Dean and his staff perform live feedings for Serpentarium patrons every Saturday and Sunday. Call ahead for times!
Dean Ripa was born in 1957 in Wilmington, North Carolina. A herpetological-wunderkind, he was already catching dangerously venomous snakes before the age of ten in the swamplands near his home. At age 13 he was seriously bitten, and hospitalized in intensive care for 2 weeks, losing the functional use of his right hand for over two years. Undaunted, he continued, and by age 15 was already keeping some the world’s most dangerous snakes, king cobras, Gaboon vipers, black mambas, and many others, unbeknownst to his parents, in cages hidden in the attic rooms of their spacious mansion-like house. In his early twenties, he left for Africa to capture and export live snakes back to America. As this proved successful, he began traveling the world, becoming what was probably the first international snake hunter for hire. Major zoos, laboratories, and private fanciers were his customers. Long before television snake-wranglers were staging “cobra captures” in front of camera crews, Dean Ripa was prowling the remotest areas of the earth, far from medical help and human settlement, catching deadly creature and bringing them back alive to America in order to study their habits in captivity. His adventures have taken him to five continents and more than 30 countries, and they have sometimes been harrowing. He has been wracked by malaria, schistosomiasis and dysentery, lost in Amazonian jungles, stranded in the New Guinea highlands, and held up at gun point during military coups in West Africa and Suriname. He has survived twelve venomous snakebites to date, including seven by bushmasters, surely the record number of envenomations by this deadly snake on any individual.The literary magazine, Oxford American, ran an award-winning feature on his life’s work. As author William S. Burroughs described him in his book, The Western Lands, “Dean Ripa could have stepped from the pages of a novel by Joseph Conrad.” Dean Ripa is the owner and director of one of the world’s largest snake museums, Cape Fear Serpentarium, where he maintains the largest breeding population of bushmasters on earth.
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 species in the U.S are related to his stock. He also produced the world's first bushmaster hybrid— "recreating" an extinct ancestor to the existing species, whose ancestors were 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.
His many field captures include: king cobras, spitting cobras, forest cobras, green mambas, kraits, gaboon and rhinoceros vipers, many lancehead species, three species of bushmasters and dozens of others.
Visitors to his private collection include the Nobel Peace Prize winning President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, film stars Christopher Lloyd, 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."