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.
“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.
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
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.
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 email@example.com. 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 http://www.phoenixherp.com.