A United Nations report made waves last May for suggesting that South Dakota’s Black Hills should be returned to the Sioux. After all, UN fact finder James Anaya argued, an 1868 treaty did promise these sacred lands would forever remain in tribal hands. But then General George Custer found gold and well, in 1887 Congress passed a law that said, “Sorry, just kidding.”
Ironically, the United Nations itself almost took over the Black Hills. Back in 1945, a valley just south of Rapid City made the short list for the headquarters of the newly-formed UN along with Geneva, Brussels, FDR’s family estate in Hyde Park and, of course, Manhattan where it was eventually built. CBS news commentator Edward R. Murrow went so far as to suggest that the fresh air of the Black Hills would aid in clear thinking, definitely a plus for an organization designed to keep international peace.
But then, in a last minute bid, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. ponied up $8.5 million if they’d build it on the 18 acres along Manhattan’s East River. So now the UN’s 16,400 jobs, 400,000 tourists and $1.5 billion in annual revenue reside in New York.**
And that chosen land in the Black Hills? Well, it’s being used for an equally valuable purpose: to teach kids of all ages about reptiles and other animals. More than a thousand snakes, ancient tortoises, 16-foot crocodiles and a fortune-telling chicken entertain the masses on the very land where Kofi Anan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dag Hammarskjold and other UN delegates would have, in an alternate reality, beat their gavels.
Reptile Gardens, I’m happy to report, is probably making more headway in its mission, not to mention that it’s a lot more entertaining. Of course, it’s had a good 10 years on the United Nations. Back in 1935, a 19-year-old rancher’s kid who loved snakes worked as a guide at another South Dakota tourist attraction. At the end of his tour, Earl Brockelsby would remove his giant Stetson and reveal a live diamond back rattlesnake coiled upon his head.
Guests were so fascinated that it didn’t take the enterprising lad long to figure out that they’d probably also pay to see other reptiles. Heck, he’d even throw in some flowers and birds. He and some buddies built an 18 by 24-foot “zoo” at the top of a hill (they didn’t move to the proposed United Nations site until 1965) where, according to his son, Johnny, who still works at Reptile Gardens along with lots of other family members, cars would overheat.
Admission back then was 10 cents for adults, 5 cents for children and on the first day of operation Reptile Gardens took in a grand total of $3.85. By 1941, the business had 15 employees and was turning a handsome profit. Today, on the very land where the United Nations almost set up shop, Reptile Gardens has a Sky Dome complete with a Safari room where guests can walk among cactus, exotic plants and free-roaming reptiles. Although common at zoos now, Reptile Gardens was the first in the country to try this unique approach.
It also has exotic bird shows, alligator wrestling, an Old West town and, with more than 225 species, more reptiles than any zoo in the world. There’s a giant albino python named Marilyn, a baby alligator named Fluffy, the only venomous Inland Taipan in the United States and a world renowned team of animal conservationists whose goal is to educate and protect the rare, unusual and beautiful reptiles that share our planet.
There’s even a movie star crocodile. Remember Live and Let Die where James Bond makes his escape across the backs of three giant crocs? One of those crocs lives at Reptile Gardens a few exhibits down from an 8-foot endangered Komodo Dragon whose signage lists blood-curdling deaths (leaving nothing but mangled glasses or shoes) inflicted on some 20 victims over the last few years. Not here, thankfully.
And when Nicholas Cage, who was forced to give up his live-in cobras, Moby and Sheba, when neighbors threatened to sue after he made the mistake of mentioning on David Letterman that he shared his home with them, came to the Black Hills to film National Treasure II: Book of Secrets, he and his wife spent a long time touring the gardens. He even commended the wild animal park for having one of the most ferocious crocs (Maniac is 15’8” and weighs 1250 pounds, an estimate since they don’t have a scale big enough to officially weigh him) he’d ever seen. Johnny says they’ve considered changing Maniac’s name to “Oh my Gosh” since that’s what most people say when they first see him.
OMG is also a fit description for this fascinating zoo that knows the best way to educate is to entertain.
So this year, on October 24, official United Nations Day, consider celebrating, not in New York, but at its other location in the Black Hills.Reptile Gardens. U.S. 16 Rapid City, SD 57702, (605) 342-5873
**According to data collected in 1995 by the NYC Commission for the United Nations