There was no grace period for the visitors entering Al Wolf’s Sebastopol house, which doubles as the Sonoma County Reptile Rescue center. Just minutes after introductions were exchanged, Wolf had dropped four rattlesnakes onto the floor of the garage, grinning widely as his guests backed briskly into a corner.
As he whisked the rattling snakes back into the pen, he explained his ambitious goal of training people to not fear snakes.
“What I try really hard to do is just teach people a rattlesnake is just another animal,” Wolf said, as the nervous guests nodded.
For 23 years, the retired San Francisco Zookeeper has devoted his life to finding homes for abandoned and recovered reptiles. Often, that home is no further than his own driveway – his four bedroom home in rural Sebastopol is overrun with critters.
“That’s what my home is now,” Wolf said gesturing to a room filled with glass tanks holding exotic snakes, lizards and tarantulas. “There’s not any part of this house that isn’t part of the rescue now.”
Wolf launched the Sonoma County Reptile Rescue more than two decades ago at the urging of the Sonoma County Humane Society. At first, his mission was education. But then more and more critters came in with no place to go. Soon, they had the run of the joint.
In the back yard, legions of tortoises roam freely, munching on the 200 pounds of donated produce Wolf collects every couple of days from a nearby market. Large cages house colorful parrots who make growling sounds, reminiscent of his pack of small dogs.
“This lawn I haven’t mowed in 12 years,” Wolf said. “This is what the tortoises do.”
In the back pasture, a pair of bison rolled in the dust, emerging in a full gallop as soon as a blue tub of food presented itself.
“I believe every animal deserves a chance, I don’t care if it’s a rattlesnake or a spider,” said Wolf. “We don’t have to kill them. Give them a life somewhere they have a place.”
Every year Wolf and his volunteers respond to dozens of rattlesnake calls. The snakes are quickly rounded-up and taken to the center, where they live in cases in a converted garage. The center runs education classes at schools where snakes are the stars of the show.
Often, the animals come to him. Wolf keeps bins in front of his house where people drop-off everything from small pond turtles to livestock.
“I’ve had people tie horses up to my gate,” he said. “I’ve had goats and pigs and llamas dropped off.”
Wolf’s home is something of a wild kingdom. He said any variety of animal seen on TV has probably been at his home one time or another. He’s taken in all varieties of venomous snakes, alligators and poisonous spiders.
This year wolf logged his 12th rattlesnake bite, which didn’t require hospitalization. His arms bear the scars of fangs, bites and various animal scratches. All part of the job, he says. Still Wolf said he’s more freaked out by the county’s bad drivers than poisonous snakes.
The thing that bothers Wolf the most, is when he sees animals being treated badly. He nearly comes to tears as he describes visiting the house of a cat-hoarder – or seeing animals kept in squalid conditions. On more than one occasion, he’s bluntly told people they weren’t meant to be pet owners.
More often than not, he sees animals purchased as small cute pets, only to be abandoned in lakes and forests after they’ve grown too big. Wolf does his best to find homes for all of them. When he can’t, he takes them in.
Often times, the animals aren’t even alive. Although he’s never shot an animal, he’s been given hundreds of stuffed animal heads which line every room. It’s a rare perk for the rescue’s director, who hasn’t collected a paycheck in twelve years and relies on donations and volunteers to operate the organization.
“When you run a rescue, you see the best of the best and the worst of the worst,” Wolf said. “You gotta be tough.”