It's slither time at the Reptile House

ZOO'S SCARIEST ATTRACTION REOPENING

May 25, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

To the lions, tigers and bears, add a house full of snakes and lizards.

Oh my!

The Baltimore Zoo will reopen the Reptile House on Friday after an extensive renovation, and it has begun work on a major new exhibit planned to open next year -- a chimpanzee habitat.

The Reptile House was built in 1938 and housed aquarium exhibits for the first 10 years of its existence. Reptiles replaced fish in 1948. It was a casual era in Druid Hill Park when only the animals -- and not the zoo grounds -- were enclosed by fences.

But since the fences were added as a security measure in 1972 to keep out human intruders, and the zoo for the first time charged admission, the Reptile House has stood apart -- a

freebie sideshow of spine-chilling critters. It was open except for Mondays when the snakes had their weekly feeding, something deemed too spine-chilling for public viewing.

The building was closed about a year and a half ago, and has undergone an overhaul -- the interior marble walls restored, brass rails cleaned and polished, and about two-thirds of the glass display cases replaced with more modern enclosures containing plants, ponds and waterfalls. The remaining exhibits are slated for renovation next year.

Because of its location several hundred yards from the zoo entrance, the Reptile House will carry a separate admission -- 50 cents -- to cover the costs of security and maintenance. (Zoo membership provides free admission.)

Presiding over the building's reptiles and amphibians is curator Anthony Wisnieski, who got his start in the animal kingdom as an 8-year-old dinosaurologist. Unfortunately, he said, dinosaurs are extinct, so he switched allegiances to reptiles and amphibians as "the next best thing."

Mr. Wisnieski keeps none at home. Such creatures are "animals in need of conservation," not pets, he said.

"If I wanted a pet, I'd get a dog or cat."

He said a major goal of the Reptile House is educating visitors about such wonders as its two Solomon Islands spiny monitor lizards, believed the only ones in captivity in the United States.

The largest monitor species, other than the Komodo dragon, is the crocodile monitor, which visitors will find in a new, spacious, foliage-filled glass case at the center of the viewing gallery.

Other cases display Gila monsters, crocodile lizards from China, Egyptian tortoises, side-neck and snake-neck turtles, and Australian pinecone skinks (think of them as dark pinecones with tiny legs).

Among the well-fed snakes are the blood python, named for its deep red color but not as menacing as its name, and an 11-foot-long king cobra.

Affectionately named Hannah, the cobra was bred in captivity and obtained from the Bronx Zoo four years ago.

"They are the largest venomous species. There are cases of them biting elephants, and the elephants die," Mr. Wisnieski said. "If someone can come face to face with a king cobra, that's worth a thousand pictures."

And that's OK, as long as Hannah stays on her side of the window, where she occasionally slithers up against the glass and follows visitors' movements.

"They're very intelligent," Mr. Wisnieski said. "She's very aware."

The diverse collection is but "a starting point," he said, noting that more animals will be added and many will have offspring. Endangered species will be a prime target for reproduction.

The zoo's chimpanzee habitat planned to open next year will take up about three acres in the growing Africa section, where a boardwalk already links a rhino watering hole, walk-though aviary, hippo mud bath, elephant pasture, lion knoll and the Giraffe House.

Zoo Director Brian A. Rutledge said the naturalistic "living space" for chimps is a first step toward eliminating the old Mammal House where large apes used to live behind bars and glass windows.

The number of chimpanzees in the wild is unknown, but the species thought of as mankind's closest animal cousin is listed as endangered because of its shrinking African rain-forest habitat.

The first seven chimps that will inhabit the site are being bred through the species survival program of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. The Baltimore Zoo hopes breeding will increase the number to a colony of about 16.

Two other primate species will be incorporated in the new exhibit area. Mr. Rutledge hopes other small primates can be moved from the Mammal House into an $18 million Earth Conservation Center that is on the drawing boards, if the money can be raised, for 1995.

Mr. Rutledge said the zoo has budgeted about $3.5 million for the chimpanzee project, but "I wish I had $4 million for what I want to do."

The Baltimore Zoo's biggest fund-raiser -- the 10th annual Zoomerang! from 7:30 p.m. to midnight June 11 -- is dedicated this year to raising money for the chimpanzee project.

Organizers headed by Maryland Zoological Society board member Carole Sibel are hoping to sell more than 1,000 tickets to the black-tie event, sponsored by Maryland National Bank. Admission is $175.

The beneficiaries are not all that different from the party-goers, Mr. Rutledge noted, pointing out that chimps are mankind's closest relative, carrying some 97 percent of the humans' genes.

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