By Katie Scarvey
Salisbury Post

WILMINGTON -- Dean Ripa is standing in front of the green mamba exhibit at his Cape Fear Serpentarium, and I'm trying to picture him as a 4-year-old chasing snakes through the grass and as a 14-year-old hiding snakes from his mom and dad the way some teens hide drug paraphernalia.

At 49, he's got a restless Jim Carrey boyishness about him, but in profile he looks more like the third Stallone brother. He surely melted hearts when he toured with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, crooning such classics as "Strangers in the Night" and "My Way." (A quick visit to the Web site that markets his music, dean ripa.com, confirms that the guy can sing.)

There's a coiled-up energy about him that seems appropriate, given the creatures that live in his serpentarium. Ripa is pacing a bit and talking about stupid things he's overheard from visitors. There was the guy peering at a snake skeleton on display who asked, "If they're invertebrates, why do they have so many bones?" Then there are the liars, he says, like the man who told his girlfriend as they were looking at the Komodo Dragon -- a monitor lizard that comes from Indonesia -- that he saw lots of them while he was stationed in the Philippines.

Created by Wilmington film set designers, the serpentarium's exhibits provide perfect showcases for such stars as Sheena, the 23-foot 250-pound python.

Posted placards provide fascinating nuggets of information. You may learn, for example, that no other animal kills as many human beings as snakes do, and that the spectacled cobra kills more humans than any other snake -- thousands per year (most of them when they are walking around barefoot at night). And you'll learn that the bite of the king cobra is strong enough to bring down an elephant.

We find ourselves in front of the Gaboon vipers, perhaps the strangest-looking snakes in the place. They're mating, Ripa says, although it's not apparent to me that these particular vipers are any cozier than other snakes that look entwined.

With a velvety brown pattern resembling a moth's wing, the Gaboon viper is notable for being the species of snake that in 1928 sank its fangs into Marlin Perkins (host of "Wild Kingdom") when he was a young man working at the St. Louis Zoo. These vipers are as thick as a man's arm and not much longer, with rostral horns that make them look lizard-like. Looking at them, you get the sense that with another few thousand years of evolution, they might just sprout legs.

A sign at the green mamba exhibit indicates that this is a five-skull snake.

The snakes here are rated by death's heads to explain their degree of lethalness to humans. The copperhead, for example, rates only one skull, because full recovery from a copperhead bite is likely.

If you're bitten by a five-skull snake, however, you'd better have your affairs in order. If you're lucky enough to survive, there is a high probability of disfigurement and lasting debilitation.

So imagine my surprise when Ripa takes a key and slides up the glass window of the exhibit so there's nothing but a short expanse of air between him and the five-skull green mamba, and maybe six feet between the snake and my own skin. Trying to be nonchalant, I extend that distance as Ripa sprays a blast of water into the snake's face.

'm aware that Ripa interacts with these reptiles every day, that he has an intimate knowledge of the habits of many different species of snakes and can reliably predict their behavior. But it's still unnerving to have nothing between you and a green mamba but a self-described risk-taker who's been attacked 11 times by venomous snakes.

Ripa assures me this particular snake is "old and rickety," captured 23 years ago. The spray of water, he says, helps the snake shed her skin. I remind myself that Ripa has done this before and knows how she'll react. I convince myself there is no danger. Still, I'm relieved when the glass goes back in place.

World class

Open since 2002, Ripa's 6,300-foot serpentarium, at 20 Orange Street in downtown Wilmington, is a world class indoor reptile park. Here, nestled among the old homes, shops and restaurants, you'll discover 15 species of vipers, 13 species of cobras, a giant monitor lizard and a Nile crocodile. Ripa spent years traveling the world building his collection, most of which he has either captured himself or bred.

He's recognized as the world authority on the bushmaster, a deadly snake that lives in South and Central America. They're rare, and until they captured Ripa's imagination, scientists didn't know much about them. Ripa has devoted himself to unlocking the mysteries of the bushmaster and was the first to successfully breed them in captivity. He continues to breed them for zoos and research institutions in a back room of the serpentarium.

'Playing with devils'

His fascination with reptiles started when he was a kid. He began chasing colors through the grass when most kids are still winding up their See 'N' Says. His joy in all things wild wasn't diminished after he was bitten by a corn snake at 4, which landed him in the hospital and threw his parents into a panic.

His Baptist preacher, the Rev. A.C. McGee, was anything but amused by the antics of this young member of his flock.

"He thought I was playing with devils," says Ripa, whose imagination was fired by McGee's enthusiastic descriptions of the depths of hell.

"I liked to hear the stories of where I was going," says Ripa, whose eyebrows do have a slightly demonic arch, come to think of it.

By the time he was 14, Ripa had 50 snakes stashed away in his parents' house. They knew Dean had something of a snake habit but weren't aware of the extent of it until he was bitten again -- this time by a cottonmouth.

He was holding the snake's head down with one hand while using a razor blade to excise what he believed to be cysts with the other. Unconvinced its owner was performing a kindness, the snake struck, landing Ripa in the hospital for a few weeks, an incident that opened the eyes of his parents in the same way a drug overdose might for the parents of a different sort of kid.

The envenomings Ripa has endured over the years haven't diminished his affection for his snakes, which is clear-eyed and unromantic.

"People demand something back from pets," says Ripa, who lives with an ancient Maltese dog in an apartment above the serpentarium. (She's lost a lot of her fur, giving me the somewhat irrational thought that she's trying to look more like a reptile to please her master.)

From his snakes, Ripa expects simply beauty and an elegant adherence to their own essential natures. He likes to see them thriving, happy.

After the cottonmouth bite -- he still has the scar on the fleshy part of his hand between the thumb and index finger -- his father donated his collection to one of the dubious roadside reptile attractions fairly common in the day. While Ripa grieved the loss, he wasn't bitter, since his understanding of animals included knowledge of the protective nature of the adult homo sapiens.

One thing that doesn't particularly interest Ripa is money. Early on, he wanted some to pay for the snakes he coveted. Later, he wanted some more so he could build his serpentarium.

He was exhausted by all the work it took to maintain his extensive collection. "I was burning out on the labor of doing it," he says. He was keeping some of the snakes in his house,while renting another place to handle the overflow. Building the serpentarium (and hiring a curator) allowed him to give up at least some of the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for so many reptiles.

Beyond reptiles

Ripa's life hasn't all been about snakes. After he dropped out of high school ("not a good environment for me," he says), he went to Europe and studied painting under famed portraitist Pietro Annigoni, who invited him to Italy after the teenager sent him some samples of his work. As a young man in his twenties, Ripa continued his painting in Haiti and for a time made his living as a portrait artist. The choice to live in Haiti was a practical one, he says -- live models could be had for only $2 a day there.

Living in Haiti -- one of 35 countries he's visited -- was "a transformative experience," he says. Some macabre paintings from this time hang in his living quarters above the serpentarium, on loan from the estate of the late author William Burroughs, who was a friend of Ripa's. There is a nightmarish quality about them reminiscent of the work of Hieronymous Bosch.

The images -- disembodied doll heads, a human torso with phantom limbs, a necrotic arm, an eye spilling off a face -- seem to reflect some primal pocket of Ripa's brain that he's more in tune with than the rest of us, who prefer to keep the lurid underbellies of our psyches safely submerged.

Nothing about Ripa's appearance suggests that he's been the victim of 11 venomous snake bites, although he'll tell you he sometimes doesn't feel so great. One of his four bushmaster bites was so bad that he reached the point where he says he was no longer interested in his own fate (which happened after he went through the other predictable stages of a bushmaster envenoming, including projectile vomiting). Receiving quick treatment helped him survive.

Much of Ripa's energy now is devoted to writing, another life passion. At 18, he became acquainted with "Naked Lunch" author William Burroughs after sending him a story he'd written; the two subsequently began exchanging letters, and Ripa was a guest at Burroughs' home when the writer died in 1997.

Ripa has written the definitive volume about bushmasters, and one of his essays, "Confessions of a Gaboon Viper Lover" appeared in the 1994 anthology "Living with Animals." One of his recent writing projects is "Sex Dolls," a black comedy about what he calls sexual materialism.

He'd rather write fiction than relive his own adventures on the page, although he's heard time and again that his own life story, which has the flavor of a Joseph Conrad novel, is what people want to read about.

"I try to forget myself," he says. "(My own life) bores me so much."

Visitors to Ripa's Cape Fear Serpentarium can rest assured -- they won't be bored.

*** Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or kscarvey@salisburypost.com.