Growing up in Los Angeles, the naturalist captured his first snake at age 4. Decades after that formative encounter, Johnson – a now-retired journeyman whose career included stints as a butcher, truck driver and freight company owner – co-founded the Phoenix Herpetological Society with his friends Dan Marchand and Debbie Gibson. Conceived as a haven for reptiles seized from the exotic pet trade or surrendered by owners once they’ve realized they’re in over their heads, the facility is situated on property owned by Marchand in the northeast Valley. Staffed mostly by volunteers, the Society began in 2001 with 26 animals; it now hosts some 1,400 mostly cold-blooded residents, making it one of the West’s largest, most diverse reptile collections.
“We have more venomous snakes than the San Diego Zoo,” Johnson asserts. And he means venomous. Along with rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, visitors will find African green mambas, exquisitely beautiful and just as deadly. Then, when you turn around, there it is – the baleful face of a black mamba, maybe the most poisonous snake in the world. In the cage below, a thick, handsome king cobra rears back – “hoods up” – and strikes, banging the glass. “That’s Elvis,” Johnson says fondly. “He’s just showing you who’s the king.”
This dynamic behavior is characteristic of the Society’s collection. The creatures don’t exhibit the torpor typical of zoo reptiles – they’re manifestly thriving. Alligators raise their heads and hiss as you pass. Rhinoceros iguanas lumber vigorously, like living gargoyles. You might see sulcata tortoises mating, while a South American red tegu tries to and gets rebuffed. You’ll even see mammals – a pair of wallabies from the Centers for Disease Control and nine lemur-like kinkajous from a federal exotic pet sting. “I said I could take one,” Johnson grumbles. “But they were going to be put down. I never should have looked at their faces.”
The Society has taken in critters from as far away as Germany and South Africa, and participates in international breeding programs. As a public service, Johnson takes virtually any scaled pet from Valley households but counsels against capturing wild snakes or protected species like gila monsters, even if one wanders into your yard. Instead, call local law enforcement or Arizona Game and Fish. Both have the Society on speed-dial.
The Society also gives tours, holds summer camps for kids, and offers volunteer opportunities. Ex-Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson and his family have volunteered, but on this visit Russ Johnson effusively praises volunteers Liz and Tara, who are feeding dead rats to snakes. “It’s a labor of love,” he says. “Not everybody is into reptiles, even if they’re animal people. People like fur and feathers. Fur and feathers is a menu item around here.”
IF YOU GO
All visits require a pre-scheduled appointment.
Call 480-513-4377 or visit phoenixherp.com to schedule an appointment.
Feeding The Phoenix Herpetological Society’s many guests, including vegetarians like the tortoises and iguanas, isn’t cheap. “On the greens-eaters, we’re going through 75,000 pounds of greens a year,” Russ Johnson says. “Not counting hay.”
Much of this roughage is donated by area supermarkets, and the shelter receives support from such entities as the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and – appropriately enough – the Arizona Diamondbacks. Then there are special donations, like the effort by the CORE Institute to develop a prosthetic tail for Mr. Stubbs, an alligator with a missing rudder. Still, paying the bills can be a struggle. “Our water bill is $1,500 a month,” Johnson sighs.
But at least one resident’s dietary habits, if macabre, aren’t expensive: Elvis, the king cobra. “He’s a snake eater in the wild, so what we do is sew a piece of snake skin to the head of a dead rat.”
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