TULARE, Calif. — "Snakes have gotten a bad rap ever since Adam and Eve."
Biologist Terry Lilley is holding forth on a favorite subject.
"There are a lot of myths and mysteries about snakes. People kill snakes out of ignorance. Snakes are important to man, important to ecology," Lilley said.
Lilley, 34, and Lloyd Lemke, 45, operate Reptile World USA, a recently opened theme park in this San Joaquin Valley town. The park is devoted to the display of more than 4,000 snakes and other reptiles representing 400 different species.
"We're trying to get people to change their thinking about snakes, a creature which really should not be feared. As a general rule snakes are afraid of people and try to avoid contact with people. Normally people who abuse wildlife get hurt by it," Lilley said.
Both men for years have been reptile breeders: Lilley in San Luis Obispo and Lemke in Anaheim. They have supplied zoos, universities and private collectors with snakes and lizards.
At Reptile World, 10 natural habitats, ranging from arid African desert to tropical South American rain forests, are re-created with waterfalls, ponds, plants and trees. There are breeding and research laboratories where visitors witness the birth of lizards and snakes. About 100 pregnant snakes now reside in one maternity ward.
In an adjacent room in 200 plastic shoe boxes are more than 1,000 newborn snakes, some hatched out, some live birth, with five extremely rare, 18-inch-long albino Burmese pythons born earlier this month.
Harold Delisle, 55, professor of biology at Pasadena City College and former president of the 400-member Southwestern Herpetologist Society, said he believes that Reptile World is the only place in the country where the public can view the captive breeding and birth of snakes in large numbers.
Delisle noted that membership in the Southwestern Herpetologist Society has doubled in the last five years, attesting to what he calls "the dramatic increase of interest in lizards and snakes."
Lemke and Lilley continue to sell the offspring of the lizards and snakes in the park to collectors, zoos and universities.