It’s not everywhere you can find a two-headed corn snake, or an albino eastern hognose snake or an Ethiopian mountain viper. That may be a comforting thought to those with a few reservations (never mind crippling phobias) about snakes, but to Walter Kidd, the scarcity of such beautiful serpents was a problem to be solved. His solution: Serpentarium Magic in Mills River. Already the biggest serpentarium in Western North Carolina, it features nearly 200 snakes on display, with more on the way. “We are currently processing paperwork to try to import Aruba Island rattlesnakes,” says Kidd. “They’re the second rarest rattlesnake in the world, with only approximately 230 left in the wild.”
Kidd claims that his serpentarium is the largest one east of the Mississippi — and one that addresses what he feels are the drawbacks of the many other such “snake zoos” he’s visited during his lifelong attachment to the animal.
“One thing I disliked with some serpentariums or zoos, they would have so many decorations, you couldn’t enjoy or sometimes even find the snake,” he says. Thus, at his own venue, the coiled and watchful residents are plainly housed in two-story tiers of glass-fronted display cases. Kidd, who funded his serpentarium with the proceeds from his pension plan after retiring from 35 years with BorgWarner in Fletcher, is the serpentarium’s only full-time staff person and he relies on volunteers for help. “My brother Ricardo comes in every day when he has time and can help me out,” Kidd explains. “My wife, Debbie, and Ricardo’s wife, Julie, help whenever they are not working their real jobs, or if we have a group coming in.” There’s a 12-year-old girl who helps clean cages (“she’s small enough so that we remove the snake from the cage and she can crawl in,” Kidd notes), and someone who comes in on weekends and works in the gift shop.
According to family legend, Kidd’s deep fascination with and sympathy for snakes began early, back in the early 1960s, when he was just three years old. Inspired by watching Marlin Perkins hunting and handling snakes on the old TV nature series, Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Kidd and Ricardo (who was five) went out and found a snake in a neighbor’s barn. “We did not demonstrate the same courage and skills which Marlin Perkins had demonstrated,” Kidd recalls, “and we ran home screaming, ‘Snake!’. Of course, every one of the adults grabbed a hoe or a shovel or some sort of life-ending tool for the snake, but I begged them not to to kill it because it was so pretty.”
From that point on, Kidd became a snake advocate, and brought them home to save them from being killed, much to his family’s dismay and, sadly, condemning many of his rescues to the very fate he wanted them to avoid. “But I found them so beautiful … and the way they crawled, so effortlessly and gracefully,” Kidd remembers. “They could hide in plain sight, even the most colorful ones. Even as a child, I knew they were so misunderstood and thought of as evil. I saw a beautiful, graceful creature that simply wanted to be left alone and eat mice.”
That pretty much describes the life of the residents of Serpentarium Magic — although the more docile ones are offered to visitors for a hands-on acquaintance, or, at least, a closer viewing while Kidd handles the animal. “The ones that seem to be fan favorites are, of course, the two-headed corn snake, and our large rattlesnake because he’s about six feet and big around his body,” Kidd says, noting the snake is an enthusiastic rattler and, thus, educates visitors who have never heard the sound. The scaleless corn snake is another favorite, tame enough that it can be held by visitors who think its soft skin feels like a baby’s. “Then there’s the cobras, because we still have a few which will hood up for our visitors, and, of course, that’s always fun for them.” (Presumably Kidd means for the guests, not the snakes.) He’s noticed that children are usually far less anxious about snakes than their parents, making him think that a fear of snakes is taught rather than inborn. “To hear the children laugh and giggle while visiting is heartwarming,” he says.
There in a nutshell lies Kidd’s reason for making his serpentarium the work of his post-retirement life. “Everything on earth is here for a reason and a purpose,” he says. “We hope to educate people, and, mostly, our upcoming generations who will be taking care of this earth when we are gone, to preserve all plants and animals. Every life form has a purpose and a value on this earth.”
Serpentarium Magic is located at 57 Hunter’s Ridge Road in Mills River, open during the summer Tuesday-Saturday from 11am-6pm and Sunday from 1-6pm. For more information, admission fees, and a schedule of events, call 828-776-HISS or visit serpentariummagic.com.