Something to hiss about Snake World celebrates 25th anniversary

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Snake World has shed its scales to expand more than once over the past few decades.

The exhibit is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and owner and operator Dale Ertel said it has grown and changed since the doors first opened on May 5, 1992. The most noticeable difference, he said, is the variety of inhabitants in the exhibit.

“I have added on three rooms since the beginning,” Ertel said. “Now, we’re getting into tropical fish, the Amazon giant fish and stuff like that. I think I’ve done pretty well at expanding and getting a larger collection.”

Melina Swetnam, who assists Ertel and provides educational tours to visitors at Snake World, said the exhibit also features a lot more non-venomous snakes and other reptiles than it did when it first opened.

“Melina takes care of the non-venomous stuff, so I’ve been able to get more of that,” Ertel said. “We also have a Berryville student, Josh Kahler, who comes out and helps us every weekend. He gets a big kick out of helping Melina feed the reptiles once a week.”

Ertel said his interest in snakes first began when he was about 10 years old.

“Before I was into snakes, I was terrified of them,” he said. “My mom stopped asking me to help in the garden, because if I ever saw a garden snake I would be bawling and wouldn’t go back.”

He said he learned to stop being afraid of snakes through the help of a university student who worked on his family’s farm during the summers.

“When I was 10-years-old, this guy would come out and work on the farm, and he’s the one who kind of got me into snakes,” Ertel said. “He was getting cobras for me by the time I was 14, against my parents’ wishes. They weren’t thrilled, but they finally learned I knew how to handle them and was doing it safely.”

He said his favorite part of running Snake World is educating people and helping them move past the fear of snakes.

“Melina will have people come in here who are so scared they’re sweating and shaking,” he said. “Before they leave, they’re handling a snake, even though they would have never done it before. It’s because of the presentation. They learn and get over the fear. That’s what makes us feel good.”

“I was scared to death when I first came here,” Swetnam said, “but I’ve been working here for six years now. I love teaching people, especially kids, about the different animals here. I’ll tell them the difference in venomous and non-venomous snakes, and kids just eat it up.”

Most people are raised from day one to hate snakes, Ertel said, because that’s what their parents taught them.

“We’re trying to show the positive side of snakes and get people not to be afraid of them,” he said. “That way they’re not killing them just because they see them.”

He said he and Swetnam often compare venomous snakes to raccoons or other wildlife during their presentations.

“If you see a venomous snake out in the water or on the ground, it’s not going to hurt you as long as you leave it alone, just like a raccoon,” Ertel said. “But if you mess with one, it will get defensive just like a raccoon and hurt you. That’s what we stress.”

He said Snake World has even become a sort of shelter for exotic pets people can no longer afford to keep.

“We’re getting a lot of stuff where people can’t keep them anymore, so they bring them to us,” he said. “As long as they’re small and I have room for them, it’s all right, but I can’t take any big pythons or anything like that because I don’t have the room.”

Swetnam said Snake World even got some surprising new residents recently: guinea pigs.

“This woman came up and said ‘Do you take stuff no one wants anymore?’ I said ‘Sure,’” she said. “She went out to the car, and I thought she was going to bring in a snake, but instead she brought in two guinea pigs. About a week later, I got two more.”

Ertel said he would rather people bring the pets to Snake World than release them into the wild, because many are not equipped to live in the local environment.

“A lot of these pets won’t live here,” he said. “They’re from other parts of the country where it’s not seasonal like it is here, and they wouldn’t make it. So at least people are bringing them to us. They still have a good chance of survival that way.”

Ertel said he is glad Snake World is still around and hopes to continue running the exhibit for years to come.

“It’s good to be able to last this long,” he said.

To take a guided educational tour through the world of scales, tails and fangs, visit Snake World about six miles east of Eureka Springs on Highway 62. The exhibit’s hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and admission is $12 for adults and $6 for children. For more information, call 870-350-5515 or email snakeworld.ar@gmail.com.

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