The year was 1964, 50 years ago. It was the year of “Beatlemania,” the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the year the Phillies blew the National League pennant, the year the Surgeon General told us that smoking was bad for our health and the year that Clyde Peeling opened Reptiland.
During those 50 years Reptiland has become one of this area’s leading tourist attractions, as well as a home for educating and bringing appreciation of an exotic group of animals and their place within nature. This article was written with the assistance of Kalln Drfiscoll, Marketing and Group Sales Coordinator for Reptiland.
People have been visiting Reptiland, a specialized reptile zoo, for half a century, but it wasn’t always the impressive attraction that it is today. With nearly 50 species of reptiles and amphibians in naturalistic habitats, live shows that entertain 60,000 visitors annually, seasonal exhibits, and now Komodo dragons, Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland has come a long way the past 50 years.
“As a kid I always had an interest in show business, and then someone turned me on to reptiles. In a very short time, I became genuinely interested in the animals, and I realized when I was 12 years old that what I really wanted to do was build a zoo for reptiles,” Peeling told Webb Weekly, of his boyhood dream come true. As a young teen he offered shows in a “Reptile Garden” located on his family’s property in Clarkstown. He also worked at the original Reptiland located near Winfield for a short time. It closed not long after, and Peeling later got permission to carry on the Reptiland name.
In 1964, with a loan from his grandfather, Peeling purchased a 4 acre plot of land along Route 15 just north of Allenwood. With the help of family and friends, after only one month of hard work, Reptiland opened on July 11, 1964. The zoo consisted mostly of plywood cages and fencing, but it was a start. In reference to Reptiland’s humble beginnings, Peeling admitted, “We were very much a roadside zoo. It didn’t mean we didn’t take care of the animals, but it was pretty much an ephemeral, slapped-together operation. Over the years we just kept putting profits back into the zoo…and here we are 50 years later.”
Within five years of opening, Reptiland added an entrance building and reptile house (which was used up until 1995). Also constructed was a 30’ x 40’ concrete pit for native snakes. Unfortunately, the setup didn’t allow for meaningful management of the animals, and the pit was later converted into a crocodilian exhibit (now home to Rocky and Adrian, Reptiland’s American alligators).
To make ends meet during the zoo’s infancy, Peeling traveled the country giving lectures to school children. A few years later he began taking people on guided safaris to places like the Amazon rainforest, Galapagos Islands, Tanzania & Rwanda, and more. Peeling was able to further Reptiland’s mission through his lectures and adventure travel, educating and entertaining people at the same time.
The zoo slowly evolved over the years, and after making a commitment to meet specific (and incredibly high) zoological standards, Reptiland became accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (now the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) in 1986—a giant leap towards becoming a modern institution and a means to dispel the reputation of being just another roadside attraction. To this day, Reptiland remains the only privately-owned, accredited zoo in Pennsylvania and one of few throughout the country.
More recent additions to the zoo include seasonal exhibits Butterflies, a walk-through greenhouse filled with hundreds of butterflies, and Dinosaurs Come to Life, a prehistoric path occupied by life-size, animatronic dinosaurs. Island Giants is Reptiland’s newest permanent exhibit; this state-of-the-art building houses two Komodo dragons and Aldabra tortoises.
Future plans for Reptiland include a crocodilian exhibit and a large indoor habitat for tortoises. As far as retirement plans, Peeling said, “I never considered retiring. If I weren’t doing this for a living, I’d probably be doing it for a hobby…I just can’t think of anything that would make me happier than to continue what I’m doing.”
Peeling’s passion for reptiles, the zoo, and Reptiland visitors is still evident, even after 50 years. “Nothing is more pleasing to me than to have somebody say, ‘I’m glad you have this place. I love to bring my grandkids every year.’ I think that’s more satisfying than if we make a big profit.”
Peeling recently published a book titled Reptiland: How a Boyhood Dream became a Modern Zoo. In it he tells the story of how a young boy from Clarkstown, through hard work, determination, and a bit of luck, was able to make his dream come true. “I look back, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Peeling said.
He has also garnered national attention for Reptiland with his appearances on several national television shows, including the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
In wise words pulled straight from his book, he writes, “My advice for anyone with a dream is that life is short: we only go around once. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it.”
Reptiland is hosting several events this summer celebrating their 50th anniversary. For more information, visit reptiland.com.