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L.A. Zoo opens $14-million reptile 'condominium' today

March 8, 2012 |  7:13 am

The Los Angeles Zoo is opening a new $14-million home for reptiles and amphibians
The Los Angeles Zoo is opening a new home for reptiles and amphibians today, a $14-million condominium complex for Mexican beaded lizards, Rowley's palm vipers, radiated tortoises and other creatures that slither and croak.

The LAIR -- an acronym for Living Amphibians, Invertebrates and Reptiles -- was five years in the making and will be one of just a few reptile houses to open in North America in the last decade.

"We've got one of the best in the nation," zoo director John Lewis said earlier this week as workers prepared by cleaning display windows, planting feathery ferns, adjusting temperature and humidity controls and using metal hooks to place venomous snakes carefully into their spacious new homes.

LAIR is set to house 49 exhibits and 60 species. That is fewer than lived in the zoo's old reptile house, "but we'll do a better job in terms of meeting the needs of the animals, producing breeding stock and showing them off to the public," Lewis said.

The old reptile house had well over 100 species on display in its heyday, but many were housed in small aquarium settings.

Zoo officials estimate that 1.6 million visitors will walk through LAIR each year over the next 30 years.

The zoo is launching an advertising blitz to accompany the opening. Television commercials will feature rock musician Slash and 90-year-old actress Betty White, who will be seen marveling over a pair of prehistoric-looking Mexican giant horned lizards.

"Gorgeous," White says in the ad.

"Weird," says a lizard staring back at her.

By week's end, splashy images of rainbow-hued Fiji Island banded iguanas are to be popping up on billboards and bus sides across the county, many of them accompanied by pithy phrases such as "Can't talk now. Basking."

The $500,000 advertising campaign targets an audience that has been missing at the zoo since the former reptile house was demolished five years ago: families and children fascinated by frogs and snakes. The reptiles had been housed out of public view, awaiting construction of their new digs.

Lions, tigers and bears will always be favorites; but Slash, a lifelong patron of the zoo and aficionado of venomous snakes, said he expects the LAIR to become a popular attraction.

"Natural curiosity and fear of reptiles has always made them fascinating creatures," he said in an interview. "But people are really going to dig this place because of its natural settings and roomier exhibits."

The fast, slender and deadly green mamba snake is amazing, he said.


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-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: A West African green mamba. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times