See the world's most fascinating and dangerous reptiles in beautiful simulations of their natural environments.

About Us

Meet "D.T. Croc," the "Downtown Crocodile"; "Sheena" a 23 foot long python weighing 250 lbs, "Baron Samedi," a king cobra 15 feet long; and "Komodo," a dragon-sized monitor lizard. See black mambas, spitting cobras, Gaboon vipers, Tropical rattlers, giant Fer-de-lance snakes and the world's largest collection of the rare and deadly Bushmaster. Over 100 species, some so rare they are not exhibited anywhere else! Photographers welcome.

The Cape Fear Serpentarium has been featured on Discovery TV, Animal Planet, Attache Magazine, Oxford American Magazine, the Wilmington Star News and many others. Scientists and tourists alike visit from all over the world to view animals that can be seen nowhere else. The Cape Fear Serpentarium is recognized as one of the world's foremost reptile collections. Our veterinarian is Dr. Dan Johnson of the Avian and Exotic Animal Care Clinic in Raleigh.

Our Location

We are located where Orange Street meets the Cape Fear River in historic downtown Wilmington, North Carolina (between River and Front Streets). Enjoy the scenic atmosphere of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys while shopping and touring our neighboring attractions. Click here for directions.

The Serpentarium is open from 11AM to 5PM on weekdays, 11AM to 6PM Saturdays and Sundays. Hours may vary seasonally, so please phone for confirmation. All tickets are $8.00. Children under 2 years of age are free. Click here to find out about special group rates, class field trips, narrated educational tours and birthday parties with the chance to get up close and personal with a real live friendly snake.

Our Director

Dean Ripa has changed the way we look at snakes. For instance, the bushmaster (the world's largest viper) was once thought to be a single species. In 1994, Dean Ripa challenged this idea with morphological and geographic evidence. Today, with the Mt-DNA work of Zamudio and Greene (1997), Ripa's theory has been accepted and the bushmasters are now recognized as three distinct species. In 1999, he discovered a new species of bushmaster, and has since revised the distribution range of two bushmaster species.

Most of what is known about bushmaster behavior comes from Dean Ripa. Specialized courtship rituals, male combat, among other reproductive behavior were recorded by Ripa for the first time. In addition, his studies of their predatory strategies have changed our views about these snakes' habits, form and size. Prior to his work, the bushmaster's great size was accounted for by the "large predator = large prey" hypothesis. In a genus already rich with anomalies, Ripa discovered quite the opposite. Pound per pound, the world's largest viper had the smallest prey-size swallowing capacity of almost any snake. Once thought to be a sluggish, solitary reptile that fed infrequently, he revealed it to be a highly active frequent feeder on small prey, with recognizably social behavior among its own species and even a commensal relationship with the large rodents that construct its underground refuge.

Collecting 2 m Bothrops asper (Costa Rica). Dean Ripa was the first herpetologist in the world to watch bushmasters mate, and discovered the unique behavioral usage of the bushmaster's dorsal ridge and rasp-like scales: An adjunct to courtship, the male bushmaster uses the sharp scales to stimulate the female, inverting his body on top of hers and, using fiddling motions, literally "sawing" himself against her. His observations of nesting females confirmed that bushmasters really do brood their eggs until hatching, a rare example of maternal care among venomous snakes. Long before most zoos had learned to keep these difficult animals alive, Dean Ripa reproduced two species of bushmaster for the first time in captivity, the Central American bushmaster, and the Blackheaded Bushmaster. Almost all captive collections of these snakes are related to his stock. He also produced the world's first bushmaster hybridó "recreating" an extinct ancestor to the existing species, whose own ancestors have been separated for millions of years by a mountain chain in Central America. Ripa spent years living in the Neotropics studying and collecting bushmasters in their native habitats, and credits his success with breeding them from this experience.

Prior to Ripa's work, bushmaster venom was thought to have a strongly tissue destructive effect in human beings. Ripa's own bites revealed the unexpected: that although edema and inflammation are severe, the venom causes little or no hemorrhage or necrosis (unlike rattlesnakes, lanceheads, puff adders, etc.,), instead producing dramatic systemic alterations that kill the victim quickly rather than slowly.

Dean Ripa's work has not been without hazard. He has survived an amazing four envenomings by bushmasters, making him "the most bushmaster bitten person of all time". This is the more remarkable when one considers that bushmaster bite has been shown to kill an estimated 80 percent of its victims even with antivenom treatment. In "The Bushmasters (Genus Lachesis Daudin 1803), Morphology in Evolution and Behavior," the author provides an intimate, first hand look at what it's like to nearly die from bushmaster bite, and challenges our preconceptions of what the venom of this "most lethal of all vipers" does to the human system. Collecting King Cobra in Sumatra. Dean Ripa has collected snakes in the distant backwaters of 35 countries. Over a decade before snake-wrangling emcees on TV made international careers in front of cameras, stage crews and first-aid "safety nets", Dean Ripa was catching deadly snakes alone in remote places, far from medical help and human settlement, bringing his captures back to America alive and unharmed, studying their life habits and reproducing them in captivity. Dean's adventures so captivated famous author William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) that he immortalized some of Dean's experiences in his final novel, The Western Lands. "Dean Ripa. . ." he wrote, "could have stepped from a novel by Joseph Conrad."

Collecting King Cobra in Sumatra Caught up in military coups in Third World hells, tribal wars in Irian Jaya, tribal sorcery over rare artifacts in Zaire, lost in Amazon jungles, chased by corrupt officials, cocaine lords, and the priests of an Ashanti chief who blamed him for the chief's death from snakebite. Infected by malaria, dysentery, schistosomiasis, and bitten by ten venomous snakes in the process, Dean Ripa lived a life of unrestrained adventure and not a little terror before settling down to breed deadly snakes for middle-aged relaxation.

His many field captures include: king cobras, spitting cobras, forest cobras, mambas, kraits, gaboon and rhinoceros vipers, terciopelos, fer-de-lances, numerous other lance-head species, all three species of bushmasters and dozens of others.

Today, Dean Ripa maintains the largest and most complete collection of bushmasters in the world, and is the major supplier of captive-born bushmasters to the international zoo and research market. You may have seen him and some of his snakes on the Discovery Channel's "The Ultimate Guide to Snakes."

Visitors to his private collection include the Nobel Peace Prize winning President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, film stars Christopher Lloyd and Fred Ward, and herpetologists from all over the world. In addition to his writings on snakes, his literary efforts have also received attention. His essays have appeared in collections by Gary Indiana (novelist and critic for the Village Voice). In 1989 he collaborated with literary legend William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) on portions of his last novel, "The Western Lands."

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