interpreter for 11 years. The breadth and depth of his knowledge are remarkable, and no question is too large or too small.

The Reptile Discovery Center, he says, exists to "try to change people's perceptions of reptiles from the time they enter until the time they leave."

He says emotions about reptiles often run high.

"Lots of people will scream when they come in here," he says. "They think are slimy. We try to talk about the good things about them. They're beautiful animals."

Let's start with the Aldabra tortoise. While "beautiful" may not be the first adjective to spring to mind, "impressive" seems accurate. (There also is the wide-ranging "cool," offered by my 12-year-old nephew, visiting from San Diego.)

On the morning we visit, several of these nearly-500-pound animals are slowly, laboriously moving around their enclosure just outside the front doors of the center. Volunteers waggle carrots in front of their toothless mouths, trying to entice them to take a nibble to delight the onlookers.

As any 5-year-old might, my daughter asks for a ride.

"Sorry," Mr. Garron says, shaking his head. "We used to give tortoise rides as late as the 1960s, but we don't do it anymore; one of the reasons is that it does not show the proper respect for the animals."

Around the corner, in the outdoor alligator and wetlands exhibit, lies a 6-foot American alligator named Wally, snout barely visible. Kept at a safe distance by strategically planted sticker bushes, zoo-goers peer into the enclosure hoping, maybe, for the dangerous jaws to open wide and snap shut. Instead, they get nothing. No movement. Except for the occasional blink, Wally could be dead.

As crocodilians go, the American alligator is a kitten. Its more aggressive cousins, the Cuban crocodiles are housed inside the center, walled up behind a solid plate of glass with plexiglass reinforcement. That pair lies motionless as well, perhaps waiting to snap up the rats and chickens that make up their daily meal.

They may prefer something a bit more succulent.

"They'll eat baby pigs, deer, small mammals, birds anything they can get in their mouths," Mr. Garron says. "These guys are mean. Some of the keepers don't even really enjoy being with these animals, but they provide a purpose in their niche. Just because they're nasty doesn't mean we should get rid of them."

Nor, of course, should we get rid of Bob the Burmese python, all 15 feet of him, even though in the wild he might grab his prey a little forest creature and slowly squeeze the life out of it. Here in the Reptile Discovery Center, Bob does not get much of a chance to flex his 120 pounds of muscle. All the center's tenants are fed with frozen and thawed, not fresh, food to prevent injury and disease.

The center's snakes certainly are a draw for Adams Morgan resident Sheila Siegel and her teen-age brother, Daniel, visiting from Florida.

"But I don't know if I'd have one at home," Ms. Siegel says.

"I'm more of a cat and dog person," agrees her brother.

The same day, tourist and medical student Valentina Rutolo is checking out the reptiles during her third visit to the center.

"I'm here out of curiosity," she says, speaking mainly through an American friend who acts as an interpreter. "I like the turtles and the poisonous snakes. You don't really see those back home on the east coast of Italy."

"Whether you're from a country like Italy that really isn't known for its reptiles, or an area such as Virginia, where you could walk down the C&O Canal and see half a dozen snakes and lizards, you still can appreciate these animals not only for their beauty, but for their role in nature," Mr. Garron says. " no mistakes."

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