Snakes Alive at Phoenix Herpetological Society in Scottsdale

Debbie Gibson took the phone call in her small office at the Phoenix Herpetological Society in rural Scottsdale, and found herself in a familiar role. The concerned woman on the other end had a Gila monster at her front door. What should she do?
Gibson calmly advised the homeowner to use a square shovel or dustpan, sweep the reptile gently into it with a broom, and release it outside, preferably near a rock outcropping or boulder. But not too far, because Gila monsters typically stay within a quarter-mile radius of their home, she told the caller.
“If you take them outside that area, then they become what we call nomads and won’t eat or drink until they find home again, and they’ll basically die,” she continued. “No, the only way you can get bit is to bend over and touch it.”
Gibson, a co-founder of Phoenix Herpetological Society, said calls like that come in “all day long.” It’s OK, though, because educating people how to co-exist with reptiles in the desert is a big part of their mission.
Phoenix Herpetological Society, commonly known as Phoenix Herp, is a nonprofit facility located near Dynamite Boulevard and 78th Street that works with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to rescue and rehabilitate reptiles, ranging from rattlesnakes to crocodiles and just about everything in between. Currently the facility has 1,700 animals on site, Gibson said, and many of them are used in education programs for children.
Back in 2000, Gibson, her partner Daniel Marchand and friend Russ Johnson came up with the idea for what was essentially a humane society and sanctuary for reptiles. Gibson recalled that Game and Fish had taken possession of a baby alligator, and because most zoos won’t take rescued animals because of potential health issues, it had to be euthanized.
The three came up with the idea of building a “gator pond” on Marchand’s property in North Scottsdale, and drew up blueprints to present to Game and Fish.

A Cuban crocodile named Jojo lurks in his enclosure at the Phoenix Herpetology Society sanctuary in Scottsdale, Ariz.

A Cuban crocodile named Jojo lurks in his enclosure at the Phoenix Herpetology Society sanctuary in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“We said if we build this gator pond, if you get another gator would you consider letting us take it instead of euthanizing it, and seeing if we can’t find a home someplace in the United States for it?”
Gibson said their idea was welcomed, and came to fruition a little too quickly. They were only about three-quarters finished building the pond when Game and Fish called. They had two adult alligators in Maryvale, Ariz., and hoped the new facility could take them. Gibson said they hurried to finish the project and took in Charlie and Lucy, who are still residents of Phoenix Herp today. “I thought, well how many are we going to get, two or three a year?,” she recalled with a laugh.
After the rescue of the two adult alligators was widely reported in the media, the sanctuary took off quickly.
“Then the phone calls started coming in: ‘I have a tortoise I can’t take care of,” or ‘I have a turtle,’ and I’m like where are all these people coming from?,” she said. “Dan and I had taken over this house from his parents and we were going to refurbish it, and that just came to a sudden stop and money started going into enclosures. It just took off.”
A couple years later the phone rang at 2 in the morning. It was Game and Fish again, and they had pulled over a trailer transporting 14 alligators. That sent Phoenix Herp scrambling out to dig new ponds in a hurry. That was when the three co-founders decided the facility needed to do more than rescue and rehabilitate animals.
“I realized then, we need to educate the general public,” Gibson said. “They need to learn how to co-exist with wildlife, and quit killing the rattlesnakes. So I launched our education programs. Today we are a full-blown humane society and education facility.”
At present, Gibson estimated Phoenix Herp takes care of 1,700 animals, including crocodiles, alligators, Gila monsters, tortoises, turtles, bearded dragons, a variety of snakes and other reptiles. One of the reticulated pythons on site is more than 20 feet long and weighs 280 pounds.
“The majority of our animals are non-native. We have some Gilas, and we have every species of snake, because we use them in our education program. We have probably the largest collection of venomous snakes in the Southwest, and those obviously can’t go back out,” she said.
Phoenix Herp keeps one or two of each species, and the rest they try to relocate to zoos or other education facilities around the country. Many of the alligators are from the Southeast, and most of the 80 or so crocodiles are from Africa.

Serpent curator Nate Deason holds an Argentine red tegu, one of the many reptiles at Phoenix Herpetological Society in rural North Scottsdale.

Serpent curator Nate Deason holds an Argentine red tegu, one of the many reptiles at Phoenix Herpetological Society in rural North Scottsdale. The Arizona sanctuary is home to some 1,700 animals.

The facility operates on private donations, grants and money from tours (by reservation, educational tours usually last about two and a half hours) and other activities such as school field trips and outreach.
The monthly electric bill is about $5,000 a month, and then there’s the food bill. They go through 125 pounds of greens each day, some of which are donated by Whole Foods or Costco. Rodents are shipped in frozen for the snakes, costing about $1,500 a month, while chicken and fish comes in for the crocodiles and alligators.
“It’s a challenge. We’re bringing in enough to cover the basics, but we’re trying to figure out how to raise more money so we can have some staff,” Gibson said. “We have two paid people now, but I really could use 10.”
Opportunities for educational programs for kids have grown along with the number of species Phoenix Herp has taken in over the years. Since the

The giant Galapagos tortoise is a vegetarian.

The giant Galapagos tortoise is a vegetarian.

sanctuary is home to 19 of 23 species of crocodilians, the facility decided to get involved in breeding some of the pairs of endangered crocs. That meant working with the federal government and getting permits, but it also presented a new opportunity.
Gibson worked with Tesseract private school in Paradise Valley to set up a science course involving the endangered crocodilians. The kids come out every other week and stay at Phoenix Herp for a half day, learning everything there is about endangered breeding programs. That includes observing animals from the deck, helping to incubate eggs and learning how to operate a sanctuary and run a nonprofit, even putting on a fundraising event. The new Tesseract curriculum worked so well it was named the Arizona Education Program of the Year for private schools.
“Some adults we can change their views, but for the most part adults have their minds made up. For us it’s about kids, we can get in their brains and show them that snakes aren’t bad.”
Gibson has already seen progress in education. She’s received calls from kids who tell her something along the lines of: “there’s a rattlesnake in the backyard and my Dad’s out there, but I told him not to touch it until you get here, and can you hurry?”
She said it’s just as important to learn to live with a rattlesnake as it is to live with a bobcat in your backyard. “Our education programs are about co-existing, how to stay safe and how to co-exist.”
Phoenix Herp did about 400 snake relocations last year, where they went to someone’s home and captured the creature and released it back into the wild. In cases where the snake was injured, it was brought to the sanctuary for rehabilitation. Gibson said three months is usually the cut-off with Game and Fish to get a snake treated and back to the wild, because after that snakes begin to lose their ability to hunt and also can take in parasites that could be harmful in the wild.
With Johnson as president (and a bit of a Phoenix-area celebrity for his uncanny ability to safely handle crocodilians), Marchand as executive curator and Nate Deason as the serpent curator, Phoenix Herp operates with a pretty small staff. Marchand and Deason are the only paid members, and there about 30 volunteers who help out, said Gibson. She handles many of the administrative duties, writes grants and does “whatever I can to help.”
Many of the volunteers are high school students who are interested in herpetology and come to Phoenix Herp for their required community service. Deason himself was a volunteer for several years before becoming a paid staff member. He had been around reptiles since he was 5.
“This is always what I’ve been geared to do,” he said. “I grew up in northwest Missouri, but I was always keeping reptiles and always around them.”
During a recent tour of the Phoenix Herp sanctuary, Deason rattled off his deep knowledge of snakes, lizards, tortoises, crocodiles and alligators without hesitation. He explained that the majority of the animals come from the pet trade, often cases where people just don’t want the reptiles anymore.
For example, tortoises are very popular in the pet trade but many people don’t realize how big they get. Deason said African sulcata tortoises, the third-largest tortoise species in the world, often end up at Phoenix Herp.
“They’re a big problem here in Phoenix because people will get them when they’re this size (small) and cute, but they don’t think about the fact that they’re going to live 125 years or more and get very, very large (up to 200 pounds),” he said.
“Once they get to that huge size, people often don’t want to keep them anymore and they either release them in our desert or give them to us. Right now we have about 350 adults on the property.”
Even larger residents of the North Scottsdale sanctuary include some Galapagos tortoises, vegetarians that can grow up to 1,200 pounds, he said. They are the largest and rarest tortoise in the world, and are endangered and protected.

A child gets a close-up view of a large boa constrictor at the Phoenix Herpetological Society exhibit at a recent wildlife expo sponsored by Arizona Game and Fish.

A child gets a close-up view of a large boa constrictor at the Phoenix Herpetological Society exhibit at a recent wildlife expo sponsored by Arizona Game and Fish.

Other stops on his tour visited an Argentine red tegu, a nonpoisonous lizard that is “a really cool little animal” and Bella the beaver, a rare furry resident that was a rescue case from South Carolina who has been fed by hand her whole life.
The snake section includes everything from corn snakes to a king cobra to the Coastal Taipan, which Deason said is drop for drop the third most toxic land snake in the world. Later during the tour, he pointed out two immature saltwater crocodiles that are siblings but are kept separated in their enclosure.
“They’re sisters, but they do not care for each other. They would absolutely tear each other apart.”
Deason said tours, which are done by appointment only at the private sanctuary, usually last about two and a half hours and are very hands-on, giving children a chance to interact with some of the animals such as tortoises and bearded dragons.
Gibson said they travel all over the state to do programs at schools, estimating they talked to 156,000 children last year including field trips, programs and tours. For her, it’s all about educating the next generation as stewards of the desert and the wild in general.
“It started out as a passion for our desert. It was out of balance, because people were killing the snakes and rodents were on the increase,” she said. “But then when you start getting involved in the whole conservation thing, it’s not just our desert it’s the whole planet. If we don’t give our kids and our students the tools to make the right decisions and educate them to make the right decisions, then it’s going to go downhill.
“That’s why for us it’s all about education. People need to understand that an alligator doesn’t make a good pet. It really belongs in the wild. What is in the wild should stay in the wild.”
“So, it’s a challenge. A good majority of the animals that come in to us are pet trade. It’s the same thing the Humane Society goes through with their dogs and cats. The biggest battle we fight, is that people don’t mind giving to a cause when they see this cute little fuzzy kitten or puppy, but when they see a rattlesnake, they’re like ‘why would I give to that.’ It’s very difficult for us to get funds for that. I’m waiting for someone to walk up and say, here’s a million dollars. You never know,” she said with a laugh.
“I’d like to expand. It used to be we were just one entity, and now we’re really two. We have the whole humane society aspect of the rescue, and we have the whole education part.”
When we do our tours, it’s “Take a Walk on the Wildside,” because you can basically do all three in the same area. They schedule tours around the schools this time of year because there are so many field trips.
They also do community expos, such as the Arizona Game and Fish Wildlife Expo in March at the Ben Avery Shooting Range.
“There are enough people that have captive-born tortoises or lizards that they breed. Buy from that. We’ve got to stop taking stuff out of the wild.”
Tours can be scheduled by calling 480-513-4377 or emailing The cost is $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and kids. For more about adopting animals, donating or just to know more, visit their website at



Day Trip to the (AZ) Outback

The wind had let up and the sun was already behind the low-lying hills to the west. As dusk began to settle over Alamo Lake, the surface ripples were replaced by a smooth, glassy appearance. I made one more cast from the shore, not expecting much as my Rapala lure broke the still surface and I began a slow retrieve.

It had been quite a few weekend fishing trips since I had caught anything. I was beginning to feel a bit like a landlocked version of Santiago in the “Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway’s hero had gone 84 days without catching a fish, and the other anglers believed he was a jinx until he hooked a giant marlin on the 85th day. While Alamo Lake contains no marlin, it does have a reputation as a good bass fishery in Arizona. After two hours of trying a variety of baits, I still had no proof of that fact.

Alamo Lake in Arizona is known as a good bass fishery and attacts many anglers.

Fishing from the shore at Alamo Lake in rural Arizona as darkness falls.

Fishing from shore in the lakes of the desert Southwest can be a challenge. Anglers are limited to the length of their casts, and oftentimes the fish are lurking in deeper water, much more accessible by boat. Even Santiago headed way out to deeper ocean water before he hooked his prize marlin.

Suddenly I felt a sharp tug on my spin-casting pole. Instinctively I pulled back on the rod and then began to retrieve faster. In response, the fish broke the lake’s surface with a violent splash, and I knew I had a bass on the line. Anyone with angling experience knows that largemouth are among the best fighters, and this fish, although on the smaller side, was no exception. After a few minutes, I landed the roughly 11-inch bass and then set it free again.

By that time it was nearly dark, and time to wrap up our family day trip. Besides being happy to have finally caught a fish, the trip to remote Alamo Lake was a pleasant experience. Travelers looking for a day trip that’s out of the ordinary might enjoy this hidden jewel located in what is known as Arizona’s Outback.

It’s a good two to three hours from the Phoenix area, depending where you’re traveling from. We drove west on I-10 to Salome Road, which in itself is a unique experience. This very straight highway runs northwest for nearly 40 miles through a fairly desolate part of the Sonoran Desert. Frequent signs painted right onto the pavement, warning of cattle crossings ahead, help break up the monotony, not to mention the frequent dips and rises simulating a mini-roller coaster. My son enjoyed those, my wife not so much.

Wild burros.

Wild burros are a common sight near Alamo Lake in west central Arizona.

Wildlife is plentiful. On this late spring outing, we witnessed everything from the cattle (yes, they really do cross the highway, so be ready to brake) to

jackrabbits. When we arrived at the lake, which is nestled in a remote valley amid jagged desert mountains, we also witnessed some of the wild burros the region is known for. And on the way out from our fishing spot, we had to dodge a juvenile rattlesnake that was already out for the evening.

If you go, make sure you have a full tank of gas and, of course, bring plenty of water. There is a gas station and small general store in nearby Salome, and a few other businesses in Wenden. It’s a place I think Hemingway might have enjoyed. Travelers from Phoenix can get to Alamo Lake either by taking I-10 or U.S. Route 60 via Wickenburg.

The Chase

Olivia guided her kayak through the water with seemingly little effort, just an occasional paddle left, right, then left again as she crossed the lake in a straight line. The vessel sat low in the water as it glided along, almost making her feel as if she was in the lake. Her head was just a couple feet from the surface, so close she could smell the fresh, cool water. It was a great feeling, she thought, having the lower part of her body actually below the surface, yet warm and dry, stretched out inside the hull. It was a sturdy craft made of durable, lightweight wood, one she had used many times for safe crossing of the Heron Lake wilderness, always being careful to stow it away in one of her many hiding places.

Olivia glanced wistfully to her right as she made the crossing, seeing in the distance to the east where the shoreline was broken by a nearly hidden cove. She knew it led to the meandering wetlands she loved to explore in her kayak, when time allowed. There was no time for exploring now, she reminded herself. The sun had set and the gloom of a summer evening was already rolling, like a fog, across the lake. There would be a full moon late tonight, she thought. Somehow that seemed fitting after the strange events of the day.

Night is not my enemy, she told herself as she continued to paddle toward the north shore. By her calculations the mercenaries who followed her were still several miles behind and would likely make camp once they reached the south shore. She was sure they would not attempt a crossing in the dark, and that would give her time to stow the boat and get to her home in the forest. Olivia was tired after her flight and longed to rest, but she knew she had several hours of travel still ahead.

A thick bed of tall cattails, rushes and reeds loomed ahead, a green expanse that stretched away for many hundred feet to either side as Olivia neared the far shore, She brought the kayak to a stop and peered through the gloom, searching for something in the dusk. Then she paddled to the right, staying very close to the weeds, for about 100 feet. Where is it? she wondered, straining to see as the darkness increased rapidly and the minutes passed.

There it is, she thought with relief. An opening in the long procession of water plants, so narrow it was not visible from a distance, suddenly appeared. The traveler turned the kayak carefully to the left, guiding it through the opening. The reeds and cattails scraped softly against the hull as she entered the hidden aquatic pathway. It was one she herself had crafted, just wide enough to allow passage, winding left and right in a zigzag pattern through the expanse of the tall, sword-like plants. They seemed to spring back into place behind her, helping to conceal the passageway as she made her way slowly toward shore. The water was shallow, just deep enough to support the kayak.

Suddenly a loud noise a few feet away in the water caused her heart to leap. In the gloom she saw two figures rise out of the reeds and take flight, letting out a raucous cry. Herons! Olivia nearly laughed aloud. Her presence had rousted a pair of nesting birds that had just settled in for the night. Despite her knowledge of the lake’s wildlife, the sudden explosion still caught her by surprise.

I can’t be so jumpy, she thought. I need to have nerves of steel or I will make a mistake. She knew one misstep could be her last. With that grim thought she settled herself and resumed paddling through the small jungle of water plants.

Before long she slowed the kayak, peering into the gloom to her left. The girl quickly found what she was looking for, an almost imperceptible break in the reeds. With navigational skill borne of years of practice, she turned and pushed through the tiny opening. Once her vessel went through, the plants seemed to spring back into place behind her, helping to conceal her passage. Anyone following her trail this far would likely miss this sudden turn, or at least so she hoped.

Now it was almost completely dark as she reached her destination. The tall reeds and cattails began to thin out, revealing a boggy area covered in long water grass. The kayak came to a halt, hitting bottom as the shore drew near. Olivia quickly grabbed her pack and exited the craft, stepped into the shallows and suppressed an exclamation as the cold water began to seep into her boots.

Despite the darkness she found her hiding place by the shore with practiced ease, much like a blind person who knows every inch of their environment and uses other senses as guidance. She pulled aside a thick mound of grass to reveal an opening, one she had carefully hollowed out earlier in the spring. It was just long enough to fit her boat, and when she replaced the grass it was nearly impossible to see the camouflaged vessel, unless of course someone knew where to look.

The shore here was also lined with thick brush and shrubs, another reason Olivia had chosen that area. Now she waded in the shallows, hugging the shore as she headed west. It was slow going, but necessary to hide her trail. After about a half-mile trek through the water, the boggy wetlands was replaced by sandy, rocky ground. There were fewer shrubs and underbrush here as she made her way onto shore.

The moss-covered ground was firm and did not give way as she stepped lightly, hoping to avoid leaving obvious tracks. She stopped and took one last look behind her in the darkness, across the lake. Away to the southeast, a slight glare of light was starting to appear behind the treeline. The moon was coming up. Good timing, she thought, her spirits lifting a bit for the first time today. Moonlight would aid her passage through the forest.

With that she turned and quickly disappeared into the forest.

* * *

The full moon was already riding high in the sky as the four men came to a halt. Their leader held up his hand, a signal he wanted silence, as he stood on the southern shore of Lake Heron and looked around. Moonlight reflected across the rippled surface of the water as the bearded, rough-looking mercenary surveyed this latest obstacle. He sniffed the air as if looking for clues in the night breeze.

The lake stretched to the east and the west as far as he could see in the half-darkness, and he sensed it would be a long way around in either direction. But that decision would have to wait until morning, he thought, feeling very irritated that their prey had managed to slip away again. A lot of money was riding on the success of this venture. They would find her, and she would not escape again, he vowed.

“Now what, Vladimir?” asked one of the men behind him.

“We make camp for the night,” he said gruffly, knowing that the distance between them and their quarry would increase while they rested. “The morning will bring guidance. No fire tonight.”

* * *

A strong night breeze swept down the mountain and across the treetops as Olivia walked through the forest. Silver-gray moonlight filtered down through the swaying branches of the oaks, walnuts, beeches and pines, dancing on the ground in front of the young maiden. The tapestry of light that played out around her left her feeling a bit unsettled, though she wasn’t sure why.

She climbed up out of the valley and away from Heron Lake, taking a winding route. She followed a small stream bed for a while, walking through the water or bounding from rock to rock as she tried to mask her passage. Eventually her pursuers would pick up her trail, since they likely had at least one expert tracker among them. But she used the tricks learned from many years living in the mountains, hoping to slow them down.

Occasionally she stopped to climb a tree, then used her rope skills to swing over to a neighboring tree, before climbing down and continuing on her way. At several points along the stream she struck out to either side, making false trails to confuse the trackers. And when another, smaller brook joined the larger stream, she followed its course for several hundred feet before leaving it again to circle back to the main waterway.

The maiden stayed with the stream for several miles, always climbing higher into the mountains, until finally it was just a small rivulet winding amid the moss-covered rocks. Then it disappeared altogether, where it bubbled out of the ground at its source. Olivia stopped to rest there, filling her canteen with the fresh, cold water and talking a long drink. She was hungry, so she allowed herself a couple pieces of dried beef for strength.

The crack of a stick breaking several yards away broke the stillness, and Olivia froze. It was followed by the sound of old leaves and underbrush being clumsily disturbed. It was coming closer. She crouched, pulled her knife from her belt and waited, trying her hardest not to move a muscle. Whatever it was would soon be right on top of her, she realized, as the sound grew near.

Suddenly, a brown and grey head appeared through a break in the branches a few feet away, with ears twitching. Olivia let her breath escape in a rush, relieved, as she made out the shape of a deer in the half-light. The animal froze as well, as its fine-tuned senses of hearing and smell kicked in. It stared for a minute, seeing her shape in its colorblind fashion. Olivia came out of her crouch, and the animal leaped away into the forest with one strong bound after another, quickly disappearing.

Following her break, the girl resumed her journey, leaving the stream’s source and climbing ever upward. Before long a few clouds began to appear in the sky. The moon slowly lowered into the west, now harder to see behind the trees. There were only a couple hours before dawn, she estimated, so she decided to take a straighter route to make better time now.