‘Reptile Lady’ carries family legacy of critter education

There’s nothing ‘cold-blooded’ about April Jackson
May 14, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
April Jackson — better known as the Reptile Lady — squishes the cheeks of Rocky, the 35-year-old rock iguana, May 12 while showing reptiles to the residents of Orchard Park, a retirement community in Bellingham.
April Jackson — better known as the Reptile Lady — squishes the cheeks of Rocky, the 35-year-old rock iguana, May 12 while showing reptiles to the residents of Orchard Park, a retirement community in Bellingham. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

Snakes, a snapping turtle, a bearded dragon and other uncommon critters were shown off to a crowd of Orchard Park Retirement residents on May 12, inspiring curiosity and a little bit of trepidation.  

April Jackson, also known as the “Reptile Lady,” bravely handled each creature and educated the crowd on each animal’s unique characteristics, even letting audience members feel their scaly skin.  

Not every reptile, though — the snapping turtle was off-limits. 

“He’s super interesting to look at, but he can bite your fingers right off,” Jackson told the crowd.  

It was just one of the many reptile shows Jackson, 30, does every week. Jackson brings her traveling menagerie of creatures around the state, to elementary schools, retirement homes and everywhere in between. Although she started her business only a year ago, she’s no stranger to reptiles.  

She grew up around them.  

photo  April Jackson shows a tortoise named SpongeBob ScalePants to residents. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

Jackson’s stage name is an homage to her father, Scott Peterson, who has been the “Reptile Man” for more than 30 years.  

Previously a high school biology teacher, Peterson had always been passionate about animals, and ultimately decided to leave his teaching gig and start his own business, which combined his love for creatures and education in reptile shows. 

Peterson opened The Reptile Zoo in 1996 located in Monroe, Snohomish County. For Peterson, his reptile shows were a way to educate the public on animals that are often misunderstood and feared. 

“Reptiles, especially at that time, were more like horror creatures in scary movies,” Jackson said. “So, I think he really wanted to expose people to reptiles and how they can be really incredible and interesting.” 

Peterson’s passion was passed on to his children. His son, Isaac Peterson, now runs the zoo, and Jackson followed in her father’s footsteps, taking on her own traveling reptile shows.  

Jackson fondly remembers tagging along to her father’s shows. Now, her own children get to do the same for hers — a real “full-circle moment,” Jackson said.  

photo  April Jackson holds Bowser, an alligator snapping turtle. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

Jackson’s journey into the family business wasn’t straightforward, despite growing up around it. After graduating college, she quickly started her own family and became a stay-at-home mom.  

In the last couple of years, though, she decided to re-enter the workforce.  

Jackson credits Melinda Gates’ book “The Power of Lift” for inspiring her to chase after her dreams — her ball python, Melinda, is even named after the author and philanthropist.  

The book explores how empowering women can change the world.  

“It really opened my eyes to what I could be,” Jackson said. “I realized, ‘Hey, you can be an awesome mom, and you can work.’ So that was incredibly liberating for me.”  

Jackson, who has a bachelor’s degree in family and children development, decided to make the leap and begin substitute teaching at local schools.  

There, something clicked — and she discovered her passion: working with kids.  

“[Teaching] was such an incredible experience for me,” she said. “I really felt that I was able to be a positive light in the lives of the kids I was teaching … I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to show kids that they can do whatever they want.’” 

Amid this journey, she received a call from her father, asking her if she’d like to start doing her own reptile shows. 

This wasn’t the first time Peterson had posed the question to his daughter; Jackson had previously declined because it never worked while also raising her kids.  

This time was different, Jackson said — she was ready for new opportunities.  

This month marks Jackson’s one-year anniversary of starting her own reptile shows.  

Jackson has since acquired her own collection of critters, from a 40-year-old desert tortoise named SpongeBob ScalePants, to a 6-year-old alligator named Hermione.  

A lot of Jackson’s animals, like Hermione, are rescues. Hermione is less than a foot long, when she should be six times that. Due to a lack of care and nutrition, her growth has been severely stunted.  

Other animals, like Jackson’s rock iguana named Rocky, have been in her family’s care for much longer. Rocky, now 35 years old, has been with Jackson and her father for more than 20 years.  

photo  April Jackson tries to work Mr. Pickles the Burmese python out of her shirt. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

While Jackson enjoys interacting with all types of audiences, getting to work with kids and seeing the impact the animals have on them has been the most rewarding part of the experience. 

“When I started doing shows, I realized that [for] kids with different special needs, especially autism, there was something about the reptiles that helped them open up and connect in a different way than I had seen with other things,” she said. “That was really exciting for me [and] a really special experience.” 

Jackson is currently developing a program specifically catered toward children on the autism spectrum and hopes to bring it to schools throughout the state.  

Jackson is often compared to Steve Irwin, but she said she likes to think of herself as more of a Mister Rogers.  

The lack of women idols to compare herself to isn’t lost on her, though, and she’s trying to change that by showing a new generation of girls that they, too, can grow up and pursue careers in science.  

“There’s a Mister Rogers quote that goes something like, ‘We need to show kids how special and loved they are,’” she said. “I’ve always felt so strongly about that, and for me personally, that’s the most important thing I can do.” 

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