Opinion

Dean Ripa gave downtown thrills and chills

This editorial appeared in the Star-News, Wilmington

Like many along the Lower Cape Fear, we were shocked and saddened to learn of the untimely death of Dean Ripa, the charismatic and passionate owner of Cape Fear Serpentarium.

He was killed May 13 in the apartment he shared with his wife, Regina, and their 3-year-old son above the popular tourist attraction at Front and Orange streets. Regina Ripa is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting.

Dean Ripa, who was 60, was one of those characters who made life in these parts more interesting. The theatrical, goateed snake hunter loved to treat serpentarium visitors with tales of his adventures, especially the many snakebites.

A 1975 graduate of New Hanover High School, he wanted to become a Renaissance-style painter, he told the StarNews in 2002. He was friends with Beat Generation writer William Burroughs. But snakes were his passion.

He caught his first at 4 – and it bit him. That one wasn’t poisonous, but at 13 he was bitten by a water moccasin, resulting in a two-week hospital stay. (A big worry while hospitalized was that his parents would find out about the 50 snakes hidden in their home).

Ripa hunted snakes while serving with the Peace Corps in Liberia in the 1970s. He went back to Africa in the 1980s and brought home more than 30 snakes. By 2002, he’d been bitten 10 times, contracted malaria three times, and had received an eyeful of venomous cobra spit.

Ripa opened the serpentarium in 2001, adding a unique attraction to the restaurants, boutiques and nightlife of downtown. Its offerings range from rare and dangerous snakes to lizards and giant crocodiles. While certainly entertaining, Ripa’s serpentarium also educated.

The cobras and vipers are the stars of the serpentarium, but Ripa’s passion for exotic reptiles and adventurous living shone brightly, too. This larger-than-life man added a touch of offbeat color to downtown’s palette. His presence will be missed.

The serpentarium remains open, and we hope Ripa’s work will live on in the amazed gaze of visitors. He would like that.

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