Cape Fear Serpentarium

About the author

Dean Ripa has changed the way we look at bushmasters.  Once thought to be a single species, in 1994 he challenged this idea with morphological and geographic evidence. The mt-DNA work of Zamudio and Greene (1997) later confirmed Ripa's view, and today the bushmasters are recognized as three distinct species.

He has since revised the distribution range of at least two bushmaster species, and revealed the likely existence of a "new" species, Lachesis acrochorda (for which L. stenophrys and L. muta were long mistaken) indigenous to eastern Panamá and NW South America.

Most of what is known about bushmaster behavior and morphology comes from Dean Ripa.  Specialized courtship rituals, male combat, among other reproductive behavior were recorded by Ripa for the first time.  In addition, his studies of their predatory strategies have changed our views about these snakes' habits, form and size.  Prior to his work, the bushmaster's great size was accounted for by the "large predator = large prey" hypothesis.  In a genus already rich with anomalies, Ripa discovered quite the opposite.  Pound per pound, the world's largest viper had the smallest prey-size swallowing capacity of almost any snake.  Once thought to be a sluggish, solitary reptile that fed infrequently, he revealed it to be a highly active frequent feeder on small prey, with recognizably social behavior among its own species and even a commensal relationship with the large rodents that construct its underground refuge.

Dean Ripa was the first herpetologist in the world to watch bushmasters mate, and discovered the unique behavioral usage of the bushmaster's dorsal ridge and rasp-like scales:  An adjunct to courtship, the male bushmaster uses the sharp scales to stimulate the female, inverting his body on top of hers and, using fiddling motions, literally "sawing" himself against her.  His observations of nesting females confirmed that bushmasters really do brood their eggs until hatching, a rare example of maternal care among venomous snakes.  Long before most zoos had learned to keep these difficult animals alive, Dean Ripa reproduced two species of bushmaster for the first time in captivity, the Central American bushmaster, and the Blackheaded Bushmaster.  Almost all captive collections of these species in the U.S are related to his stock.  He also produced the world's first bushmaster hybrid— "recreating" an extinct ancestor to the existing species, whose ancestors were separated for millions of years by a mountain chain in Central America.  Ripa spent years living in the Neotropics studying and collecting bushmasters in their native habitats, and credits his success with breeding them from this experience.
Ripa's work has not been without hazard.  He has survived an amazing five envenomings by bushmasters, making him "the most bushmaster bitten person of all time." In one Costa Rican study, bushmaster bite was shown to kill an estimated 80 percent of its victims even with antivenom treatment!  In The Bushmaster (Genus Lachesis Daudin 1803), Silent Fate of the American Tropics, the author provides an intimate, first hand look at what it's like to nearly die from bushmaster bite, and challenges our preconceptions of what the venom of this "most lethal of all vipers" does to the human system.

Catching King Cobra in Sumatra
Collecting King Cobra in Sumatra.

Dean Ripa has collected snakes in the distant backwaters of 35 countries.  Over a decade before snake-wrangling  emcees on TV made international careers in front of cameras, stage crews and first-aid "safety nets", Dean Ripa was catching deadly snakes alone in remote places, far from medical help and human settlement, bringing his captures back to America alive and unharmed, studying their life habits and reproducing them in captivity.  Dean's adventures so captivated famous author William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) that he immortalized some of Dean's experiences in his final novel, The Western Lands.   "Dean Ripa. . ." he wrote, "could have stepped from a novel by Joseph Conrad." 

Caught King Cobra
Collecting King Cobra in Sumatra

Caught up in military coups in Third World hells, tribal wars in Irian Jaya, tribal sorcery over rare artifacts in Zaire, lost in Amazon jungles, chased by corrupt officials, cocaine lords, and the priests of an Ashanti chief who blamed him for the chief's death from snakebite.  Infected by malaria, dysentery, schistosomiasis, and bitten by ten venomous snakes in the process, Dean Ripa lived a life of unrestrained adventure and not a little terror before settling down to breed deadly snakes for middle-aged relaxation. 
His many field captures include: king cobras, spitting cobras, forest cobras, green mambas, kraits, gaboon and rhinoceros vipers, many lancehead species, three species of bushmasters and dozens of others. 

Today, Dean Ripa maintains the largest and most complete collection of bushmasters in the world, and is the major supplier of captive-born bushmasters to the international zoo and research market.  You may have seen him and some of his snakes on the Discovery Channel's "The Ultimate Guide to Snakes."

Visitors to his private collection include the Nobel Peace Prize winning President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, film stars Christopher Lloyd, Fred Ward, and herpetologists from all over the world.  In addition to his writings on snakes, his literary efforts have also received attention.  His essays have appeared in collections by Gary Indiana (novelist and critic for the Village Voice).  In 1989 he collaborated with literary legend William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) on portions of his last novel, "The Western Lands."