Love them or hate them, reptiles stir strong feelings in humans. I’ve always loved lizards, since saving them from my hunting cats as a child and attempting to nurse them back to health. They were so much hardier than birds, who always died. My sisters aren’t quite as keen on reptiles, but are interested enough, and tend to humor me when I visit them in Southern California. And so we found ourselves in Escondido’s EcoVivarium reptile sanctuary, which educates visitors about the true nature of these animals.

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Ball python: More godlike or devilish? Oleo, a butter-colored ball python whom some Africans revere. To harm one brings five generations of bad luck on your family. Photo by Margo Bergen.

Meet the reptiles of EcoVivarium Reptile Rescue:

The reptiles are housed in an old downtown storefront. We paid our ten-dollar admission fee in a front room, then walked through a door to meet the reptiles. And you really do meet them, one at a time.

We joined a little boy and his two adults who were in mid-tour with guide Kennedy Bantz, who held a Chinese water dragon. The young woman is very comfortable with reptiles; she’s been handling them all her life.  “I caught my first reptile when I was five years old,” she told me when I asked how she came to work here. “Scared the whole neighborhood.” But her exploits weren’t confined to reptiles. “I caught everything. My parents drew the line when I caught a coyote by hand.”

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Beethoven, an Argentine tegu, meets a visitor. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

We stood in the narrow room between glassed-in reptile enclosures. Ninety percent of the reptiles are rescues, most with tales of domestic abuse. We met a red tail boa named BB – so named because her owner shot her 13 times with a BB gun. Beethoven, an Argentine tegu, was named after the famous composer who lost his hearing after his father hit in the head too many times. In the tegu’s case, frightened people who saw him wandering in an orchard beat him with a two-by-four until he lost an eye. Igneil, a Paraguayan red tegu, had all her front fingers burnt off when her mentally ill owner set the house on fire to reverse demon possession. And Ninja, a darling little Sulcata tortoise, was found in the oven by an animal control officer called to the scene of a domestic abuse incident where a couple took out their hatred on each other’s pets.

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Ninja, the Sulcata tortoise at the EcoVivarium. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

I know that was hard to read; the good news is, these animals are all living happily in the EcoVivarium. I don’t want to anthropomorphize, but hearing that the museum director pulled half-blind Beethoven out of a drainpipe where he was hiding in that orchard, and that he clung to her in the car all the way home, well, that sounds a lot like relief and gratitude.

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Igneil is a Paraguayan red tegu. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

Just like people who survive abuse, these animals are much more than their abuse stories.  Each has a distinct personality. “She’s a bit of a drama queen sometimes,” Kennedy laughed as Igneil waddled around on the floor, sniffing us with her tongue. She relearned to walk without her toes. A snake named Houdini escapes whenever she wants, once spending a month secretly living under the printer until she decided to return to her cage. A monitor lizard named Spike figured out how to open his cage and got into the insect supply, eating 4,000 Dubia roaches and 1,500 superworms before staff caught him. “He was about as big around as a basketball,” Kennedy said.

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Houdini the escape artist. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

Behavioral training

As Kennedy repeatedly points out, most reptiles do not make good pets, including most of those commonly sold in the pet trade. She suggests would-be reptile owners limit their choices to a leopard gecko, corn snake, bearded dragon or ball python.

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

It takes a lot of training to make a monitor lizard this cuddly. Photo by Margo Bergen.

The EcoVivarium’s collection is special – rescues who have been highly trained to meet the public. All have gone through at least 100 hours of behavioral training. Without ongoing coaching, they may revert to their wilder state. Training efforts center on positive reinforcement. If the animals behave, they have more freedom to roam. When they misbehave, they get a timeout in their enclosure. “We show them how much it pays to be a good lizard,” Kennedy said as she handled River, a Savannah monitor.

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Chance the stately green iguana. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

But it’s a two-way street. Staff respect the animals’ wishes. The young boy on our tour clamored to handle a certain snake, but Kennedy pointed out that the snake was up in a tree with its tail tightly wound around a branch, signifying it didn’t want to come out. Visitors can handle some of the animals – I had the thrill of holding River like a baby – while others are set free to roam around the EcoVivarium while we watched or pet them.

Kennedy kept a close eye on body language, especially that of a 20-pound green iguana named Chance. Iguanas are very popular in the pet trade, as dealers can buy babies for a penny each. “In reality, these guys make the worst pets imaginable.” Kennedy described their shark-like teeth as we crouched around tentatively petting Chance, his head held regally, huge dewlap hanging. “They can shred flesh from bones.”

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Sugar, a desert iguana, likes to sit on people’s heads to get better views. Photo by Margo Bergen.

Mac: Star of the show.

When we first arrived at the EcoVivarium, I asked the woman at the front desk which reptile is her favorite. “Mac,” she said immediately. “He’s a superstar, and he knows it, too. He’s famous.”

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Mac, the water monitor, with tour guide Kennedy Bantz. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

On our tour, Kennedy saved Mac for last. This water monitor, a species native to Thailand, had a story straight from a country song. His owner lost his wife and his house, so he and Mac were living in a pickup truck.  Which is not a great place for a four foot-long (and growing) lizard who likes warm places. The EcoVivariumsaved Mac and helped him make a comeback. He’s appeared on TV multiple times, and is a favorite EcoVivarium ambassador.

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Mac, the water monitor, on the prowl with a new friend. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

Mac came out of his cage with that cocky, hip-swaying motion of the big monitors, and proceeded to stalk all around the shop. He sauntered to the front of the shop, where he stood on his hind legs and tried to push open the door to stroll around downtown Escondido. In spring and summer, staff members walk him outside on a leash. Kennedy described the confusion of a woman who pulled over and called out her car window, “What kind of dog is that?” A moment later she realized her mistake, and peeled away from the curb, screaming, “It’s not a dog!”

EcoVivarium Reptile Sanctuary

Mac, the water monitor, considering a trip outside. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

Mac interacts quite a bit with the other reptiles. He bullies a few – especially Ninja the tortoise – and learns new behaviors from Pepper, an older monitor lizard.

Birthday parties opportunities

The EcoVivarium offers several birthday party packages, either on-site or on-location. Their oldest party person so far was 105. The EcoVivarium brought some of its best reptile ambassadors to her nursing home. “She wanted to hold all the animals she’d been too scared to hold her whole life,” said Kennedy.

Saving abused animals, helping people overcome their fears, providing an outlet for Kennedy’s compulsion to handle reptiles, and giving me the chance to fulfill a life-long dream of cuddling a monitor lizard. The EcoVivarium is doing good work.

When You Go

When you are visiting Escondido I recommend a stop in the the EcoVivarium. It is closed Monday and Tuesday but is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am until 4:30 pm

EcoVivarium
136 S. Juniper St
Escondido, Ca. 92025
(760)975-9690
Parking in the free public lot at 202 East 2nd Avenue.
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Love them or hate them, reptiles stir strong feelings but Escondido's EcoVivarium is rescuing reptiles & educating the public on these amazing creatures.