Maryland Zoo's Reptile House

Life Inside These Walls

On August 5, 1948, Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro and other Baltimore City dignitaries came by motorcade to Druid Hill Park for the official opening of the Baltimore Zoo’s new Reptile House. They pulled up in front of a small, yellow-brick building a short distance from the Zoo’s main campus. A crowd of several hundred people gathered for the ceremony and then walked inside, eager for their first glimpse of the scaly and slick, slithering and hopping new residents.

They entered an oval room with a shallow, tile-lined pool at its center where small alligators and turtles swam. Set into the walls of the room were brightly lit tanks containing an eye-popping array of local and exotic snakes, lizards, and amphibians. Artists employed by the City’s Bureau of Parks had painted woodland, desert, or swamp scenes inside each tank to mimic the natural habitats of the occupants. The visitors moved from tank to tank, admiring the 250 animals ranging in size from a four-inch worm snake to a twelve-foot python. If any visitors looked up to see the murals of marine life decorating the arched walls, they might be reminded of the building’s fascinating past.

With funding from the federal Works Project Administration, this same building—a former pump house for a park reservoir that was later filled and turned into a softball field—had been converted ten years earlier into Baltimore’s first aquarium. It showcased Chesapeake Bay fish and several exotic species. There had even been talk of exhibiting a pair of penguins and a manatee from Florida, but neither event came to pass. Unfortunately, the aquarium was short-lived. Fred Saffron, one of its primary backers, recalled that in late 1941, “our biologist had to go into war work, and the park laborers took over. Within a month, the alligators and the terrapin were all that were living.” By the time Arthur Watson, newly hired director of the Baltimore Zoo, arrived on the scene in early 1948, the aquarium stood empty.

A lifelong snake enthusiast and a showman by nature, Watson smelled opportunity and was quick to act. “When we open, we’ll have one of the best collections of snakes in this country,” he promised. “We’ll be short only a cobra, mambo and python.” To make good on his promise, he sent his newly hired reptile curator—an eighteen-year-old named John E. Cooper—on a collecting expedition to the Ogeechee River in Georgia. Cooper returned with many specimens, and somehow Watson also found a python by opening day.

Within months, Cooper left the Zoo, on to future adventures as a biology teacher, naturalist, science writer, cave diver, and expert on crayfishes and cave fauna. His successor, the legendary Frank Groves, would oversee the Reptile House and its intriguing residents for the next forty-four years, until his retirement in 1992.

During his tenure, Groves published countless scientific papers, earned a national reputation as a serious herpetologist, and pioneered breeding programs for several species that had never been bred in captivity before. The Reptile House closed its doors permanently in 2004, but Groves’ interests in research, captive breeding, and education passed to his successors and became hallmarks of the Zoo’s amphibian and reptile program continuing to this day.

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Greenspring Avenue and Beechwood Drive, Baltimore, MD 21215