Snakes Downunder, Queensland
Ian Jenkins has just finished showing me his crocodiles. My heart is still beating slightly faster than usual. I am at his small Queensland zoo near the town of Childers and because I am here to write about it, Ian thought it would be a good idea to let me into the cage with an enormous male crocodile called Macca. Macca didn’t think it was such a good idea, though. Face-to-face, just metres away, I felt the adrenaline start to pump as the crocodile shifted his weight and stared at me. But Ian had been so casual and calm. It was like he was in the backyard with his pet dog.
It’s strange, this familiarity and comfort around a killer reptile that weighs hundreds of kilograms. You don’t see it often. Probably most famously we all saw it with Steve Irwin – the late Australian Crocodile Hunter. I can’t help but ask Ian about him.
“I never met the fellow,” he answers.
“I would love to have met him. That enthusiasm I think is infectious and he got reptiles into people’s living rooms. Sometimes he could be a bit showy but perhaps to get that audience you had to be showy.”
Steve Irwin’s zoo, Australia Zoo, isn’t too far down the road from here (just 200 kilometres, which is a short drive by Queensland standards). It started in much the same way that Ian’s zoo, Snakes Downunder, began. And both men clearly share a love of animals that don’t fit in the friendly or cuddly categories. It’s no surprise that people have tried to make a comparison between Steve Irwin and Ian Jenkins – but Ian doesn’t see it.
“I’m just not that sort of person,” he tells me when I ask about it.
“I haven’t got that personality so you wouldn’t ever dream of being Steve Irwin. If I can just continue on a little bit – not in the same vein – but make reptiles and other scary animals a little bit entertaining and informative and show the other side, then I’ll be happy.”
I get the feeling Ian is being a bit modest when he says he doesn’t have the personality. It’s true, he doesn’t jump around and throw out exclamations as though they’re verbal lassoes. But he’s as engaging as anyone could hope for. While he’s telling me about the small turtles that live in one of the enclosures, he climbs over the wall and drops down to the pond. Without flinching, he dips his whole arm into the murky muddy waters and reaches around until he grasps one of the animals and pulls it out to show me.
Unlike the invitation into the crocodile enclosure, Ian’s not just doing this because I’m writing about Snakes Downunder. This is the style that he and his wife Barb have cultivated for the zoo over the years. It’s never chaotically busy so the staff are usually able to walk around with visitors or talk to them when they get to a particular animal enclosure. There’s always more than just a display to look at – there’s also the chance to chat and have things demonstrated.
“We like the personal side of things,” Ian explains.
“Because we’re small, we always get comments that visitors like the personal side, they like chatting to people. You can’t afford to do that if you’re a big zoo. Australia Zoo is a fantastic international zoo and we need an international zoo in Queensland but you can’t get one on one with the public, you can’t afford to. We don’t ever want to be big.”
The reptile park story
Ian came to Childers 30 years ago from the UK on a working holiday and met Barb here. Three years later they were married and have been in the region together ever since. The site we’re on today was originally intended to be an orchard and macadamia nuts and mangoes have been grown here since the Jenkins bought the land. But seven years ago the reptile park opened after Ian’s hobby of doing snake tours for school groups expanded. The small snake arena had been here for six years before the expansions – but Ian’s love for them goes back much further. He thinks it started when he was a child growing up in Kenya.
“As a four year old I was handling snakes. I’ve always been comfortable with them. It wasn’t until I got to Australia I handled venomous snakes, though. But I’ve had it in my blood, I think.”
Stepping into the snake house at Ian’s zoo feels for some like stepping into a haunted house. The harsh Queensland sun is replaced by a dim glow and the temperature drops, as though a ghost is passing through. The interior walls of the house are all windows – but windows into the deepest fears of some. The world’s most venomous snakes live beyond the windows in their new homes and are just centimetres away from visitors. They slither, climb the walls, flick their tongues out. The whole time you feel like they are watching you.
“A lot of people are scared stiff of touching a snake but they’ll come here specifically to get over that fear,” Ian tells me.
“We’ve had people with a snake around their shoulders, tears streaming down their eyes. They’re not going to go out and buy a snake as a pet but they’ve overcome that fear. So it does sound all warm and fuzzy but it does make you feel quite good that you’ve got someone to overcome their fears.”
Snakes Downunder certainly has that personal touch and an emphasis on connecting people with the animals. It also employs locals to work at the zoo and everything is done from love. It doesn’t feel like a business – it feels like it’s been created organically for visitors to appreciate the reptiles.
“It is a love and it’s something that Barb and I have talked about a lot,” Ian tells me as we’re finishing up.
“It’s got to be a business, you can’t run it at a loss. I don’t know how not-for-profit organisations work but we’re a not-for-much-profit organisation. But you’ve got to be making a living and we’ve got to employ people. I’ve been here for 30 years and Childers has given a lot to me so it’s nice to give something back.”
Ian pauses and looks for my reaction.
“That sounds a bit corny, doesn’t it?”
Perhaps… but so did a lot of what Steve Irwin said.
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Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Queensland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.