Friday, February 01, 2008

Article: Snake Farm

Capybaras lounging at the Snake Farm

(Note: The Snake Farm has changed ownership since this article was written. I went again during the Fall of 2007 and found conditions much improved. More cages were labeled and new enclosures were being built for the capybaras and some of the other animals.)

If you've ever driven down I35 to San Antonio, you can't have missed the signs for the Texas Snake Farm. It's one of those places you pass over and over again, curious but driving on because you have someplace else to go; a throwback to the days of weekend road trips and roadside attractions. As with all roadside attractions, you have to be a bit skeptical. After all, the so-called World's Largest Pecan in Seguin is just a statue and not even the largest statue of a pecan at that. So is the Snake Farm really a snake farm?

Well, it's certainly not a farm. More than anything it resembles a giant exotic pet store crossed with a zoo from about 30 years ago. Inside are a wide variety of snakes housed in the small plastic containers that are typical among amateur herpetologists. They're simple, safe and efficient but not aesthetically pleasing. Add to that the thick wire cages that surround them and the place looks a bit like a prison.

There are a lot of snakes there though, many of them highly venomous. One of the most beautiful and interesting is the Gaboon viper, a thick bodied, poisonous snake with small horns on its snout and a bold pattern. In the back room there is a well-stocked bookstore dealing mainly with reptiles but also other types of animals. Past the books is a snake pit with maybe two dozen rattlesnakes of various species. The snakes are no more than five feet long and the cement walls of the pit must be twenty feet deep, add the wire mesh lid and viewing is safe but difficult.

Out the back door is an exotic animal park with llamas, miniature horses, longhorn cattle, ostriches, capybara (the world's largest rodent), monkeys and more. In this area the feeling of an old zoo is overpowering. The animals are kept in small cages with minimal adornment. The serval cat paces endlessly, its long legs quickly taking it back and forth along the short wall of its cage. Macaws and other exotic birds perch behind two layers of wire mesh in unlabeled cages.

This was my second visit, the first being many years ago and providing me with an experience that disinclined me to a repeat. As I wandered among the sale items, mostly toys and trinkets, some educational but most not, I was aware that a third visit was highly unlikely. I stared at a bin of alligator heads and wondered what motivated the owner(s). The label on one of the heads indicated that the alligator was farm raised for food. The heads were so small it didn't seem like much meat could have come from such an animal. I have no problem with farming alligators, in fact I think it's a good idea, but I'm still thinking the heads send the wrong message with their tiny gaping mouths and sharp little teeth. What are all of these dead faces saying to the visitors of the Snake Farm?

I wandered around a bit and eventually was able to talk to the owner, John Mellyn. I was prepared to condemn him for his treatment of the animals but instead I found he was a nice, articulate and caring man. He told me that the Farm is a member of the International Primate Protection League, that all (or nearly all) of the animals there are captive bred and that they breed many of the animals and sell or trade them to zoos. He's owned the Snake Farm for the last 13 of its 39 year history. It's a hard place to keep up and it doesn't make much money but he says he loves the work and the animals. He makes a point of helping people overcome their fear of snakes, frequently taking out his large python and letting people pet it.

Now I don't know what to think. I can't decide if the Snake Farm is a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe you'll just have to stop by and decide for yourself. The $7.50 adult admission fee will at least help support the animals. At least visit the web site:

Snake Farm & Exotic Animal Park
5640 IH 35 S
New Braunfels, Texas 78132-4945
(830) 608-9270

Photo: Coral looking over the rows of unlabeled snake cages.

Photo:: An ocelot paces endlessly in its cage.

Photo: Monkeys in a cage