Dale Ertel loves snakes. He has over 70 of them -- "more snakes than the reptile house at the Little Rock zoo," he claims with pride -- in an old trailer parked on his property off of US 62. "Snake World" says the hand-made sign out by the road. How could we resist?
Dale, sweaty of attire and ready of grin, fires off facts at a machine-gun clip. "This little fellah is a local snake, a pygmy rattlesnake. He'll put you in the hospital," Dale says. "Here's a picture of a boa constrictor eating a donkey in Africa. Takes him ten days to swallow it, two years to digest it."
Dale's snakes were eating cute, fuzzy bunny rabbits when we arrived. The place smelled of old skin and reptile poop. Snake World is not for the faint-hearted or the claustrophobic; the pygmy rattlesnake was buzzing next to our heads. "He's in strike mode right now," Dale informed us cheerfully.
Dale took us on an abbreviated tour, but it was clear that he had enough material to last for several hours. The anaconda has "a bad attitude," he told us. The cottonmouth "carries a lot of bacteria in his mouth from eating rotten stuff." The Mohave rattlesnake is "the most dangerous snake in North America." And the spitting cobra? "This little guy can shoot venom eight feet and blind you. I have to wear goggles moving him around."
To add extra thrills, Dale has strategically positioned rubber rats and spiders on the floor near some of the exhibits (What is it about poisonous reptiles that brings out the prankster in people?).
A terrarium of large, hissing roaches attracted our attention. "They're the ones they use on Fear Factor," Dale informed us. Dale breeds them as snake food, but he was happy to advise us of their greater potential. "People eat 'em in London now for the protein," he said. "Doctors are prescribing them. You can't get Mad Cow Disease from roaches."
Dale has painted the backs of some of his terrariums with species-appropriate landscapes -- jungles, deserts, bogs -- but Snake World is mostly functional, with none of the exhibit design and odor control that you'll find in reptile attractions that aren't in a trailer off of a state highway in Arkansas. It's just Dale, his snakes, and their prey. "There's some pythons in there," Dale informs us as we round a corner on our way to the exit. They were eating rabbits too.