Valley group is last hope for rogue reptiles - East Valley Tribune: Pets

Valley group is last hope for rogue reptiles

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Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2010 4:55 pm | Updated: 3:53 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

The test of his passion for cold-blooded critters is Clem. The 10-foot-long, 450-pound alligator tries to eat Russ Johnson for lunch nearly every time Johnson steps into Clem's (very secure) pen. Such are the challenges of the Phoenix Herpetological Society's president and protector of all scaly creatures.

The test of his passion for cold-blooded critters is Clem.

The 10-foot-long, 450-pound alligator tries to eat Russ Johnson for lunch nearly every time Johnson steps into Clem's (very secure) pen.

Such are the challenges of the Phoenix Herpetological Society's president and protector of all scaly creatures.

The society quickly responds when dangerous or exotic reptiles — from Gila monsters to diamondback rattlers — are in distress. More than a thousand animals live at the sanctuary in northeast Scottsdale.

Johnson fetches the dehydrated, ill or neglected. Many end up being adopted by zoos or educational institutions once they're in good health; those legal to own — bearded dragon lizards or desert tortoises included — may be adopted as pets.

Johnson usually is the first one called by police and Arizona Game and Fish officers if a reptile is involved.

It happens more often than you might think — a renter packs up but leaves a python behind; police storming a drug house stop short at the sight of a "guard gator"; social workers find a "pet" cobra in a home with kids.

And in July 2005, the emergency was Clem.

When a former rancher agreed to sell land that would become part of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, it was with one condition — his beloved alligator was to be removed unharmed.

The Bureau of Land Management didn't know if Clem really existed, so they asked Johnson for help.

On a 114-degree day, Johnson tracked Clem to a pond and lured him into a snare loop. Clem was more than 8 feet long and, at 125 pounds, malnourished. Still, it took four men to wrestle Clem into a trailer.

Today, the gator has gained more than 300 pounds dining on three or four whole chickens two or three times a week at the Phoenix Herpetological Society, an educational nonprofit group founded nearly a decade ago by Johnson and Daniel Marchand.

At his size and with his temperament, Clem's not likely to find another home. But Johnson is adamant his mission is caring for just such creatures. He understands sane people won't swoon over a snarly gator that wouldn't hesitate to snack on a human limb. Yet Johnson considers him no different from a pound pup — just one with a really big bite.

"I guess I would equate it with a dachshund who didn't bite anybody, saying if you couldn't find a home for it, why not euthanize it?" Johnson said. "The animals we have didn't ask to come here."

The sanctuary offers a rare glimpse at some of the world's wildest creatures. Here, you can get a close look at more than 500 tortoises and lizards from around the globe and more than 200 snakes of all sizes — more than half of them venomous.

Many of the animals were purchased in states where they are legal, then brought to Arizona. Sometimes, they're released or surrendered by owners when they get too big or too dangerous to handle, but most are confiscated by Arizona's Game and Fish officers.

"I'm willing to bet there are 60 alligators in homes in Maricopa County that we don't know about," Johnson said.

Over the past three years, the facility has shipped 250 venomous snakes to zoos and educational research groups, Johnson said.

There's Ernie, an albino monocled cobra whose hooded, red-eyed stare should unnerve the most fearless.

Johnson still shakes his head about another snake, a lethal Gaboon viper, taken from a home with young children.

"There's no anti-venom for it in Arizona," he said.

Some of the pythons and boas at the sanctuary were abandoned in rental homes or apartments. Johnson said a maintenance man bolted when a boa peeked out of the drywall. He refused to return even long enough to shut the door.

Johnson understands that a dehydrated and hungry snake may bite anyone who corners it. Even if the snake is non-venomous, a boa's or python's teeth can do major damage. One bite left him needing 60 stitches.

Though he loves reptiles, Johnson is adamant that most animals at his facility don't make good pets, especially for the novice.

Reptiles that are legal in Arizona, such as iguanas, often come to him when they outgrow cages or misbehave (they can bite and scratch). Johnson's soft spot for reptiles goes back to his first scaly love — a king snake he had when he was 4. His mom jumped onto the kitchen counter when he brought it inside, but his dad let him keep it.

"I was hooked," he said. "I had a hard time understanding the innate fear most people have of them."

One pet snake was fine, but his parents drew the line when he kept a few rattlesnakes in the garage of their California home.

In the midst of running his own trucking company, marrying and raising three kids, Johnson amassed a collection of exotic reptiles. His favorite is Donnie, a 14-year-old, 250-pound tiger-reticulated python.

"I have a very close affinity to that animal," he said, but "he's the ultimate picture of what not to let your kids have."

When Johnson sold his trucking business in 1994, he was 42 years old and in need of a hobby.

He volunteered with the Arizona Herpetological Association, helping to remove snakes from homes and businesses. The group relocated about 900 snakes in two years.

In addition to rescuing reptiles, he talks to kids about the animals' place in the ecosystem, how they've adapted to survive. He stresses most aren't good pets and explains how difficult it is to care for them in captivity.

Last year, more than 100,000 students met some of the animals.

Expanding their educational mission is what drives Johnson, co-founder Marchand and society vice president Debbie Gibson. Marchand and Gibson own the gated 2 1/2 acres on which the reptile compound is situated.

Gibson said she knew little about reptiles when Marchand, 47, and Johnson, 58, pitched their idea of a herpetological society, but she also wanted to end the cycle of homeowners killing rattlesnakes without a thought, especially as more and more homes were popping up in once-wild lands.

She gave them the green light after realizing the need for a reptile-rescue facility.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be this big," said Gibson, 51. "I never realized how big the problem really is."

Feeding and caring for and securing more than a thousand reptiles is time-consuming and expensive. Each year, the society goes through 44,000 pounds of fruits and veggies, 110 hay bales and 23,000 frozen mice and rats.

The group, which has a zoo license, wants to convert an existing building into an air-conditioned educational facility that's wheelchair accessible.

They offer small-group tours by appointment. And baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation donated a temperature-controlled 30-foot-long custom trailer that allows Johnson to take 12 to 20 animals on the road for talks.

The work has its risks. Johnson has survived two rattlesnake bites, and he spent time in an intensive-care unit in each case. The pain was almost unbearable.

"I've had eight bones broken in my life, and I'd rather break all eight (at once) than get bitten again," he said.

If he is bitten again, it may be his last.

"That's because my wife would kill me," he said.

If not for such groups as the herpetological society, many captive reptiles would be euthanized because releasing non-indigenous venomous snakes and other nonnative reptiles into the Arizona wild is prohibited.

Ray Kohls, retired law-enforcement supervisor for Arizona Game and Fish, said placing alligators and other dangerous reptiles was difficult years ago without groups like the herpetological society.

"We had to euthanize them, unless we could place them real quick," he said. "Generally, now we can almost place everything."

Rather than being a mere nuisance or a danger, Johnson said, these animals have a value, including to the medical community.

Researchers at the University of Southern California are investigating whether a protein found in copperhead snake venom can stop the spread of cancer cells. And a synthetic drug that replicates a protein in Gila monster venom has helped regulate blood-glucose levels in diabetic patients.

Through it all, the Phoenix Herpetological Society protects creatures without nearly as many advocates as shelters for cute and furry animals.

"We're doing what we love," he said.

That is worth the risks.

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