Macomb County reptile zoo lets visitors get up close and personal with lizards and alligators

Earlier this month, Josh, Jenny, and Zeke Stroh had some close encounters of the cold-blooded and scaly kind. Fortunately, the Novi family experienced them on a planned outing to the Reptarium, a Utica-based reptile zoo.

The Strohs — well some of them, anyways — are reptile enthusiasts who own a 6-month-old banana pied ball python. They found out about the reptile house after seeing a series of snake and lizard-themed videos on the Reptarium's YouTube channel.

"My son and I watched them a lot. And we didn't know [The Reptarium] was here," says Josh Stroh. "When I realized it was actually in Michigan I was like 'Oh, we gotta check this out.'"

Jenny, who isn't a fan of snakes, did her best to avoid those slithering critters during their trip. Josh and Zeke, though, loved checking them out and they were all blown away by the impressive menagerie of creatures they found at the private zoo.

"It's amazing," Josh says. "You're getting to see stuff you usually wouldn't get an opportunity to see in Michigan." 

A snake hangs around with some visitors at the Reptarium.Where the wild things stay

As its name suggests the Reptarium is primarily concerned with reptiles. The 5,000-square-foot facility, located at 45559 Van Dyke Ave., boasts a wide variety of lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises, and several alligators. There are also more than a few amphibians like frogs and sharp-eyed visitors may also spot a couple of mammals, including a sloth, armadillo, African crested porcupine, and a capybara, as well as a few other surprises. 

In addition to the diversity found at the Reptarium, the facility also offers a unique chance to get up close and personal with the animals. Around 85% of the Reptarium's non-human inhabitants are available for handling or interaction.

"At a lot of zoos, you look at stuff through bars, through glass, through a big open panel. Here we like to go hands-on," says Tyler Kranak, the Reptarium's General Manager. "The whole point is that we take stuff out. We bring it out for you to pet, touch, and take pictures with."

The Reptarium actually started out as a side project of owner Brian Barczyk, who owns a reptile breeding facility next to the zoo called BHB Reptiles. He's owned that business for about 35 years and is a well-known breeder of leopard geckos and ball pythons. In September 2018, Barczyk decided to begin opening the doors of his building to share his passion with the public. The original incarnation of the Reptarium proved to be a major draw, which led to a major expansion of the facility in 2020.

While some of the Reptarium's animals are bred at BHB Reptiles, the bulk of them are bought from other zoos or special breeders. The rarity and extensiveness of the collection have made it a popular attraction, especially among reptile enthusiasts who have viewed the zoo's currently defunct YouTube Channel. 

While some folks are just interested in seeing what the zoo has to offer, others come specifically to check out the zoo's celebrity residents.

"One of our biggest draws is Perdida, the cow-reticulated python. People come from all over the world, just to see Perdida. Elvis, our big Asian water monitor, is also a huge hit with everybody," says Kranak. "And Bowser, our big alligator snapping turtle, is 50 years old and 100 pounds right now. He's going to double in size. He's still a teenager." 

Salt and Pepper, a pair of alligators, also enjoy top billing at the Reptarium. Salt is an albino American alligator, while pepper is melanistic, meaning he has a deep black pigment. According to Kranak, Pepper is the rarer of the two, being just one of twenty of his kind in the entire world.

For Khari Hudson, a young girl who was visiting the zoo with her grandparents on Aug. 19, meeting Salt was definitely a highlight of her trip.

"I liked the white alligator [and] petting the lizards and reptiles," she says. 

Her grandmother,  Angela Lewis, a resident of Clinton Township, also really enjoyed her time at the Reptarium.

"The experience was wonderful. I actually go to hold a tarantula. I can scratch that off my bucket list," she says. "The staff was excellent. The price was very fair. The animals were outstanding. I like the way we can interact. I don't know another place that's like this."

Salt and Pepper go for a swim.Expanding opportunities

Due to its popularity, the zoo currently books small groups of visitors in advance to tour its facility. It also hosts private parties, allowing reptile lovers to make use of a designated room where they can celebrate with cake or pizza prior before getting a chance to experience the Reptarium's charm without any outside interruptions. 

But the zoo will soon be revamping the way it does things. It will soon be relocating the bulk of its animals to a new 30,000-square-foot facility that's expected to open across the street in December. 

"We'll be open by Christmas time. It's going to be much bigger and a lot more animals, 95% of the collection right now will be going across the street," says Kranak. "And we're going to be filling out with more stuff, because there's even more room over there." 

The Reptarium's current space will then mostly be filled with new animals and will only be available for private events. The new space, on the other hand, will do away with its current booking system and allow visitors to drop in and stay the entire day, if they want. 

While most of the animals at the facility are intended to be handled, the zoo does ask people to respect signage with specific directions like not tapping on glass enclosures. It also has a policy in place not to take animals out when they clearly want to be left alone. But Kranak always encourages visitors to let staff know if they're interested in getting to know one of the Reptarium's residents a little better.

"Our most important thing right now is we want to stay as interactive as possible," he says. "We want people to ask, 'Can I see this? Can I take that out?' It's never inconvenient to ask us to take anything out."

All photos by David Lewinski

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