Dean Ripa talks snakes and Sinatra

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 13, 2013

One of my most memorable interviews ever was with Dean Ripa, who owns a serpentarium in Wilmington. Uber-talented and smart, with a big streak of eccentric, I loved sharing time with him. How often do you meet somebody who’s survived seven bushmaster bites? I didn’t include it in the column I wrote at the time (excerpt below). I recall that we were talking about snake venom being used to treat cancer. When he found out that my daughter Quinn had a brain tumor, he told me he could get me some venom if we needed it. I’m pretty sure he was serious. Maybe not. Anyway, I loved him for that. I was kind of shocked when he opened a glass enclosure in the serpentarium to spray a highly poisonous snake with water, leaving only air between us and and the snake. Here’s some of what I wrote about Dean.

You don’t encounter many people who live life completely on their own terms, the way Dean seems to have done from a very young age.
Do you like snakes? Go catch some and sneak ‘em into your parents’ house. Hate high school? Drop out. Want to study in Italy with a painter you admire? Just ask. Want to meet William Burroughs? Write him a letter and send him a draft of your work. Want to travel the world? Marry exotic women? Just do it. And if some venom finds its way into your bloodstream along the way, get over it, and don’t hold it against the snakes.
I had fun talking to Dean, who is surprisingly unguarded as an interview subject. I’m not sure how we got on the subject, but we swapped stories about our brushes with criminally crazy people who are now locked up. I told him the story of a kid I used to play with at my grandmother’s house named Tommy (now Tammy), who committed an act so outrageous I wouldn’t dare describe it here. Dean liked my gory tidbit and matched it with his own, telling me about a guy he knew (with the unlikely name of Scott Pickles) who killed his entire family.
As Dean showed me his creepy — but masterfully executed — paintings hanging in his apartment over the serpentarium, I told him they struck me as the sort of art one might expect of the Scott Pickleses of the world. His response: “If Scott Pickles had made art like this, he wouldn’t have had to kill anyone.”
After seeing Dean’s paintings, it was hard to reconcile them as coming from the same guy who sings not death metal but Sinatra ballads— and quite beautifully.
I like the fact that Dean isn’t itching to write about his own exploits. In this day and age when so many writers consider every mundane aspect of their lives worthy of sharing, it’s refreshing that he considers his own life boring and would rather write fiction.
I wouldn’t be surprised if my old playmate Tommy/Tammy showed up as a character in one of Dean’s yet-to-be written novels.
When I asked him about the time he thought he was going to die after a particularly nasty bushmaster bite, he surprised me by saying he wasn’t prepared. After a lifelong flirtation with death, he lay there regretting plenty of things, he said.
One reason I’d like to read his autobiography, if he can be cajoled into writing it, is to discover what those regrets are.
On the way out of his apartment, I noticed a machete rolled up in a carpet by the door. I think I saw some drops of dried blood, but I’m not sure and I didn’t ask.