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Wilmington Herpetologist meets untimely death

If one were to take a walk along the charming Wilmington waterfront, or down bustling Front Street, the state’s eighth largest town would appear quaint and harmless. But lurking behind the brick walls of 20 Orange street is one of the world’s largest collections of deadly snakes.

The Cape Fear Serpentarium could not be more appropriately named, for the creatures it houses are certainly to be feared. Visitors find themselves separated by less than an inch of glass from snakes that could kill them in 20 minutes. One of the snakes, the Bushmaster, kills 80 percent of its human victims even after they have received swift treatment. Small children will find themselves face-to-face with snakes that could swallow them whole.

You may be wondering how such a prestigious collection of reptiles wound up in such a remote location from the scientific community. Wilmington is the birthplace of Dean Ripa, a renowned herpetologist and international snake hunter for hire. Ripa survived 12 venomous snakebites throughout his life, but in the end, it would not be his dangerous hobbies that killed him. In March, his wife fatally shot him in the head in the couples’ apartment above the serpentarium.   

Ripa founded the Cape Fear Serpentarium in 2001, in a building that used to house the original Wilmington Iron Works. The museum features over 80 species of reptiles, including over 40 species of venomous snakes.

Ripa’s fascination with venomous snakes began when he was very young. According to Ripa, he became hooked for good when he was severely bitten at age 13. Before long, he was hiding king cobras, black mambas, and gaboon vipers in his attic. He eventually dropped out of high school to pursue his herpetological passions.

His endeavors as an international snake hunter for hire found him in many life-threatening situations, including being stranded in the Amazon jungle, lost in the New Guinea highlands, and held up at gunpoint in military coups in both West Africa and Suriname.

As far as his hobbies outside of the herpetological world go, Ripa has studied art with Salvador Dali and co-written a book with William S. Burroughs. For a year, he toured as the singer of the famous Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

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