Snakes on a beach
Ten years ago, Marnick Croes had to choose between his job and the 200 reptiles living in his home. He went with the reptiles and now runs one of Blankenberge's top tourist attractions
Blankenberge’s serpentarium is one of the most popular of its kind in Europe
Croes had been obsessed with all things scaly since he was very young. He had a book on animals that he was too little to read, but he looked at the pictures. “I always went back to the snakes, crocodiles and sharks,” he says.
The snakes found their way into his Blankenberge home, along with lizards and frogs. Eventually, he had so many, he was spending eight hours a day caring for them (and breeding the rats to feed them) – this in addition to his full-time job as a floor supervisor in a factory. “I did it for 10 years,” says Croes. “I had no social life, and I could never go on holiday. Who would volunteer to look after 200 reptiles? Some of them were venomous.”
Something had to change. Croes had done an educational exhibition at a nearby theme park with his reptiles and dreamed of opening a serpentarium – or reptile zoo. In what sounds like quite a long shot, he went to the mayor’s office and pitched the idea of a serpentarium in Blankenberge with him in charge. The city liked the idea: a year-round, all-weather attraction in a beach town that depends on tourists. With the city’s help, Croes opened the serpentarium with his own collection in 1998.
The serpentarium is now re-opened after several months of renovations, and it also has a new owner, having been purchased by the KMDA, the organisation that owns the Antwerp Zoo and Planckendael animal park in Mechelen.
The attraction on Blankenberge’s boardwalk pulls in 70,000 visitors a year, about 20,000 more than any other serpent zoo in Europe. Croes attributes this to the natural atmosphere: built out of concrete that looks like real stones and boulders and decorated top to bottom in artificial greenery, this is the royal treatment for such animals, who are usually lined up in plain glass terrariums, and for visitors, who feel like they are wandering through the jungle. Terrariums are built into the concrete walls, adding to a more natural atmosphere.
Plants have to be artificial because the reptiles “destroy everything,” explains Croes. “Real plants with cobras are a disaster.”
This is fairly evident with the articulated python, the largest such snake in the serpentarium. Six metres long is enough to make an impression, but it’s their girth that is really astonishing. The two weigh about 100 kilograms each and “eat four rabbits in one meal, every two weeks”.
But this is not the snake to be afraid of: that honour goes to the Black Mamba, “the fastest, most dangerous snake in the world,” says Croes. “In nature, when you run away, other snakes just stay put. But the mamba goes after you. It’s the only snake that will keep on attacking.”
The serpentarium’s mamba is a lot of fun – very active during the day and following your movements as it slithers around behind the glass.
Still, though, even the mamba is not the most venomous snake at the serpentarium. The Death Adder packs a more powerful bite. It’s smaller and doesn’t move very fast, which is why it doesn’t have a mamba-size reputation.
The serpentarium is also home to a number of lizards and frogs, from the teeny to the massive. Each comes with an info card in Dutch, French and German, and the names of the creatures are usually also in English. Many of them are animals you will never have seen before and certainly cannot find anywhere else in Belgium. This includes one of Croes’ favourites, the Sungazer, a spiny lizard from South Africa that wields its tail like a club to ward off predators.
One of my favourites is the Giant Leaf Frog from the Amazon Rainforest – one of those species that people lick because its mildly poisonous skin secretions make you high. I’m more interested in the way it looks, though – completely angular, with this huge mouth that is always frowning and eyes that are droopy. It looks like it’s had a bit too much of its own skin secretions the night before.
The serpentarium is also home to a few small crocodiles who co-habit with large turtles. (“Crocodiles won’t eat turtles unless they can swallow them whole,” assures Croes.) They have a lovely watery habitat to themselves, not far from an open-air iguana house. The serpentarium diversifies its exhibits to appeal to visitors, and it works fantastically. They have also chosen a mix of day- and night-dwellers, so something is always awake and moving around.
Most such zoos also house spiders and scorpions, so this serpentarium followed suit. There is an impressive array of tarantulas from different parts of the world, including the Mexican Blonde, which is an expert web-spinner. “It’s a home; they live in them,” Croes explains. “The webs can be beautiful sometimes, very big with different compartments.”
Whatever you do, don’t miss the Bird Spider. That shouldn’t be too hard since it’s 20 centimetres leg to leg.
I am delighted with Croes’ response to my question “has anything ever escaped?” One time, yes – a gecko. The brightly coloured lizards with the suction feet are very fast and can run on any surface – hence, very difficult to catch. It ran around loose inside the serpentarium for a year – feeding on crickets that sometimes escape from tarantula cages – until Croes finally caught it. “But I thought about him running loose for a whole year, and I couldn’t put him back. So I let him go.”
And he runs around the serpentarium to this very day.