ALLENWOOD - What began as a hobby of collecting garter snakes in a backyard has grown into running a nationally-recognized compound housing more than 40 species of reptiles and amphibians.

On July 11, Clyde Peeling will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of Clyde Peeling's Reptiland.

Reptiland, which is located on Route 15 in Allenwood, opened July 11, 1964. Peeling had just returned from a five year stint in the U.S. Air Force to his hometown of Muncy when he decided he wanted to make his dream happen.

With just $2,000 in his pocket, Peeling asked his grandfather, Clyde Foust, for $10,000 to purchase a trailer and create a touring reptile show.

Foust said he would give him the loan, but would prefer if Peeling used it to buy a piece of land to build a zoo, which was Peeling's ultimate goal.

Peeling bought a former farmer's field with 600 feet of Route 15 frontage and began building his dream zoo.

Mail-order boa

By then, Peeling was already familiar with the ins and outs of a small zoo.

He had begun collecting reptiles as a boy, catching garter snakes and copperheads in his backyard. He had no formal reptile training before handling the copperheads.

He admired herptologist Ross Allen, and ordered a mail-order boa constrictor from Allen in 1956, which arrived from Florida via rail.

Peeling's dream of a reptile zoo was well-known in his community, and his high school business teacher tailored her curriculum toward his interest, creating exam questions representative of work he would do as a zoo owner.

During his high school years, Peeling got a job working at a small tourist attraction in Winfield called Reptiland. There, he acquired a variety of skills, like lecturing and caring for caged reptiles.

By the time Peeling acquired the lot in Allenwood, the owner of Reptiland had closed his business. He allowed Peeling to use the name.

"At the time, Disneyland was new and it was a fairly new idea to add 'land,'" he said. "But it was difficult to overcome the idea that we're a roadside zoo."

Lots of luck

At first, Peeling's Reptiland was little more than just that. He describes the early years as intense work.

"I just started and we scraped through for a few years," he said.

To cut costs, Peeling worked to build the structure by hand. He spent the first few months traveling to a sawmill near Hughesville, loading up the wood, and bringing it to Reptiland to build fences.

Visitors were scarce in his early years, and he can recall a day when Reptiland brought in $300 and he thought he would never do better.

"When you're young, you're full of enthusiasm and optimism," said Peeling. "I was more lucky than anything."

As word of mouth traveled and visitors grew, Peeling reinvested his earnings back into the business by adding new reptiles and new buildings. And when times were rough, he worked in the off season as a traveling lecturer.

As the years passed, Reptiland became known as more than just a roadside attraction. Today, more than 60,000 people visit each year, and only 60 percent of visitors live within a couple hundred miles.

"People know we're here," said Peeling.

Sons in the business

As time passed, Peeling's life priorities became clearer. He met and married his wife, Dianne, and together they have three children.

Peeling credits his family for Reptiland's success.

"My wife was always very supportive and willing to take care of the kids," he said.

His two sons are both involved in the family business. Chad studied zoo management at Susquehanna University and now serves as the head of zoological operations. Elliott was fascinated with design and construction, and turned his love into a position designing exhibits in Reptiland's on-site fabrication shop.

Peeling's daughter, Whitney, is not involved with the family business, but she did use her stories of growing up and working at a reptile zoo to land her first job in the publishing industry.

Peeling said he's also had many talented employees and friends that deserve credit for the longevity of the zoo.

"I surrounded myself with a lot of talented people," said Peeling. "We built this place on their talents and employee contributions."

By using the skills and knowledge of the people around him, Peeling accomplished one of his biggest goals.

In 1986, Reptiland became accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, a distinction shared with only seven other zoos in Pennsylvania, and less than 10 percent of all animal exhibitors nationwide.

Peeling said the accreditation was a sign that he was finally recognized as more than just a roadside tourist attraction.

Ensuring his animals are properly cared for helped Peeling achieve this goal. He said that although conservation is not his primary goal at Reptiland due to the small scale of the property, he is active worldwide in ecological conservation. Reptiland also takes part in animal protection efforts, such as a current project where the zoo houses frogs that are in danger of extinction due to a fungus spreading through the Amazon.

Celebration Friday

With 50 years under his belt, Peeling shows no signs of slowing down. Reptiland recently added Komodo dragons to its growing list of reptiles and amphibians.

"Getting Komodos was a challenge," said Peeling.

A committee handles all Komodo dragons in the United States and designates which pairs can be bred together to avoid inbreeding. To acquire offspring from an official breeding, Reptiland had to go through a rigorous qualification process.

"We had to commit to building a first-class facility," said Peeling.

Projects in the queue for Reptiland include rehabilitating the facade, adding a structure that would house 50 to 100 crocodiles and constructing a building devoted solely to tortoises.

Though visitors are rolling through the doors steadily now, Peeling said his central Pennsylvania location still imposes limitations on growth.

"Part of the limit here is we sit in a very small market," he said. "The market is not big enough to support a full-fledged zoo."

Peeling added that this is not the only reason for his decision to not incorporate more mammals into Reptiland.

"I'm more interested in reptiles and other amphibians," he said.

Peeling's love of these animals does not appear to have diminished over the past 50 years, and he has the same fervor for his small business as when he first began.

"It doesn't seem like all that long ago that we opened the doors," said Peeling. "Time just slips by."

Peeling will host a celebration at Reptiland from 7:30 to 11 p.m. Friday with food, live music and animal demonstrations throughout the evening. Tickets are $25 and are available at www.reptiland.com.