At the Phoenix Herpetological Society in northern Scottsdale, Dan Marchand sets his alarm to go off every three hours after 10 p.m.
He’s done this every night this since mid-November, when the temperatures dipped lower than 50 degrees.
This might sound like torture for the rest of us, but for Marchand and the his staff, it’s a matter of life or death for the reptiles inhabiting the facility – especially with temperatures hitting the freezing mark at night lately.
Each time Marchand wakes up, he triple-checks the temperature of the water that the society’s crocodiles sleep in. The society has the nation’s second-largest collection of crocodiles on display.
“Their water temperatures have to be maintained above 65 degrees,” said Marchand, the executive curator at PHS. “So, I have to literally walk the property.”
The property is massive. With 2.5 acres to roam, well over 100 crocs are scattered among 42 ponds.
The reptiles housed indoors have their own heat lamps. The buildings’ sensors alert Marchand and the society staff via their phones if the temperature has changed drastically.
“The ones I don’t get notification are the crocodile ponds,” Marchand said. “If anything fails, I’ve got to be able to replace whatever failed and get everything back online. You get their waters heated again; otherwise it could be detrimental to the animal.”
The more than 400 giant Galápagos tortoises keep warm inside five large, heated enclosures.
“We check those at the end of the day,” Marchand said. “We make sure all the tortoises are in their buildings, and so unless we have a power outage or something like that, they’ll be fine.”
The Phoenix Herpetological Society is a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating reptiles. Since its founding in 2001, Marchand has spearheaded the nighttime care during the cold, winter months.
He’s been working with reptiles much longer than that.
“I grew up out here since I was knee-high,” Marchand said. “When I was younger, there were no malls. There were no places to go to other than out here in the desert. I used to look for reptiles. That was just a fascination I always had.”
Marchand still lives in the house his father built in 1967 – it sits on the society's property.
It wasn’t until around 2000 that Marchand discovered exotic and illegally owned reptiles were being taken away from people and euthanized because the Arizona Fish and Game Department had no place to put them.
“We asked Fish and Game if we can hold them and then try to find homes for them, so at least they can live out their life as best they could,” Marchand said. “They agreed to that and then we’ve worked with them since then.”
Thus, PHS was born.
In addition to caring for reptiles and finding homes for them, PHS believes “Conservation Begins with Education” and provides learning opportunities for students and people of all ages via its various educational programs.
Last year alone, PHS increased its educational programs by 72 percent, and its outreach program reached 250,000 people.
According to Katelyn Garcia, PHS’ outreach and educational administrator, the nonprofit increased its programs by producing ads on Google through a grant from the search engine company.
Among those new programs is teaching kids about the importance of reptile prosthetics – such as the artificial tail on a 12-year-old alligator named Mr. Stubbs.
“We talk about why prostheses are important, even for humans,” Garcia said. “We get a few other animals that are missing parts, and we talk about what might have happened and how that affects them.”
PHS offers educational programs for children and adults alike, but a heavier emphasis is placed on K-12 education – which includes camps, demonstrations, field trips and science nights. It also offers a three-hour volunteer program called the Junior Keeper Program, where students can receive community service credit.
For students, PHS’ Reptile Club is an interactive six-week program that teaches students about 30 different species of reptiles. The Herpetological Endangerment Research Program is an advanced series of eight sessions for young conservationists who want to learn about crocodile biology. The nonprofit also works with many special-needs groups.
“I think the big interest is being able to interact with the animals,” Garcia said. “Unlike some zoos where you’re not allowed to, here, you get to play with snakes all day and learn about them and that interaction helps you retain the information so much better.”
That’s the case for Julian May, 10, who currently attends winter camp.
His favorite reptiles are snakes and bearded dragons because “they’re cute,” he said.
“He’s always wanting to come back and do all the camps again,” said Julian’s mother, Samantha May. “He still retains everything he’s learned here. He’ll go to different zoos, and he starts to spin out all these facts and information. He’s like a little guide.”
While many PHS programs cater to school-aged children and teenagers, senior citizens can check out the reptilian guests. “Nine out of 10 are a little bit scared, but some of them are just so excited they’ve maybe have never touched an alligator in their lives,” Garcia said.
PHS also placed 490 animals via adoptions, zoos and educational facilities. It received 9,000 texts to help identify snakes and 40,000 phone calls regarding rescues, education and other general questions.
For 2019, Garcia’s goal is to work with more nonprofits and companies to boost camp attendance.
“We want to get out into the community,” Garcia said, adding:
“Sometimes, we go out, and people either have one of two reactions when they hear our name: Either, ‘We’ve never heard of you before. Are you from the zoo?’ Or, ‘I love you guys. We’ve been there before.’ We want to get more people on that second comment they see us.”
Marchand wants to bring the last two species of crocodiles to PHS to complete its collection.
“We’re looking to bring in the Indian gharial and the Indian mugger crocodile,” Marchand said. “They are the only two species of the 23 species out there that we don’t have currently.”
“Hopefully we can get that accomplished this year,” Marchand said.