OWATONNA, Minn. (WCCO) – The fear of snakes is one of the most common phobias out there, but it’s never been an issue for Jamie Pastika. As a young boy in Virginia, Minnesota, he was fascinated by the garter snakes and frogs he found around his yard.
“Just something about them,” he said, “ever since I was a small child. The way they move, just watching them feed, it’s just an amazing thing to watch some of the behaviors they have.”
Now, a few decades later, he and his family have accumulated one of the largest collections of reptiles in the Midwest. It’s called the Reptile and Amphibian Discovery — or RAD Zoo. It’s in a warehouse in Owatonna, just across the interstate from Cabela’s.
It’s a dream “in progress” for Pastika, who worked as a zookeeper at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Jacksonville Zoo — among others.
“I told my wife when we started dating that I wanted to move back to Minnesota to start a reptile zoo up,” he said. “And she was on board. She’s a zookeeper as well.”
Their family-owned and operated zoo already features more than a hundred types of snakes, lizards and other reptiles. The star attraction is a 12-foot alligator, known as Big Al.
“I used to take care of him at the Jacksonville Zoo down in Florida,” Pastika said. “And according to their records, he had been there since 1945, so they got him during World War II. He does well up here. He’s been feeding so well during the summer. We go in there and we drop a whole chicken in his mouth on the weekends and he just swallows it in one gulp.”
There are even some reptiles that come out for petting time. The Pastikas assure visitors, they only bring out the nicer ones.
“Some animals, they don’t have a good temperament, and they will never go out,” said Melissa Pastika. “They will always stay on exhibit. But then, some of them, like Sunbeam (an albino python) are excellent.”
The Pastikas are raising two daughters with an appreciation for reptiles.
“They love the animals,” Melissa said. “They just jump right in. And even Kayla, who’s a year old, really likes the alligators already. That’s her favorite, I think.”
As the girls get older, the Pastikas hope to bring many more reptiles to Minnesota, because their dreams are much bigger than this.
“Our goal is to become the biggest reptile zoo in the world,” Jamie said.