Jason Clark knows how to woo a girl. When he asks his wife, Sarah, if she’d like to go to a movie, and the weather is nice, she’ll say, “Let’s go snake-hunting.”
Sarah Clark, who was once leery of snakes, now loves them. “She was not exactly afraid of them,” Jason Clark said. “Snakes were just not her thing. She could definitely do without them. Now, she’s licensed by the state and answers her own 911 calls (to rescue reptiles).”
The couple own Southeastern Reptile Rescue, based in Griffin, Ga. Husband and wife routinely rescue unwanted reptiles from residential areas, and they work with state officials to confiscate dangerous reptiles from private homes.
Last year, they gained national attention starring a reality show called “SnakesKin” on the Animal Planet. Also on the show were Clark’s mother and his late father.
Right now, Clark’s working on a pilot with another Animal Planet celebrity about reptile rescues in Georgia.
Clark says of the 41 snakes native to Georgia, only six are venomous. At ReptileFest at Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center, he’ll teach guests who to tell the difference between venomous and nonvenomous snakes.
He’ll bring his 30-foot “reptile wagon” that is a walk-through exhibit that holds an alligator, gaboon vipers, cobras and other venomous snakes, as well as non-venomous ones.
Last year’s ReptileFest brought 1,500 visitors to Oxbow Meadows. He’s hoping for at least that many Saturday.
Clark spoke with us about his unique job last week. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What services does your business, Southeastern Reptile Rescue provide?
For 10 years now, we take calls from anybody you can imagine, from people who have a pet snake they don’t want to confiscating cobras. We use those in our programs. We have cobras, gaboon vipers, pit vipers, exotic rattlesnakes, all that were confiscated.
Why did you decide to open the business and what’s your overall goal for the business?
I’ve been doing this (rescuing reptiles) since I was in elementary school. That’s all I wanted to do -- rescue animals.
We do a lot of educational programs and we travel all over the Southeast. People see us speaking and setting up snake displays. That’s what we do; that’s what supports the reptile rescue. When we get called at 3 o’clock in the morning, we don’t get paid to do that. We’re not funded by the state. What funds us is ReptileFest and the other regular events we do. We’re raising awareness about reptiles in general.
One other thing we’re doing and you’re the first person I’ve told. We’re opening up a reptile pet store that’s right across from the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton. We’ve decided to do reptile rescue. We do the education part. If you’re going to buy a reptile, we want to make sure that you get the right one and that you’re educated before you buy one. We’ll have snakes, lizards, spiders, frogs, turtles. When the store closes, we open the doors for classes.
It’s called the Snake Shed, and it’s at 1074 Air Creek Blvd., in Hampton. The grand opening is April 23.
What’s a typical day like?
It just depends. I usually get six hours of sleep a night. I work at Oxbow Meadows four days a week. With the rescued reptiles, it’s not only taking the time to clean the cages and feeding them. We realized quickly that feeding them is a whole ’nother job. We had to raise your own food. We have hundreds of rats and that’s just the rats.
To top everything off, I’m on call 24 hours a day. Local law enforcement agencies will call many times at 3 o’clock in the morning; all different hours. Sometimes we have to go out. Sometimes it’s just questions that I can answer over the phone.
And we have to do education. In Georgia, we have to do 12 hours of education to keep our permit. We do 500-plus hours every year.
What is the scariest thing you’ve encountered on rescues?
None of it’s scary. All of it is exciting. We’ll go on a confiscation call to get some of the most dangerous, exotic venomous snakes.
How did your wife, Sarah, overcome her initial fear of reptiles?
She already had a love of animals, and she was willing to learn that snakes are not as scary as people think they are... With snakes, it’s the fear of the unknown. We try to take people with no knowledge of reptiles and try to transform them. We try to tell them that you don’t have to run and grab your gun to kill them.
Have your children exhibited any fear of reptiles?
They’ve grown up with them. They’re used to it. They’re used to seeing them in the front yard, like an 80-pound tortoise. They see alligators every day and see the cobras in the back yard. We don’t keep any of them in the house. The only animal in the house is our boxer, 5-year-old Holly.
The kids get up on stage with me during the program.
Have you ever been afraid of reptiles?
Not that I can remember. When I was 7, I caught my first snake and got bitten that same day. I was taking 911 calls (to rescue or remove reptiles) when I was 14 years old. I didn’t tell them I was 14. I’ve been doing this a long, long time. I was attacked by a doberman pinscher when I was little. I had to go to the hospital. You’d think I’d be afraid of dobermans, but I’m not. I choose to educate myself.
How do you treat reptile bites?
I’ve never been bitten by a venomous snake. With the non-venomous snakes, I get bitten every other day. But if you have cockatiels, you’ll get pecked. We have certain protocols to handle venomous snakes.
I usually say if it’s bleeding get a napkin and wipe it off.
What steps do you take to avoid being injured when rescuing animals?
First of all, when avoiding snakes, watch where your hands and feet are. If you are after a venomous snake, use the protocols in place. When you’re thinking, “I know what I’m doing,” and you have that mentality, you’re gonna get bit. You have to have nothing else on your mind.
What should people consider and what steps should they take before deciding to get a reptile for a pet?
Do your research beforehand. A lot of people buy a reptile as an impulse purchase. People will go in and buy something and don’t take care of them. I don’t care what kind of animal you get, do your research.
What should people do if they discover an unwanted reptile in their yard or home?
We get a lot of those calls. Some want to get them out and to keep them away from the house. If you go to www.snakesareus.com and click on Snake School 101, it will tell you how to identify snakes. Just remember that people get bitten trying to catch snakes or trying to kill them.
How can a person tell if a reptile is venomous?
People say look for a triangular head or hooded eyes, but you don’t want to get that close. At ReptileFest, I’ll go over the secrets on how to identify them.
If you work at the Bronx Zoo, what would you have done to make sure that Egyptian cobra didn’t escape?
That’s something we’ve talked about at Oxbow. All the snakes there are owned by Southeastern Reptile Rescue and loaned to Oxbow. There is only one person with access to the cages and that is me. That means I’m responsible. That rattlesnake that escaped from Zoo Atlanta and the cobra from the Bronx Zoo, that all comes back to keeper error. A zoo is not going to let a dangerous snake in a cage that is not locked. When you have multiple people with access to the cages, that’s when you have problems. At Oxbow, that’s one person, and that’s me. You don’t have to worry.
Do reptiles have personalities like dogs and cats?
Absolutely. Of course. Different species have different personalities. Alligators in general have different temperaments than crocodiles. And within a group of alligators, they’ll have different personalities.
What was your first pet and what other pets have you had?
A dog, a collie. I didn’t get my first snake until I was 7 years old. It was an eastern garter snake. We have all the normal stuff -- dogs, cats, horses, pigs, goats, chickens and alligators (laughs). We’ve got everything -- guinea pigs and rabbits. We get calls from movie studios who need animals. We got a call from the people doing the Michael Myers, “Halloween 2” movie and provided goats and pot-bellied pigs. Harvard University was doing a film and they needed tarantulas. We acquired them and now we’ve got several different kinds of tarantulas.