Growing up, Rick DeRidder’s family kept a continuous supply of reptiles on hand. “We lived in California, so it was always warm enough to keep them outside, and we’d have about nine at a time,” Rick said. “We even had some turtles in our pool.”
And in a world where lots of things seemed backward, reptiles made sense to Rick. “I was dyslexic; I couldn’t read—couldn’t spell. If I had a nickel every time I was in third grade I would have a dime, and it always just made me feel like I needed to succeed at something.” So Rick helped take care of his family’s reptile collection and simultaneously started to gain a sense of purpose.
His dad helped foster that drive by teaching Rick about the different snakes they had. Having been raised in Sri Lanka, he was used to unique pets, he even had a monkey, and often shared his stories with Rick. “He talked about watching a python devour a large deer in the jungle,” Rick recalled, noting that it was that one story that officially hooked him on the world of reptiles.
When his family moved to Colorado, they traded in most of their snakes and lizards for cold climate animals. “I can remember getting what I was told was a neutered male pot bellied pig, he ended up having 9 babies. Our neighbors thought it was quite a sight watching a fat momma pig with a bunch of babies walk down the side walks in Denver.” But Rick’s passion was set on reptiles.
Then, shortly after getting married in 2001, Rick purchased his first red-tailed boa named Tapanga and started his own personal collection. Tapanga’s cage doubled as a diaper-changing table for the couple’s newborn, “my mother in law didn’t like that at all.” Even though Rick was running his own construction company at the time, he was also always on the lookout for new additions. Eventually, he had to convert his attic into a reptile room to accommodate the 20 different species he’d acquired.
When a local science teacher asked if he would share his collection with his class, Rick was thrilled—he’d found an additional outlet for his diverse assortment of pets. “Afterward he told me that it was encouraging for him to see someone who had struggled with school make his own way and be so passionate about something. That meant a lot for me to hear,” Rick said, “It really impacted me.”
More and more people started asking Rick to do shows. After impressing one of Steve Irwin’s family members, Rick received an autographed picture from his hero—it was addressed to Rick the Reptile Guy, a name that stuck.
Later on his family moved to Summit County, Colorado. Living in a resort town money was tight and so were the living conditions. In a 900 sq foot townhouse they had a hard time fitting 4 people and a reptile collection. But he continued to showing reptiles to schools. A local school gave Rick a room in their building to house his reptiles.
Despite his obsession, a job change brought his family to Michigan and most of Rick’s collection had to stay behind. “When we moved we got rid of everything but one snake and a caiman,” Rick recalled. But that shift didn’t last long. An old friend, Billy Crooks, had always told Rick he should hang up the tool belt and show reptiles full time. This could be his chance.
When he accompanied his daughter on a pre-school outing to Boulder Ridge Ranch in Alto, Michigan, Rick met the owner Dave Hoekstra, and told him he needed some reptiles. “Dave called me a week or two later and asked me to meet for lunch. We started talking, and I convinced him he needed to open his place to the public.”
The pair started to devise a plan, and construction started on a new reptile house as Dave’s hobby farm was transformed into Boulder Ridge Wild Animal Park, a one-of-a-kind zoo experience for the whole family—where Rick served as director and the resident reptile expert.
Rick currently is working on promoting reptile shows with Discovery Channel’s Swamp Brothers. As well building a zoo with them in Florida.
“Growing up, our king snake was my favorite because it was the biggest,” Rick said, “but I always dreamed about having a python. Now I have five. It’s pretty awesome. And I hope to have the world’s largest someday.”