Rainforest Reptile Refuge

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1999:
SURREY, B.C.–So, you think reptiles are not interactive? You haven’t been to the Rainforest Reptile Refuge, a mile  north of the truck crossing from Blaine, Washington, to Surrey, British Columbia.

Little faces are pressed against the glass of a warm and spacious herpaterrarium as Christine and Clarence Schramm make their rounds. The animals could watch them from hiding places. The Schramms make sure teach animal has a hiding place, to provide a sense of security. Instead, most come to the fronts of their habitats, displaying themselves as conspicuously as they can. The soft-shelled turtles crane their telescoping necks. Snakes try to elevate their heads on branches that will put them at eye level. Only a few multi-colored tarantulas hide, yet position themselves so
as to see Christine Schramm, especially.

“Joe Clark!” she chirps into the large iguana enclosure. “Joe Clark!” Several sleepy green iguanas raise their heads, then lower them again. Only Joe Clark remains attentive. He’s the one with a missing piece of jawbone, giving him the chinless look of the former Progressive-Conservative prime minister of Canada–who reputedly liked animals. “I wouldn’t name an animal after Pierre Trudeau or Brian Mulroney or Jean Chretien,” Christine says, “but Joe Clark seemed worthy.”

As Clark was only in office briefly between terms of Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister for 18 years, his reputation was unblemished by the others’ defense and revival of the Atlantic Canada seal hunt. “Reptiles wouldn’t hunt seals,” Christine notes. “If they did, it would be to eat, not sell their pelts and penises.”

Because of his jaw injury, Joe Clark the green iguana is hand-fed, ahead of the others. Lately, Joe Clark has taken to
trying to cadge double rations by pretending, after the rest are fed, that he was forgotten.

From the back of the former convenience store occupied by the Rainforest Reptile Refuge comes crashing and thrashing. “That’s caimans wrestling,” Christine says. “Boys will be boys. STOP IT!” The wrestling stops as abruptly as it started. The most culpable caiman stands high on his legs in an aggressive posture, apart from the rest, watching Christine like a class clown who is about to be scolded, who knows he’s broken the rules but isn’t quite
ashamed of himself because doing it was so much fun. The other caimans watch like a room full of children looking to see if the clown gets sent to the principal’s office. The naughty caiman gets his scolding along with a tail jerk, and promptly lowers himself into the normal caiman squat.

ANIMAL PEOPLE has visited some of the best-reputed reptile facilities in the world, from the Bronx Zoo to the California Academy of the Sciences. Few have more species–or individuals–than the Rainforest Reptile Refuge, whose animals include abandoned pets, exotics found by police, and even former zoo specimens. We’ve met
the occasional interactive reptile before, usually an iguana. Two iguanas have actually qualified for inclusion in the ANIMAL PEOPLE log of animals who do heroic deeds on behalf of other species–Goliath, who woke Donald Wright of Tucson, Arizona, from a near-fatal sleep apnea attack with her claws, and another, nameless, who reportedly took the steering wheel on June 13, 1997, after an alleged drunk driver passed out on U.S. 19 near Clearwater, Florida, and guided the vehicle safely to the side of the road.

Never, though, have we seen or heard of a whole reptile house full of creatures who enjoy interaction–and get it. Christine and Clarence Schramm talk to the Rainforest Reptile Refuge residents. So do their volunteers. And so do the cast-off parrots, an assortment including a sulphur-crested cockatoo, a blue-and-gold macaw, an African grey, and a couple of mismatched conures, each with a small vocabulary and a hard-luck story involving separation from beloved mates, the death or disability of a human caretaker, and depressed self-mutilation that destroyed their market value in the booming parrot business.

The parrots look and act a bit like a pirate crew–raucous, disreputable with self-plucked feathers missing, quick to remind any intrusive visitor that their hooked beaks can pinch off a finger or an ear. Then the blue-and-gold hops onto an extended arm and swaggers like a captain on a quarter-deck. The African gray inspects the troops, meandering through the refuge. “Hello!” says the macaw.

Dogs, cats too

The animals are gentle with each other. Christine tells of the time the iguanas ripped down a wall overnight. In the morning she found a snake amid the iguana pile, with one of the three resident cats sleeping comfortably on top of all of them.

The cats and two friendly watch-mutts came as starved abandonees. There are other mammals, notably an ailing African hedgehog. Mostly, though, the Rainforest Reptile Refuge takes creatures no other local shelter handles. “People buy reptiles because they think they are easy to care for,” Christine scoffs. “They’re not. They’re as much trouble as a dog or a cat. Then the owners find out the truth, and drop them off here or just dump them,” often sick from neglect.

An exotic dancer surrendered a python, for instance, who was dying from an untreated skin disease. Rough handling during the dance routine may have aggravated it. Iguanas often arrive with burns from heat lamps. Many reptiles come with metabolic bone disease, due to poor diets.

Dealers, the Schramms find, are often as ignorant of proper reptile care as casual buyers. Judy Stone of Animal Advocates of British Columbia helped them obtain 14 reptiles, five cockatiels, and Maxine the blue-and-gold macaw from the abandoned collection of a bankrupt pet store. All arrived with severe physical problems.

That reminded Christine of how they got their first caiman. “To amuse his customers,” she explains, “a pet store owner would squirt a baby caiman with a water pistol. Trapped in a small aquarium, the caiman had nowhere to hide. All she could do was hiss and whip her tail.” Christine confronted the owner– who tried to sell her the caiman. When she refused to pay him, he gave the caiman to her. The caiman, named Carmen, is still a Rainforest Reptile Refuge resident.

The Rainforest Reptile Refuge receives about 300 animals per year, but the census remains around 400 in care because so many of the new arrivals can’t be saved. It was perhaps more a Freudian slip than a typographical error that Christine called the organization the “Rainforest Reptile Refuse Society” in a recent newsletter: most of the animals have been treated like refuse by someone, and a few were literally plucked out of trash cans.

They don’t have any alligators from sewers–yet, they laugh. All the newcomers are quarantined before being introduced to others of their species in the display areas. Twice Clarence has suffered salmonella poisoning from being splashed while changing sick turtles’ water. Both Clarence and Christine have often been bitten by animals who didn’t yet know they were among friends. But only one Rainforest Reptile Refuge animal, an elderly snake, is venomous. “The bites hurt,” admits Clarence. “But we know nothing here will kill us.”

Christine and Clarence Schramm routinely handle only the few reptiles who really seem to enjoy petting. Vistors are welcome, a few days a week, but never have direct contact with the reptiles and are allowed near the parrots only if the parrots seem to invite the opportunity.

The Schramms attribute some of the Rainforest Reptile Refuge animals’ interactivity to the animals’ having been pets. The rest, they claim, is just a matter of most people not knowing reptile nature. The Schramms have studied animal behavior together for 14 years, specializing in reptiles as a matter of responding to need. Both come originally from southeastern British Columbia, but Clarence initially sought his fortune in Alberta. He volunteered as a reptile caretaker at the Calgary and Edmonton zoos. He objected to the treatment of animals as “specimens,” rather than individuals.  When he left, the Calgary Zoo gave him two “surplus” iguanas who were not rated much chance for long life. They became the first Rainforest Reptile Refuge animals. They still live there.


Christine grew up on a dairy farm in the Okanagan valley. As she became more sensitive to animal suffering, she developed a profound distaste for the dairy industry. Both Christine and Clarence are longtime vegans. They married with a shared goal of “doing something to help animals.”  They traveled to Africa to observe big mammals and birds. Back home, though, they could see that reptiles were the animals most in need of their care. They started the Rainforest Reptile Refuge in a two-bedroom apartment, in 1986, then expanded to their present rented location in 1992. They live on site, in a travel trailer.

Clarence provides most of the cash flow as a gardener for the past 10 years at a nearby nursery. His gardening skill is also evident about the Rainforest Reptile Refuge grounds. Christine–who has never been paid–is the more-than-fulltime curator, assisted by a few volunteers, including students who participate as part of a work experience program. Together, the Rainforest Reptile Refuge personnel put in about 12,000 unpaid hours per year.

Donations still fall short of fully covering the heat, the food, and veterinary care. Tours by school groups and youth
organizations are welcomed mainly as a chance to educate the public, not as a source of revenue, though young visitors account for some sales of toy reptiles and t-shirts. Celebrity help consists mostly of donations of autographed
photos from sympathetic athletes, which are auctioned via the Rainforest Reptile Refuge web site (at >>www.dynaserve.com/web/reptiles<<). Renowned orangutan advocate Birute Galdikas visited once, however, with her children Jane and Fred.

“They were in Vancouver and saw a softshell turtle dying a slow death, waiting to be made into turtle soup,” the Rainforest Reptile Refuge newsletter recounted. “Gal-dikas rescued the turtle and brought it to us.”

[Contact the Rainforest Reptile Refuge c/o POB 3505, Blaine, WA 98231; 605-538-1711 or 605-536-1791; or by e-mail
at >>reptiles@dynaserve.com<<.]
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