This is what it's like to spend a night in a reptile house

Morning came with a stirring above my head. I sat up, looked around.

There was the snake, an Eastern diamondback rattler.

For a moment, human and Crotalus adamanteus regarded each other without moving. Then the view triggered an ancient impulse on the part of this Homo sapien. I twitched, then remembered: The snake is behind Plexiglas, one of the first residents of Zoo Atlanta’s new reptile house, aka the Scaly Slimy Spectacular.

Zoo Atlanta invited 100 people to stay overnight Friday to preview its newest attraction. It will open Thursday. More than two years in construction, the building is a soaring, light-filled testimony to planning and fundraising. It cost $19 million and features 67 exhibits. They range from local creatures — Mr. Diamondback is a resident of Georgia, for example — to exotics such as Cuban crocodiles. It has rocks and waterfalls, places light and dark.

And, for 15 hours, it contained two of Georgia’s wildest creatures: Reuben Davis, 14, and kid brother Sam, 11. The zoo said it was OK for them to spend the night so long as their handler came along.

I wondered how the boys would like their nocturnal excursion. Like all 14-year-olds, Reuben likes to exude nonchalance toward all things that interest his old man. Sam, closing in on 12, takes cues from his brother.

Turns out, the zoo still fascinates them — their dad, too.

We showed up at 6 p.m. Friday, sleeping bags and pillows tucked under our arms, late-night snacks shoved in a book bag. Others spilled out of cars and joined us in the Georgia Extreme room.

The space lives up to its name, for every animal is a superlative in some fashion. For example, the Eastern indigo snake, found in South Georgia, is the largest nonvenomous snake native to North America; it can hit 8 feet long. On the other end of the spectrum is the bog turtle, all 4 inches of him. And let us not forget the two-toed Amphiuma; largest salamander in America, this thing can reach nearly 4 feet. One may be living in your backyard ditch.

Zoo employee Leonard Miles was our guide for the night. He corralled the Davises and about a dozen others into a group.

Sam raised his hand. “Can we throw some apples to the gorillas?” Years ago, he’d had an opportunity to do just that.

“Sorry, no,” Miles said. “The gorillas are asleep, anyway.”

Instead, our venture focused on cold-blooded creatures. Among them: the black mamba and the alligator snapping turtle.

A word about Mr. Mamba: If ever a creature inspired dread in the human soul, it must be he. Or she. Long, lithe, lethal, the mamba is native to the African continent. My first memory of the mamba: Tarzan tussled with one in a long-ago black-and-white movie.

Sam stared at the snake. “Most-poisonous snake in the world,” I said.

Sam, who went to summer zoo camps for years, shrugged. “I know.”

The alligator snapper? Spike-backed, beady-eyed, ill-humored, with a tongue that wiggles like a worm, it is the stuff of bad dreams. Reuben exchanged glares with it. “Chomp,” I said. Reuben rolled his eyes.

It wasn’t all science and the old man’s bad jokes. We stopped at a table loaded with cupcakes laced with green icing — the foundation, Miles said, for creating sugary frogs. Reuben abandoned teen angst long enough to create a horned frog: marshmallow horns, M&M eyes, Twizzler lips. He downed it in four quick bites. Remnants of the frog lingered on his lips. I reached out my hand to brush icing off his cheek. He smacked it away.

On we went. Rinca, a young Komodo dragon, was a sensation. Small wonder: The Komodo, like the snapping turtle, is a walking reminder of an ancient time when big, big animals walked the Earth. Rinca regarded us with curious — hungry? — eyes.

Another hit: visiting the red panda. A half-moon rode in a windy sky when we reached its dark habitat. We saw nothing — until we put on the heat-sensitive goggles. There, in the tree, was a warm glow — the red panda, moving cautiously in the limbs.

“Dad!” Sam cried. “It’s like ‘Predator’!” (For the uninitiated, the 1987 film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger on the run from an alien hunter. It involves fire and arrows and bullets and, yes, heat-sensitive imagery. The Davis boys give it four thumbs-up.)

Other stops followed: the emerald tree monitor, already in its new digs; a visit to pet Grits, a young American alligator; and to touch Cooper, an amiable Eastern indigo snake.

Our trek ended back where we began, at the Georgia Extreme room. About 60 people pulled out mats and sleeping bags. In adjoining space, the rest of the overnighters bedded down.

In moments, Sam was snoring softly. Reuben dove into his sleeping bag and grumbled about sleeping on the floor.

Me? I dozed fitfully. Perhaps it had something to do with my neighbor, just over my head.

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