Education Before Extinction

Emily with Doug the boa constrictor at Snake Discovery. Photo Sarah Whiting

Historically, reptiles have elicited fear and suspicion in humans. There are 17 species of wild snakes in Minnesota. Only two species that live in the southeastern counties are venomous, and they are rarely encountered. But the likelihood of danger bears no correlation to the impact human fear can have on a species’ survival. The venomous timber rattlesnake, for example, poses no significant threat to humans, yet Minnesota paid a bounty for the rattlers until 1989, and the depleted species was listed as threatened in 1996.

Emily Roberts of Snake Discovery believes education is key to preventing extinction. Since becoming an independent exotic animal keeper, she has garnered 2.5 million subscribers on YouTube and over half a billion views. Her down-to-earth personality and genuine love for her animals — including an alligator, a python, lizards, and geckos — shine through in videos meant to educate viewers on animal care and behavior.

In October, Roberts opened her first brick-and-mortar zoo in Maplewood, where visitors can learn about (and adopt) bred and surrendered reptiles. No wild-caught animals are on display or available for adoption. Minnesota Women’s Press caught up with Roberts to learn why reptiles are feared, fascinating, and vital to our ecosystems.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I have always had a fascination for animals, especially birds, reptiles, and bugs. I started working at a pet store, and that is what introduced me to how to care for nontraditional

animals. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, I worked as a naturalist for the Minnesota DNR, where I was trained to do educational programs at Interstate State Park. After my temporary job with the DNR was over, I wanted to continue teaching people about wildlife in a way that [was] easy to understand and more approachable for kids. I started my own business called Snake Discovery, where [before pandemic shutdowns] I brought reptiles to various places to teach people about them.

The more we can teach the public about the wildlife in our backyards, the more likely that wildlife will be to be protected and conserved. It is always our goal to reach the younger generation so that they can grow up appreciating reptiles, and then hopefully [reptiles] will not be unnecessarily killed when those kids are adults.

Snakes always play the bad guys in movies. We are raised thinking that snakes are antagonists, but in reality, they are more afraid of you than you are of them.

They are cute animals, but they are not that bright. They are easy pets to take care of and fascinating to learn about. They have so many unique adaptations to help them survive in the wild. The more you know, the less scary they are.

We take a very non-pushy approach to teaching kids. I am holding the animals the whole time, sharing fun facts, giving them silly names so that they are more approachable. And by the end of my programs, I rarely see a kid who still refuses to touch or hold a snake. The most rewarding part about this job is watching that transformation happen. I think there might be, especially in school groups, a little bit of peer pressure. But in this case, it is for a good cause — encouraging friends to get over a fear.

We definitely did not expect our fan base to be as big as it is now. When I was doing my educational programs, families would approach me afterward and ask how to take care of an animal because they fell in love with it at the show. Averaging about 350 programs a year, I did not have time to answer all the questions I wanted to. I started making YouTube videos that were about reptile care to answer questions. Turns out, people from around the world want to learn about reptiles too.

The channel is what funded [Snake Discovery’s] expansion. We bought our building in December of 2019; then Covid-19 hit the following March, and what should have been about an eight-month construction project turned into two years. If it weren’t for our fan base and their generous support, we would not have been able to keep going.

A lot of people associate snake keepers with being big burly guys. Based on what I see in the community, it is probably 60 percent men, 40 percent women. I try to have a very approachable personality at the program so that these reptiles seem less scary. At first people did not quite take me as seriously as [they would] if a guy were teaching them about reptiles, but thankfully with how the times have changed, people’s perspectives have changed as well.

I wish people would realize that snakes are not the bad guys; snakes are a vital part of our environment. They are important. They have a job to do, and if you leave them alone, they will do their own thing. They do not want to attack people or chase people. That is a myth. They just want to eat rodents and keep your house clean of pests. They are very beneficial to have around.