Without any fanfare, owners Gus and Debbie Ben David closed their World of Reptiles and Birds Park in June. For almost 20 years, the park located off Edgartown Road near the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary delighted adults and children alike. Its feathered and slithery collection included novelties such as China geese, African crowned cranes, a huge bullfrog, “Big Al,” the biggest snapping turtle on display in New England, and the largest pythons on display in the U.S.
“Basically, it wasn’t financially viable any longer, in proportion to the amount of time and work and effort that had to go into it,” Mr. Ben David told The Times in a phone call last week, when asked why he closed the park. “Maintaining wildlife like this is just extraordinary, and overhead costs had skyrocketed. Feed, liability insurances, everything has just gone up.” That also includes the cost of propane, he said, which he uses to heat the serpentarium during the winter.
A series of hot, humid summers has also been a menace to his type of business, Mr. Ben David said.
“If you’re in town, and you have the Flying Horses or a tee-shirt shop, people pray for rain, but when you have outside activities and you get these intense summers that we’ve had lately, my visitation has gone down over the years,” he said.
Although the park is closed, Mr. Ben David said he will continue to do educational programs. Over the summer he did presentations at all of the Island town libraries and a weekly program at the Winnetu Inn, as well as many private shows.
“I still have a lot of animals; I haven’t gotten rid of everything, by any means,” he said. “A lot of them went to private friends; some of them to other zoological institutions. I still have my eagle, my owls, and a number of program animals.”
Mr. Ben David graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and then the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, according to the park’s website. After serving in the U.S. Army in 1966, he began to build his wildlife collection. Mr. Ben David served as the director of the Mass Audubon Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary for 36 years, from 1969 to 2005. He continued his affiliation with Felix Neck after he retired, hosting visits to his park every year from children who attended the sanctuary’s Fern and Feather summer camp.
The Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha’s Vineyard recognized Mr. Ben David for his outstanding community service and achievement with its Award for Creative Living in 2004.
“My big thing is to educate young people and to get them to appreciate wildlife, which I will continue to do,” Mr. Ben David said. “That’s what I love to do.”
A noted aviculturist, falconer, and herpetologist, Mr. Ben David has been the “go to” guy for Islanders and local media who have questions about wild animals — or find them.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how many calls I get, because I still answer everybody’s animal calls,” he said. “I’m still one of only two licensed rehabilitators here on the Vineyard and continue to be highly involved with all of that stuff. The only thing that’s changed is I’m not open for admissions to come to the property.”
Mr. Ben David said it was a vicious cycle, keeping the park open six days a week during the summer, in order to get through the winter, over and over. And getting any time off was extremely difficult to arrange.
“I was captive,” Mr. Ben David said. “If you have any type of animal, let alone as many as we did, going away takes extensive planning.”
Since closing the park, he said he has enjoyed having time to go fishing with his brothers.
“So I’m going to sit back and revamp this winter; perhaps we’ll be doing just private shows next summer,” he said.