On the coldest night of the deep freeze that hit Texas in mid-February, the Serpentarium at the Texas Reptile Zoo was crowded with the cold-blooded—lizards from Madagascar, tortoises from the Sahara, sizable crocodiles and, of course, snakes by the score.
Then the water pipe in the ceiling burst.
Zoo owner Tim Caglarcan walked in to check on his reptiles and found water spraying from the ceiling and pooling on the floor.
“At the time it was a disaster,” he said. “You can imagine walking into your building and it’s raining. It’s freezing outside, and I had to kill the power because we have all the heaters on the ground.”
The week of arctic cold was a statewide disaster, no doubt. People died of cold in their homes when their power went out. Others huddled together in their dark homes for days. Some people didn’t have water. Some couldn’t find food. There’s no discounting that tragedy and trouble.
For those Texans who make a living running the scores of reptile zoos, rattlesnake museums, and snake farms that dot Lone Star highways, the cold was an imminent threat to their critters and their livelihoods. They survived through preparation and dedication.
At the Texas Reptile Zoo in Bastrop, about 35 miles east of Austin, Tim and Julie Caglarcan had a serious mess on their hands after they killed the power and shut off the water.
“My wife ran over with every towel we had, and we got buckets to soak up the water by hand,” Tim said. “And we had a big hole in the ceiling—we still have it.”
The zoo, housed in a former plant nursery, has about 220 reptiles and about 100 fish. Two of the old greenhouses were converted into herpetariums, but much of the zoo is outdoor space meant to mimic the reptiles’ natural habitat. The zoo is closed during the winter when many of the species brumate (akin to hibernation) underground.
“At the Texas Reptile Zoo, the way we have the animals is as natural as possible,” Caglarcan said. “So we like it when they do things like they're supposed to do.”
But when record low temperatures were forecast, Caglarcan knew he had to step in. Heaters were installed in some burrows. Tarps covered the ground where he knew some animals had dug in for winter.
As the weather worsened, he used a temperature gun to measure ground and burrow temps, and knew he had to do more. Caglarcan brought most of his animals inside the main building—the serpentarium. That meant literally digging up some of them from the earth.
“Basically, we had to evacuate everybody,” he said. For Caglarcan, that meant doing it himself. “I run the whole place right now. I’m always busy around the clock.”
Caglarcan is pretty optimistic that the animals he couldn’t dig up and bring inside survived the winter storm, but he wasn’t so lucky with his plants.
“We lost a lot of our food,” he said. “Our bananas died in the greenhouse. We lost all our cactus—we use our cactus to feed our herbivores like tortoises. We lost a whole crop of winter radishes.”
These struggles on top of last year’s COVID-19 struggles have hit the Texas Reptile Zoo pretty hard.
“I’ve rarely asked for much,” Caglarcan said. “I kind of think this year is gonna be a fundraising year for the place to get us back on track.”
About 450 miles to the west, in remote Fort Davis, the Rattlers and Reptiles rattlesnake museum lost power for four days as temperatures sank as low as 3 degrees. Yet there’s a reason every one of the 200-odd snakes survived.
“I’m a Kansas boy,” proprietor Scott Teppe said. “I’ve lived out on the tundra. So a couple years ago, I redid all the water lines and ran gas lines in… and that’s how I kept it warm.”
There weren't any fans or space heaters or lights, but the ambient temperature stayed high enough to keep the snakes healthy. He keeps the museum at about 60 degrees in winter so that the snakes can brumate.
“They’re fairly dormant,” Teppe said. “They don’t go into a torpor, like a bear does, where they actually go to sleep, but they get lethargic.
“They’re kind of like people—when there’s a warm day in the winter, they’ll sit on the porch and enjoy their coffee, but they’re not going out foraging or looking for a mate or anything.”
Last year, bit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Rattlers and Reptiles had just over 2,000 visitors. The year before, it had been about 5,500.
“It’s not like the Snake Farm over in New Braunfels,” Teppe said. “We are a small facility, and we get incidental tourism from people that are getting off the highway going to Big Bend [National Park].”
The museum has more than 30 species of venomous snakes but keeps a few local non-venomous species so people headed to the nearby national park can be prepared for what they might find in the wild.
Teppe is all about being prepared. He compared it to “The Ant and The Grasshopper” fable. “People in Texas just don’t expect it to get that cold that long. But a week without power isn’t too much where I’m from.”
So he was ready, with a generator, 500 gallons of water, a wood-burning stove, and propane heaters.
If there was one thing he wasn’t ready for, it was being the owner of the museum in the first place.
“When I was in college, I helped the guy that owned it build all the cages and set it all up,” Teppe said. “He passed away a few years ago and left it to me. It’s not where I saw my retirement happening, but…”
He trails off and then starts laughing.
“The Snake Farm in New Braunfels” is the most famous in Texas. Technically the Ray Wylie Hubbard song “Snake Farm” isn’t necessarily about any specific snake farm, but there’s only one place along Interstate 35 with a giant sign saying “Snake Farm Zoo” in red and black letters.
Officially the Animal World & Snake Farm Zoo, the place is about 50 miles south of Austin.
Jarrod Forthman, a director at the zoo, said that even though they did lose power on and off for a few days, they kept the generators running and kept the building “nice and warm” for their couple hundred snakes.
Which is good, because there’s more to displaying snakes than just keeping kids’ hands out of the cobra cage.
“Each species has its own temperature range that we have to keep them at,” Forthman said. “Each individual enclosure is set up for that particular species. Some of our more tropical species, [if the temperature] gets below 70, you can potentially get them sick.”
Many of the smaller animals that make up the outdoor portion of the zoo, such as the birds and primates, were brought indoors to heated buildings. Others, such as the large cats, had additional heat in their winter housing.
“Some of our carnivore housing, they already are able to go inside and get warm,” Forthman said. “But we’re able to add additional heat and additional bedding, just to help out with the colder temperatures than we’re used to facing.”
The zoo’s website shows the alligators submerged in their frozen-over pond, snouts sticking through the ice. “Icing” occurs naturally and allows the gators to survive freezing weather for a while.
Forthman credits protocols and people for helping the zoo get through the winter storm.
“We have emergency response protocols in place that help us in case of disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes, anything that causes power outages, or loss of water,” Forthman said. “And while we weren’t expecting the record-breaking freezes or anything like that, our other protocols acted in their place. We were pretty fortunate.”
Also key was the ability to get employees to the zoo—not a given considering iced-over roads can be shut down in Texas. Ten to 15 employees worked up to 12-hour shifts day and night.
“If we were unable to get staff on site during this time, and if we didn’t have staff willing to work literally around the clock, things could have been different, or a whole lot harder on the folks that did make it.
“But a lot of our staff was available. We do have housing on site that our staff was able to stay in during this time. So that that pretty well saved us.”
One thing that kept staff busy for a while was when a boil-water advisory was issued for the area. Though they had water in storage, they did have to boil water for their 500 animals—including bison and zebras, which can drink quite a bit.
“I’ll tell you what, had that gone on too much longer, things could have gotten bad for sure,” Forthman said.
A lot of fans of the Animal World & Snake Farm Zoo reached out to help during this time and sent in donations, but the zoo wasn’t hurting. In fact, they reached out to their local community and were able to donate firewood to those in need.
Preparation is key, and the zoo is already making improvements to make sure the next time won’t be as tough.
“Our biggest issue that affected us, believe it or not, was our above-ground plumbing,” Forthman said. “We had broken water lines all over the place that we’re still working on now. So that’s going to change before we have another huge freeze like this, that’s for sure.”