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Cape Fear Serpentarium

Posted by: Editor on 4/21/2011
Dean Ripa holding a
Bushmaster from

Someone recently forwarded to us a wonderful article by Wendy Brenner from the literary magazine Oxford American titled “Love and Death in the Cape Fear Serpentarium,” an exploration of the colorful life of Dean Ripa, the owner of Cape Fear Serpentarium in Wilmington, North Carolina.  In addition to being an excellent piece of writing, Brenner’s profile of Mr. Ripa reminded us of many of the things we love about the reptile hobby – the variety of characters involved, their diversity in background and experience, and the mystery of the animals themselves.

Ms. Brenner is an associate professor in the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and has written in the past about the relationships between people and animals, so it’s no surprise that she took up the enigmatic local snake expert Dean Ripa as a subject for study.  Cape Fear Serpentarium, just one of Mr. Ripa’s many creations, is a 10,000 square foot building which according to its website maintains 54 displays and over 40 different species of venomous snakes.  Mr. Ripa is particularly well-known for his knowledge of the bushmaster, one of Central America’s largest and most dangerous snakes.

For us Ms. Brenner’s article touches on three main topics: Mr. Ripa himself, the relationship between man and animal and in the end, the thrill and adventure of living life on your own terms.  Starting with Mr. Ripa, he’s clearly an individual who marches to his own beat.   An avid reptile collector as a youth, Ms. Brenner describes Mr. Ripa’s family forced to evacuate their home for five days when one of his pet cobra’s escaped, reminding us of the famous naturalist and herpetologist Raymond Ditmar’s childhood adventure with a bushmaster in his parents' attic in the Bronx.  

Ultimately Mr. Ripa would drop out of high school, travel to the farthest corners of the earth collecting dangerous snakes, study painting under the Italian portrait and fresco painter Pietro Annigoni, develop a deep friendship with the famous American “Beat Generation” writer and poet William S. Burroughs, write children’s books, become one of the world’s foremost experts on the bushmaster (Lachesis muta), moonlight as a well-regarded cover singer for Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, and other popular ‘50s crooners, and in his spare time serve as the successful owner and operator of Cape Fear Serpentarium.  While no one is without controversy, this is a guy we’d like to meet!

Ms. Brenner also wonders what leads individuals to associate themselves so closely with animals.  She distinguishes between two types of animal lovers – those who hold a stiff scientific interest in the animals they work with, refusing to anthropomorphize or try to truly understand who the animals are and what they represent, versus those who seek to look deeper.  For her part, Ms. Brenner appears won over by Dean Ripa as one of those who looks deeper, who somehow is able to connect on a higher level with the dangerous, mysterious serpents in his collection, a level of connection that Ms. Brenner appears to both desire and perhaps lack. 

Ms. Brenner cites a passage by a favorite author of hers in which a character refers to a snake as “something that can change everything in your life,” yet at the same time tells us that it was hard to imagine how a pet snake her family had when she was a child “could change anything, let alone our lives.”  Clearly Mr. Ripa’s relationship with snakes has in many ways both changed and defined his life, and Ms. Brenner leaves us with the sense that to be around someone who has submitted to his passions in such a way is both seductive and exciting.  If that was her intention, we agree!

Ms. Brenner also goes on to make some very interesting observations about the human propensity to collect living creatures, noting that “to collect is to continually negotiate with the afterlife, with the fact that you can’t take it with you.”  Collecting living things, she goes on, adds an additional element of tension in that “if you collect living things you must also confront their mortality.”  In Dean Ripa she draw’s Parallels to the protagonist of Susan Orleans’ “The Orchid Thief,” the orchid collector John Laroche, but pays Mr. Ripa the respect of noting that his passions and collection have stuck with him, as opposed to the more fickle collecting practices of Mr. Laroche.  We’re always fascinated with explorations of the psychology of collecting, so we very much appreciate Ms. Brenner’s insights. 

After exploring the resources on the Cape Fear Serpetarium website, it is clear that Mr. Ripa deeply cares for and respects the mystery of his charges, in particular the bushmaster, and that he has created an extraordinary facility in Wilmington to showcase his unique relationship with venomous reptiles.  It’s not every person that can translate his vision into reality, and it is exactly this ability that appears to make Dean Ripa so compelling.  When Ms. Brenner queried Dean on his apprenticeship in Italy to the painter Pietro Annigoni, he responded “I wanted to learn the secrets of the Old Masters.  I’ve always been on a quest for hidden things.  It’s like the snakes.  Certain things, to me, always seemed to promise more than they outwardly were.”  This is an urge to which we are very sympathetic, and hearing about people like Mr. Ripa that have sought to understand their interests on a deeper level always leaves us feeling energized. 

We happen to be flying into Wilmington in August of 2011 and we anxiously anticipate making time to visit the Serpentarium.  As for Ms. Brenner, we thoroughly enjoyed her article, but are left scratching our heads somewhat with the regard to the title – “Love and Death…”  We can understand the “Death” reference, for Mr. Ripa’s pets are among the most dangerous creatures on earth, but we’re more confused about where “Love” comes in.  Is it Dean’s love for the animals, for life?  Or is it something deeper?  In the end, we wonder if Ms. Brenner grew to have faith in Dean Ripa.  Yes or no, the article is excellent and well worth the read.  You can find a copy of it on the Cape Fear Serpentarium website. 

Also by Wendy Brenner, both of which are well worth the read:

"Large Animals in Everyday Life" (Flannery O'Conner Awared for Short Fiction)

"Phone Calls from the Dead"

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