By Dan Harkins
DELEON SPRINGS - Carl Barden has about 800 poisonous and hungry snakes to feed every week at his Reptile Discovery Center in DeLand. That amounts to about 2,000 rodents that meet the darkness every month.
Finding fresh and healthy food for the snakes he regularly empties of venom at the operation is a hassle he says will keep him up at night sometimes.
"Sometimes I sit in bed at night and actually wonder, 'What am I going to do when Larry Groskey retires?'" Mr. Barden muses, without breaking into a laugh. "He's very crucial to our operation here."
Larry Groskey, 65, is the rat man he's talking about, a now-retired commercial drywall contractor who's owned a tucked-away mouse (and rat) warehouse off Reed Street that Mr. Barden hopes will magically stay open forever, continuing to grow as it has to serve his still-growing legion of venom producers.
But Mr. Groskey says that's not happening. This is as large as he needs to go in order to support his true passion, the real reason for the rodent operation's existence in the first place: Larry's Reptile Farm, home since 1999 to thousands of big snakes, turtles, alligators and iguanas that expect to be fed on schedule in order to maintain an appropriately docile demeanor.
"That's always been my goal, since I was 10," he said. "It's never had anything to do with the rodents. I've always been a reptile guy. My parents were always deathly afraid of reptiles and I never was."
There's no sign out front here, only a bamboo-lined drive that leads to a small one near the operation.
He's zoned for agriculture, so to advertise an attraction like this wouldn't be legal. Rezoning to commercial would lead to thousands of dollars more in property taxes.
"Why do I want to go and do a thing like that?" he asked.
He's not all that interested in school groups and gawkers anymore, anyway. Reptile lovers looking for food should just put the phone down right now, he said. No new customers.
"Everyone I take care of here are personal friends of mine," Mr. Groskey said, "people I've been dealing with for 10, 20 years or more. And in turn, they give me reptiles. ... This is like my lifelong hobby, an expensive hobby."
There's not really much money to be made on the reptile farm, he said, which has swelled at times to more than two dozen big snakes like anacondas and pythons, several hundred species of land and water turtles, and a slowly growing family of alligators in an acre-long, fenced-in pond out back.
Right now, he's got about 15 big snakes, an assortment of other reptiles, a small pond for his 12-foot rescue alligator named Big Boy, and more than a dozen alligators that have taken up residence in his "Crocodile Lagoon," too.
"I have more trouble keeping things out than I ever have getting them in," he said.
The alligators start heading toward the small dock as soon as the door clanks on the chain-link fence surrounding the pond. He said he started the pond to house all the turtles he was donated and baby alligators just started crawling in under the fence.
"They know what time it is," he says during a recent visit, shaking the bucket of dog food he brings down every afternoon before turning in for the day.
In Big Boy's pond nearby, Mr. Groskey has just placed a fawn that recently became road kill. The gator didn't seem to mind how it got there.
"It's all part of the equation," Mr. Groskey says, summing up life's circle.
This is the kind of set-up he's always wanted, ever since he was 10 and hunting water snakes and painted turtles in the creek behind his Dayton, Ohio, home. His collection has been growing ever since his family moved to Altamonte Springs in 1958.
"I would tell my parents, 'I want a lot of reptiles and a reptile farm and they didn't want to have anything to do with that idea," he said.
They weren't the only ones to have a problem with his admitted obsession.
By the time Mr. Groskey had a home and a second wife in Deltona, he had about 75 snakes in the garage and nearly as many turtles wandering the backyard.
His third wife didn't like the arrangement either.
So in 1999, Mr. Groskey bought this place out in the country with retirement earnings he had tucked away. His third divorce was finalized a week before.
His third wife, he recalled, "said it was gonna come down to, either it's me or the reptiles; one of us is gonna go.' And I said, 'Let me tell you right now, I'm gonna have my reptiles and you're gonna be gone."
It was a common refrain.
"All three of my ex-wives were afraid of snakes and didn't want to have anything to do with it," he said. "I believe the reptiles were the reason I got divorced each time.
So he's stayed focused on his reptiles. To feed them, he started raising mice and rats in a 10-by-20-foot shed that has been expanded five times since then.
His own snakes wouldn't be the only customers. Currently he's got 750 trays of mice and 250 trays of rats. In each tray are one male, two females and as many babies as their love can muster.
Since he won't expand any further, he says he recently told Mr. Barden that he would soon have to end his contract so he wouldn't have to terminate all his others.
"I said, 'Carl, the choices I have now, it's either keep you and kick everybody else to the curb or the other way around," he said. "I told him, 'I'm not gonna put all my eggs in one basket. I've operated for over 30 years. I've got the blessings to do what I'm doing here. I'm not going to ruin that."
Mr. Barden isn't happy about that.
"A reliable and constant source of healthy rodents is of huge consequence to us," he said. "This is gonna hurt."