ALLENWOOD - Hissssss passion for things reptilian is unmatched. But his cold-blooded nature belies his warm exterior when he sits down and talks about the zoo that has been his career for half a century.
Next up: An opportunity to help preserve a threatened species, one that will find a home in his new, million-dollar complex.
Clyde Peeling - the founder of Reptiland as it exists today (although not the first, he admits) - hopes to celebrate the summer season by opening a Komodo dragon exhibit by Memorial Day.
Originally built in 1969 as a snake pit but converted several years later, visitors to Reptiland learn about alligators.
Sentinel photos by JEFF FISHBEIN
Komodo dragons - large monitor lizards indigenous to Indonesia - grow up to 10 feet in length and can weigh as much as 150 pounds. They are predators, meat eaters, and dominate their natural environment. But in that environment, few remain - the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as vulnerable; fewer than 5,000 are believed to exist in the wild.
A handful of U.S. zoos are part of a project designed to preserve Komodo dragons, which are popular with visitors but difficult to breed and keep healthy. Peeling admits it was not an animal he expected he'd see on display at his relatively small roadside attraction.
"I never would have dreamed I could have gotten my hands on Komodo dragons," he said. "A private individual has an almost impossible time getting a Komodo dragon."
Among the requirements is Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation, which Peeling received in 1986. Another is a facility that can support the rare animal.
"That's an incredible building - it's got double-block walls, four inches of insulation, a green roof. It's a million-dollar-plus building and that's the biggest project we've ever undertaken," he explained. "There's one habitat that's 1,300 square feet and I'm thinking that's going to be open (by Memorial Day). There's another one that's about 500 square feet on the opposite side of the building."
Peeling's Komodo dragons were hatched three years ago in the Los Angeles Zoo.
"They're well over 5 1/2 feet and they're growing like crazy," he said. "The male's begun to pick on the female so we've had to separate them off display and probably will not reintroduce them."
Thus the two habitats - the Komodo dragons do not do well together as they age.
"As dragons mature, they begin to squabble," Peeling said. "The only time you introduce them is when you're hoping to breed them and then you better keep a close eye on things - they get very rough."
Ultimately, he said, one of his may be redirected to another zoo for breeding, then he would receive a hatchling, possibly from yet another location.
"The ultimate goal is that we will be breeding them here at some point down the road," he said.
Peeling's roots go back to a seasonal zoo south of his current location, which eventually disappeared when U.S. 15 was widened. When that happened, he took the idea - and the name - north to Allenwood, which sits a dozen miles south of Williamsport.
"It was very much a roadside zoo - it had a board fence with pictures of snakes on the fence. It basically just had sun shelters in the back for long rows of cages," he recalled. "In retrospect, I wish I had chosen another name because it has that sound of roadside zoo to it. It was back in the days when Disneyland was new and it seemed appropriate."
Peeling's Reptiland opened in July of 1964, and has been rebuilt with different ideals ever since. A native snake display built five years later became a crocodile display in the 1970s, and weather damage ended displays of mammals and birds.
The zoo's program center is 25 years old, and recent additions include a seasonal butterfly house, and an outdoor exhibit devoted to the forebears of today's reptiles, dinosaurs.
"We continually just kept throwing whatever little money we made back in the business. It just has been kind of growing ever since," Peeling said. "One thing we did always try to do is take care of the animals, and whatever information we imparted to our visitors, we try to be accurate and not sensational."
Peeling's humble roots have expanded into an empire devoted to reptile knowledge, and both of his sons are now involved in the business, which includes fabrication and traveling exhibits that can be seen at other zoos and aquariums. Peeling appeared on both the Tonight Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien on NBC - mostly the latter - and has done segments with morning shows as well.
"Years ago I did 'To Tell the Truth' with Garry Moore. That goes back a long way," he laughs.
The roadside zoos of the 1930s, '40s and '50s have mostly disappeared, he said - perhaps not a bad thing, since some were associated with illicit activities and others were the targets of animal rights groups for the treatment of their stock.
"When I entered the business there was none of that that I was aware of, but they were ephemeral, not terribly well put together places. Those kind of places are getting few and far between," Peeling said. "A lot of them probably should have been out of business."
And while there will always be room for change at Reptiland, Peeling said he remains true to his first love, in that respect, and looks forward to more success for the Union County zoo.
"A small, specialized zoo like ours, we've made it," he said. "I can't say we've gotten rich off it, but we've survived."
Reptiland is located along U.S. 15, about halfway between Lewisburg and Williamsport, just north of Allenwood.
Hours vary by season. It is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the offseason. In April, May, September and October, it is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Shows begin each day at 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30, 3 and 4:30 p.m., and last approximately 45 minutes.
Admission beginning May 24 is $16 for adults and $14 for children ages 3-11. Under 2 are free. Reptiland offers membership packages that offer unlimited admission for one year. Special tour options are available for groups.
Parking is free; on site is a cafe and gift shop.
More information is available online at www.reptiland.com