All Things Scaly and Slithery

One of the great things about living in the Ann Arbor area is you'll never know what you'll stumble across next. Take, for instance, the fact that on Jackson Rd., between Ann Arbor and Dexter, there lives a 150-pound, 19-foot-long, yellow reticulated python named Lawan. 
Of course, those numbers are only estimates, since her caregivers allow Lawan to enjoy a sizable aquarium home with little poking and prodding. She is joined by 107 other reptilian roommates at the Great Lakes Zoological Society (GLZS), many of which are more interactive. In fact, a number of them are actively looking for new homes. 
"Grandma, this is the kind of light we need for my bearded lizard."
The small boy wandering through the zoo's gift shop is pretty confident he's bringing a new lizard home in the near future. While his grandmother seems less convinced, the kid has definitely been listening to the list of lizard-ownership requirements, as evidenced by the UV light, heat lamps and bedding he points out while circling the small shop. 
As it turns out, that little boy has lot more information on reptile ownership than the typical person when purchasing a scaly new pet. Many people have no idea what they're in for when it comes to reptile care. Enthusiasts Mark and Jane Creswell saw this first-hand as they started taking abandoned pets into their Chelsea home nearly a decade ago, thus inspiring the idea behind the GLZS. 
"When [Mark] saw the degree of misunderstanding happening with reptiles, he felt the need for better, more easily accessible reptile care information," says Sara McCune, development assistant for GLZS. "The idea was that by having a zoo that could also function as a rescue, they could also help educate people."
The Creswells quickly discovered that the local demand for reptile rescue was quite high. GLZS became the home of a nearly 100-pound monitor lizard adopted by a college student for his dorm room, as well as two Sulcata Tortoises the size of large dogs who love to wrestle with each other. When first adopted, these creatures, with lifespans that span decades, could fit in the palm of their owners' hands. That rapidly changed.
"I think they believed they'd be able to take care of them," says McCune. "They just didn't realize they need heat lights and UV lights and bigger aquariums than what most people think."
Despite their exotic appeal, McCune adds, reptile owners often had a difficult time stomaching just how "wild" their pets really are.
"Some people don't want to feed them meat or deal with mice, but that's what some reptiles need," she says. "They're just not the most cuddly animals in the world."
Because reptiles live so long, accurate information about their specific needs are forgotten over time. Of course, myths about reptile care, such as pythons getting sufficient calcium from milk and lizards only growing as large as their enclosures, don't help. GLZS often receives surrendered reptiles in extremely sad shape. 
"Larry is a good example," says GLZS Curator John Lebert. "We received this iguana who had such a severe calcium deficiency, it had caused his spine to look like an 'S.' Lucky for Larry we were able to provide her with the right enclosure and heat and diet. But she won't live as long as she would have. We see some animals who just aren't able to be saved."
With all of that demand, GLZS grew out of their home and into a temporary warehouse as they searched for more permanent digs. In 2011, they moved their organization, along with its pythons, boa constrictors, iguanas, tortoises, frogs, tropical birds and more to their current, 6,000 square foot home on Jackson Rd.
In their new facility, the collection of colorful – if intimidating, depending on one's phobias – animals receive top care from the GLZS team and lots of attention from visitors. From summertime family outings to elementary school trips to summer camp programs, kids, teens and families regularly crowd into the zoo. And the people aren't the only ones who are filling up the space.
"We are at capacity," says McCune. "Hopefully once we have more room, that will help knock a couple of animals off our waiting list, and give more variety for those who are looking to adopt."
A recent $18,000 grant from the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation is helping create that growth through an upgrade to GLZS's rescue room. Construction on the space is now underway, as the organization's regularly scheduled events and programming surges on.
"Education is a big part of our mission that we are hoping to beef up more," McCune says. "We host birthday parties, field trips for school and we do hands-on presentations. We tell them about the animals, let them touch them, and they learn they aren't cold or slimy." 
GLZS is working toward accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and hope to further expand their space through a capital campaign in order to qualify. They also host special events, such as Froggy Story Time and the upcoming Boo at the Zoo event for Halloween – all with the goal of raising funds to properly maintain their reptilian residents, find new homes for some, and promote deeper understanding of the creatures and their care. 
If the boy hoping for a bearded lizard is any indication, it would seem the zoo's focus on re-homing animals with well-educated owners is working.

-The Great Lakes Zoological Society is located at 6885 Jackson Rd in Ann Arbor. They are open seven days a week from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the development news editor for Concentrate and Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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