St. PETERSBURG — The newly opened St. Petersburg Serpentarium is a narrow, dimly lit space on Central Avenue housing about 25 creepy creatures including cobras, copperheads, pythons, rattlesnakes, venomous lizards and scorpions. But Rob Siders, curator and an owner, has visions of something much grander.
"If the Rays leave, I want Tropicana Field. We have the animals. We have the permits," said Siders, whose partner has a Punta Gorda ranch with lions, bears, bobcats and other animals. "The corporate boxes would still be there. You can take the kids to the zoo, but mom and dad can still socialize and shop. Think about a zoo that is temperature-controlled. We would build cages half in the stadium (and half sticking out of the stadium) so it's indoors and outdoors."
Siders has spoken about his idea with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. "He sounded very open-minded," Siders said, adding that Foster wanted to hear more after corporate sponsors were lined up. "We're not trying to build Busch Gardens. We can build a moderate-sized zoo for $8 million to $10 million."
If the Rays don't leave Tropicana Field, his group would consider the Feather Sound area and is looking for other potential sites.
The newly opened St. Petersburg Serpentarium at 538 Central Ave. is the first step. It's open to the public on weekends and school groups during the week. There is no set price, but donations are accepted. Siders and his partners soon will try to secure corporate sponsorships to cover expenses.
Siders spent five months building a spacious habitat for each of the creatures in the 1,000 square feet of exhibit space. He spoke excitedly about the inhabitants recently above the almost constant background noise of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake's rattle, which mimicked a high-powered sprinkler system rapid firing blasts of water.
"It's a percussion instrument, but he's entirely deaf. I always wonder, does he even knows he's making this noise?" he said. Siders knows which snakes are shy, which are feisty and which will face the back of the cage as soon as they hear his voice ready for him to hand them their breakfast of frozen rats.
"I don't give them names, but I still adore them," Siders said.
The snakes have been collected over the years by Siders and one of his partners, David Weathers, who is also known as the "Cobra Kid."
"Everything is clean for both of these guys," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro, who confirmed they have the necessary permits for the serpentarium.
Weathers owns a ranch in Punta Gorda, where he has permits for lions, tigers, bears, bobcats, monkeys, exotic birds and venomous and nonvenomous reptiles, Ferraro said. This would be the source of animals for a zoo.
Across the Internet, Weathers is seen fearlessly handling angry snakes by their heads and tails, wrestling alligators, kissing lions and cobras and, his signature move, holding a balloon in his mouth while a snake pops it with its venomous fangs. He has appeared on the Discovery Channel, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and in the movie, Jackass Number 2.
Not everyone has the training and experience with snakes that Weathers and Siders have. That's why the serpentarium also will be a depository for unwanted creatures. The serpentarium aims to be known as a place where people can safely drop off snakes that have gotten too big, animals from defunct circuses or other creatures that are no longer wanted. Siders sees this as a much better option than just releasing pets into the wild or the streets of St. Petersburg.
Without set ticket prices or any corporate sponsors yet, it's hard to see how the serpentarium will thrive financially, much less be the first building block of a zoo. Siders discounts this concern, saying he and Weathers already own the snakes and already pay feeding and veterinary costs. The only added overhead of opening their business is $1,500 a month in rent and utilities, which he hopes will be covered by donations and sponsors.
"Why would you have all of these (snakes) if you're not going to share them with the public?" Siders asked. "You can donate if you can, but we don't want people to have to spend money to walk in."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8785.