We pulled off the road to unhook the van and have lunch in a parking lot and instead of just staring like many people, this baseball team (who had also just stopped their bus for lunch) from Atlanta GA came over to ask what the story was about our trip. They were nice, and one by one filed inside to take a peek at the inside of the bus from the front step. They were very polite, and it's so much easier when people just get right to the point, right?

Getting somewhere is always fun, and enroute to Daytona Beach, so much happened that we may have hatched a two parter blog post.
Secretly I plotted out a route from the West coast to the East coast of Florida, that in a normal car would have taken about 1 hour and 50 minutes. Our plotted route was to be 3 hours and 15 minutes (according to my good friend and sleepless navigator TomTom). When TT tells me a time though, he’s always short a bit (I assume the GPS is a he because I’ve never known a Tom named she). I say ‘secretly plotted’ because I included a route that would take us past a couple of things that I wanted to get an eyeball on, and if they looked good, stop and investigate (4 seater spaceship, miniature Chinese buildings & snake farm). We rolled along, and had no problems, until we arrived in Leesburg. They had scheduled Bike Week during our trip through. Gradually we had been seeing more and more bikes (the ones with motors and leather clad attorneys), like when you get close to a campfire and there’s a little smoke and then you’re right on it and you can’t breathe it’s so thick.... When the bikes were so thick was about the time we were in downtown Leesburg- as we tried to follow the truck route. That route was not the main street through downtown, which we thought would be clogged with vendors, partiers, bikers and their hogs (my biker-esque terminology straight from the Tim Allen movie about over aged biker fathers). We weren’t completely right. I don’t think we hit the main event, but we sliced through the support side of it, and they had tucked bikes, booths, and people right up along where a normal truck might normally travel. The route posed a fun challenge: “Try not to scrape the side of the bus with the sign sticking out too far while avoiding knocking over the expensive motorcycle with the wheel sticking out too far” challenge. We did OK, no one chased us down or called us anything that we heard. Although I did turn the volume up on the rear view camera so I could hear the scraping sound if anything became lodged underneath as we passed. Leesburg safely behind us, I opted to silently pass by Apopka (where the spaceship and China buildings were supposed to be), and headed straight for Deland Florida- and the Reptile Discovery Center.

This place made it onto our list of stops during our tour not because it was a snake ranch or reptile sanctuary, but because they actually extract venom from ultra poisonous snakes on a regular schedule… and not only do they extract, but are one of less than a half dozen places in the world that do it at all- and perhaps the only one that you can watch this process go down just inches (and a plate of glass) from your face.The exhibit area defied any sense of this being an amateur snake show. The décor was akin to a doctor’s office or professional suite, with the specimen cages located and framed in behind a perfectly masked glass wall. The glass kept tapping fingers from easily communicating with the reptiles, and perhaps offered some additional psychological security from being able to get too close to these killers.

Plenty of room for the bus, especially on a weekday without any school tours.

These signs of the front door, but no 'Welcome' sign. Didn't even slow us down.

We visited on a weekday and were pleased to find the parking lots empty (a common benefit of homeschooling on the road). The modest grounds were spotless and a low level building welcomed us with a bright red sign on the door that read “DANGER- VENEMOUS REPTILES”, just below their business hours- so we went right in. As with any legitimate museum, the gift shop surrounded the admission desk, and we were teased by everything snake related- wind up, lighted, wiggling, realistic ceramic, and then tantalized by the authentic: fangs, rattles and shed skins. You may recall my affection for ‘pieces of our trip’, currently including such instant relics like a piece of the Alcatraz cell block, coal from the Titanic, an earth sample from Corona New Mexico (site of the Roswell crash), et cetera. We’ll save this gift shop for dessert!

Just like downtown! Clean and professional. Safe for visitors, right?

My wife and I both looked at each other in surprise as we arrived in the room at the level of activity of these snakes. Every set of reptile eyes was on the new crop of visitors. The Black Mamba never stopped moving about its glass and mesh screen cage. The Green Mamba moved its head to follow activity that crossed his field of view; the massive Western Rattler moved just enough to show that it wasn’t a perfect museum taxidermy piece, which it could have passed for. These specimens were the largest, healthiest reptiles we have ever seen firsthand or in photos. They must have a comprehensive staff to keep things looking so good.

No need for a sign to tell us this information- we had driven across the state to see a live venom extraction.

Three sides to look in, and if you leaned forward, your head was only inches from the killer snakes- and they were a little.... ' rattled'. The mammoth sized Western Diamondback Rattlesnake was clearly audible behind the glass, like the hiss from a tire going flat. Sounded just like our run in with a rattler at Belle Starrs Ranch in Douglas, AZ.

The pad and rod were used to stabilize the snake so Carl could grab it behind the head with his lightning fast hands and hook the fangs over the glass  vase rim to collect venom.

Around a few corners was the extraction room, set up like a theater with chairs available along the back wall and on a rolling rack for larger groups. The focal point of the room was the 3 sided extraction lab, with a table in the center that held a glass collection vase perched atop a homemade stand. This was the only sign of the required human ingenuity to set up a ‘venom extraction lab’. Considering the niche market, and small potential customer base (remember only 6 worldwide), there may not be a ‘venom vase holding stand’ being mass produced in China. This wooden base was topped off by a Plexiglas slot that accepted the neck of the vase, which was shaped like an upside down tulip on a stem, like a medical grade ice cream glass. A sturdy rubber band served as the safety belt to keep the venom vase (my term) in place, and a stack of washers on the posts served as spacers to raise the slotted Plexiglas off the wooden base. I appreciated the hand crafted aspect of this creation.

Having arrived at 130, we had burned up about 40 minutes anxiously looking over the live specimens and reluctantly headed outside to suffer the nature trail. From Colorado, we have been desensitized to nature trails- like the ones we use every day and embarrassingly take for granted. We are slow to head for the ‘nature trail’, but with the promise of another alligator to see, we trodded out past the parking lot into the 90 degree heat to kill a half hour until the 3pm extraction would get started.

The trail is short, maybe a thousand feet all the way around. Signs at the start of the trail warn of ‘venomous snakes on the trail’ and offer bug spray stations among the exhibits. As luck would have it, we started our walk as Denisse arrived with a golf cart loaded up with trays full of leafy lunch for the critters. As it turns out, the intimidating 4’ green iguanas we had been studying behind the chicken wire mesh enclosure were friendly girls that were ready for lunch. They pranced back and forth when Denisse unlocked the cage and laid the meal out for them. She even called the kids over to touch them, calling the iguanas by name- Bananas and ?. Then, she fielded what would turn out to be the first of our million questions for the day. She acted like she had never heard any of these questions before, but had a remarkably well thought out answer for everything. We felt like we were her only visitors and appreciated her rapt attention on what we were asking.

...those cute little gators could walk right through the chain link fence if they wanted to. Mom and dad were too big to fit, so we were confident we'd make it back to the bus.

The trail yielded close up views of tortoises, birds, iguanas, monitors, and alligators. Not only a big old boy gator, but a 20” juvenile that was munching on what appeared to be a small squirrel, and a 4-5’ female- and about 4-5 little gators that could have passed for toy store novelties- if they didn’t move! Later we would find out that these guys were about 7 months old: this years babies. That sign about watching what was on the trail had me looking at my feet regularly, but now I was keenly aware of the inadequacy of this chain link fence with 3” gaps to corral these baby gators. I guess we had the same odds outside the fence as anywhere in Florida to see big or little alligators, we just hadn’t seen any in the wild yet, so the threat didn’t seem very real. The fence wasn’t a concern, with the gators all set back among the shore of the pond while remaining close enough to feel the stare of their beady eyes (or, were they sleeping?). As we were leaving the nature trail, a small coral snake poked its head out from the saw palmettos and started across in front of us. Until we jumped and squawked in disbelief- and it burst back under cover. You can’t say they didn’t warn us.

The turtles play it safe outside in the pond.

We arrived back inside for the venom program just a few minutes early and had a chance to get a close up look at the collection of poisonous frogs. I’ve said it before, but these little frogs- even miniature in one case- were perfect specimens. Brilliantly colored, sitting along their filtered water streams, on native flora in temperature and humidity controlled enclosures- they were all poster children for cheap plastic toys.

Right on time, 3 pm and the lab door swung open and a man dressed in khaki safari style shorts and a cool shirt began speaking immediately. His voice was animated but laced with the tempo of a well rehearsed speech that he probably gave 10 times a week (they do this presentation twice a day, weekdays at 1130 and 3). He rattled off tidbits of info about the center, the reptiles, a brief story about their work- as he held up 2 pythons at shoulder level. Denisse, whom we had met earlier on the trail was at his side with a 2.5’ alligator with his snout considerately taped together. It was time to meet the animals, and our children generally couldn’t contain themselves. Turns out that the man is The Man that founded this center, and as he interacted with the kids his passion for sharing these animals and asking them as many questions as they were asking told more of his story. We were told that we’d have a chance to ask questions after the presentation, so we kept it to holding and passing around live animals that were not deadly at their current age.

There’s a bathroom in the next room, but not a handy hand/wash station in the room, and they weren’t overly concerned about washing before and after handling the animals- so we stood fixed in place as they assembled the snakes for the… extraction.

Starting off with small coral snakes, The Man’s deft ability to very intentionally grab these poisonous snakes was immediately obvious. ‘The Man’ is Carl Barden, and he would proceed to extract venom with his team mate Denisse from 3 of each specimen today- including cobras and rattlers. Big snakes. Toothy, aggressive snakes. The need to be precise was obvious, but the ability of this team to safely perform this procedure and work so closely, each of their hands exchanging places on the snake alternately holding and corralling and inserting the feeding tube and hooking the fangs on the vase and collecting the snake from its berth was mesmerizing. In my familiar world I might liken them to my dentist and hygienist- who also work seamlessly, both knowing the task at hand, both knowing exactly what comes next, both reading the other for cues about what needs to be done. It’s just that the dentist gets to drill teeth and take a few more risks, like Carl gets to extract the venom with its set of hazards; both my dentist and Carl probably have pretty good insurance.

During the course of the procedures, Carl and Denisse were obviously looking over each snake and performing routine maintenance like shed skin removal, feeding each snake a high protein special mix, even removed the eye caps from the Monocle Cobra (the shed skin covering over their eyes) that was left behind after shedding its skin.

After the extraction procedure ended, which had been accompanied by a recorded narration, the team emerged again and asked for questions from the group. We were ready for that- we already had a hundred questions. I started off with 3 or 4, questioning Carl’s experience, how and why he got into it etc. He became even more real as he told his story: introduced to snakes at an early age, he admired a snake expert and snake exhibitionist that would one day become Carls first paying customer for snake venom. He would over the next couple of decades continue to collect and study reptiles, earn a pertinent certificate and begin to build what would become this discovery center, although he admits he’s just a ‘farmer and factory worker’. Watching them handle the snakes, and considering they have to collect venom, feed, clean up after and maintain the facility for almost a thousand animals is staggering. With a staff of 3, plus a maintenance man and summer intern they presented one of the most professional, interesting stops on our trip. Denisse single handedly cares for the poisonous frogs, and Carl admits he’s just a snake guy- who’s been bit a few times.

Carl conceded that he planted a garden this year, and actually is beginning to have hobbies outside of ‘this place’ gesturing all around him. Considering he’s worked so hard for so long including time as a commercial pilot to finance this family project, he probably deserves some time with plants that will not bite and kill him, so he can remain sharp for the next venom extraction on Monday at 1130am.

Pleased that Carl and Denisse survived the venom extraction, we chatted for a while afterward about flying, gardening, how they got involved in 'this', snakebites, and our kids. They were both very kind, and interested in sharing the great work they do.

The Reptile Discovery Center is near Daytona Beach in Deland Florida, at 2710 Big John Road. Contact them at 386-740-9143 or visit their website at reptilediscoverycenter.com to plan your trip there. Don’t miss this once in a lifetime chance to witness what everyone else at home will only ever see in pictures. Tell Carl (the Director), Denisse (Asst Director) and Ann (handles the front end) that we said ‘Hello’. They felt like friends when we left.