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Sunday Favorites: Ross Allen's Reptile Island Closes for Good
Attraction has been open for nearly 85 years
|Ross Allen worked wowed tourists with his reptile demonstrations at Silver Springs for nearly 46 years before retiring.|
SILVER SPRINGS – Today marks the last day to visit Ross Allen Island in Silver Springs, which housed the Ross Allen Reptile Institute for almost 85 years. The institute was just a small cabin at the edge of the cypress swamp when it opened within the Silver Springs attraction in 1929.
Allen initially began his venture by wowing tourists with his daring snake handling and attempts to wrestle wild animals, but as the years passed, his focus shifted from demonstrations to scientific-based research. Instead of just handling rattlesnakes, Allen milked them for antivenin (or antivenom), and his studies of the American Alligator became the first of their kind.
Ensil Ross Allen, born January 2, 1908, began collecting snakes and other small animals at the age of 12, according to “Ross Allen in the beginning,” a blog by historian Jenny Hammer. Through historic brochures and documents, Hammer learned that Allen didn’t stay in his hometown of Pittsburgh Pa. for long, as his father was a newspaper and advertising specialist who took his family with him as he traveled to numerous cities across the U.S.
|The entrance to Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute at Silver Springs Attraction is shown in this photo postcard from the late 1930s or ’40s.|
Despite his upbringing by a business-savvy patriarch, Allen showed an early appreciation of science and biology. Instead of playing baseball with other boys his age, he set up a small museum in his home where he studied his various specimens.
However, Allen was far from anti-social and every new town the family moved to, seemed to bring about fresh experiences that would eventually aide him in his life’s work.
During a stint in Akron Ohio, Allen embraced the teachings of a local Boy Scouts chapter; in Middleton, he learned how to hunt, trap and several taxidermy skills from locals. When the Allen family moved to Florida's Winter Haven in 1924, Allen trapped his first alligator and first diamondback rattlesnake – a practice that would eventually establish him as a world-famous herpetologist.
Reptiles were Allen’s forte. He trapped and sold them in his spare time, when he wasn’t stuffing animals for his taxidermy business. In 1929, Allen acquired sixty gators with hopes of creating his reptile institute. Unfortunately, they escaped from their cages on his property and the residents of Winter Haven were soon side-stepping alligators that seemed to be everywhere. Hammer writes that they were on street corners, in storefronts and even managed to wriggle into the arcade.
Ross Allen imported Seminole natives from the
everglades for his “Indian Village” exhibit.
After the incident, the city manager ordered Allen to round up the gators and remove the reptiles or find other work. With the help of an investor, he relocated to the property adjacent to Silver Springs. Allen set up a taxidermy shop, and used his last five dollars to build a pen for the baby gators he hoped to sell to tourists.
By 1931, the business was well organized and prospering. Allen had a new business partner and seven new alligator penn, as well as three new snake pits were added. Allen began snake “milking” every Sunday within a roped corral. The milking of poisonous snakes also allowed Allen to provide venom to the medical profession. During WWII, the Institute, according to Hammer, provided 90 percent of all venom needed by the U.S. Navy and army doctors.
The pioneer cabin was built in 1935. Used as the entrance to Allen’s Reptile Institute, the cabin housed a gift shop and offices. In addition to the reptile exhibtis, Ross Allen imported Seminole natives from the everglades for his “Indian Village” exhibit.
Allen's studies of the American Alligator were among
the first of this important reptile.
As time went on the emphasis at the Reptile Institute shifted more to scientific observation instead of demonstrations. Allen's studies of the American Alligator were among the first of this important reptile. Snakes were milked for their venom to be sent around the world for research and the production of antivenin. (Antivenin Ross would himself need on occasion, having been bitten more than a dozen times in the process). Reptiles raised here were sold to zoos and other tourist attractions across the country.
Internationally he was known for his wild animal business, the development of antivenom and other research about reptiles. At one time, his wild animal business was located in downtown Ocala, something most people didn't know. He provided animals for a number of movies filmed in this area.
Snakes were milked for their venom to be sent around
the world for research and the production of antivenin.
There were rumors that Allen also was harassed by Silver Springs because he didn't want to sell. That issue finally was settled in July 1965 when Silver Springs Inc. bought out the reptile institute, one of the attraction's most popular components.
As part of the deal, Allen remained as director of the institute. There were the usual corporate claims there would be no changes, which turned out to be untrue. Allen's days at Silver Springs were numbered.
Ross Allen worked at Silver Springs for 46 years before leaving in 1975. In his honor, the largest island in Silver Springs was renamed Ross Allen Island in January 2000. Allen’s brought world-wide notoriety through reptile research he conducted at the institute. He died in 1981.
Ross Allen Island, formerly Cyprus Point Island, opened in November of 1974. It featured a man-made board walk area on a 5.5 acres that contained a revamped version of the Ross Allen Reptile Institute, which included three wooden amphitheaters for animal shows, and multiple exhibits for reptiles such as alligators, turtles and snakes.
Also, the Jungle Cruise boat dock was moved to the island soon after it opened, and had six new boats. They were electrically powered and could hold 70 people, with a speed of eight knots when fully loaded. When it opened, the island also had a gift shop, a snack shop and an open-air beer pavilion called Billy Bowlegs' Cafe.
The Island that has served as an educational stop through history for countless school groups within the tri-state and guest from all over the world will close permanently Monday March 18 as part of the transfer of Silver Springs to the state. But for the legions of Floridians and tourists who experienced Allen's vision, the memories will remain.
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