The 13,000-square-foot center reopened to the public on June 4, featuring an updated facade with a modern design and a 34-foot tower with giant, fiberglass animal figures.
New additions include a reptile nursery where visitors get to see things like eggs under an incubator and a brand new Tropical Conservatory, expected to be finished by the end of the year.
More than 80 inhabitants will call the center home. Some of those newbies include a two-year-old, female King Cobra, a crocodile monitor, Ethiopian mountain adders and Siamese crocodiles, who will be in their new exhibit at the end of June.
“Our reptile building was a 1974 construction. It was really the last frontier of buildings we needed to renovate on the zoo grounds,” said Executive Director Greg Bockheim. “The past building was very much a stone-looking facade, so we really wanted to modernize that, bringing up all our exhibits to state-of-the-art, making them more viewer-friendly.”
Bockheim also noted a lot of the features in the building are made from recycled material. The new look of the center is meant to be more inviting and brighter than traditional reptile centers. The Zoo feels that it’s important to keep the atmosphere educational and less frightening to visitors.
“We really have a big responsibility to make these animals important to people, show them how they fit into our environment and really so they’ll learn to love them so they’ll become stewards of all animals, whether they be creepy and crawly or a big fuzzy bear,” Bockheim said.
The new nursery was one of the most highly requested additions at the Zoo, according to Bockheim.
“Zoos have a lot of things that you don’t see, especially reptile departments. Behind-the-scenes we have probably close to as many animals as we do in front of the scenes,” said Lead Reptile Keeper Dennis McNamara. The new nursery will allow visitors to see more of the behind-the-scenes work the keepers do.
This work includes their continuing efforts to breed Bog turtles, a critically endangered species. The Virginia Zoo says they are the second largest producer of these turtles in the country, but they average about two of these turtles a year. Visitors will get to see these tiny turtles grow up in the nursery before being transferred over to their formal exhibit.
McNamara says he gets to select the majority of the animals the Zoo takes in for the reptile center. They’ve added a lot venomous animals, which he believes will continue to intrigue the most people, along with the reticulated pythons and the alligator snapping turtle.
As for McNamara’s favorite reptile in the center, he says it changes every week.