Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

At a cost of more than $100,000, Joe Maierhauser's next capital investment is substantial. But sometimes you've got to refresh the tortoises.

Giant tortoises have long been the most popular attraction at Reptile Gardens, the world's largest reptile zoo by number of species. In the 1950s and '60s, visitors rode the plodding beasts. Now they take selfies with them. The original stock, imported in the 1940s, has passed on after long, eventful lives that included both fire and flood. Their younger counterparts still laze around Methuselah's Playground, named for the largest of the dear departed.

The two new tortoises will cost between $50,000 and $100,000 each, depending on size. "There is no guarantee that you get it here and it will not die tomorrow," says Maierhauser, Reptile Gardens' CEO and president. "That is the heartbreak of working with animals."

Mostly though, the animals are a joy. They are the main reason Maierhauser returned to the family business 40 years ago, eventually succeeding his uncle Earl Brockelsby, who founded the attraction in 1937.

The business resides six miles south of Rapid City, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is a starkly beautiful land of mountains and meadows, creeks and canyons. Amid the abundant native wildlife, Reptile Gardens' international cast of critters stands out like a scaly Noah's Ark. "Not much of it is from South Dakota because there are not that many varieties of reptile around here," says Maierhauser.

In the early days, however, local fauna was the whole ball game. One pit squirming with nonvenomous snakes. One pit squirming with rattlers. Ten cents bought you a gander at both.

Today, Reptile Gardens houses the greatest variety of reptiles in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The business, with annual revenue of roughly $4 million, draws more than 300,000 visitors a year. With each decade, it has grown more diverse, adding birds, botanical gardens, a prairie dog habitat, and animal shows.

It diversified, in part, because not everyone digs snakes and lizards. "People like what we call 'cute mega-vertebrates.' Big fuzzy animals like tigers and bears," says Maierhauser. "For the most part, reptiles get short shrift." Programs on Animal Planet have goosed interest, but "they are still not lovable."

Kevin Phillips, the drive-time DJ on Rapid City station 93.9, actually finds the reptiles plenty lovable, so much so that he knows many by their names. Phillips has been coming here almost 30 years. He grew so attached to Methuselah that when the tortoise died he recorded a song in its honor, sung to the tune of "Lola."

"I go there all the time with my grandsons," says Phillips. "We'll be looking through the window at Maniac, who is one of the largest alligators in captivity. If there's a family of tourists I'll say, 'Boy, remember last year when he broke out of that thing?' I'm just joking. But the look on their faces is hilarious."

A car culture impresario

Earl Brockelsby had some P.T. Barnum in him. As a young man, he was hired by a local entrepreneur to lead tours of a natural rock formation that resembled a city. At tour's end, Brockelsby would doff his hat to mop his brow and reveal, curled on his head, a rattlesnake.

With the help of three friends and a small loan from a local bank, Brockelsby built an 18-by-24-foot building on a hilltop outside Rapid City. He situated the parking lot right where drivers pulled off to cool cars overheated from the climb. "He would pop out, jump on their running boards, and talk them into coming through," says Maierhauser. Those who did so found a gift shop, an observation tower, and two snake pits dug into the ground.

Business slowed substantially during World War II. Returning from the service, Brockelsby closed down his other businesses--a bowling alley, a grocery store, and a jukebox company--to double down on the snakes. He built a dedicated reptile house and began acquiring more exotic exhibits, including cobras, pythons, and giant tortoises. A friend traveled to Africa and brought back crocodiles. Birds joined the mix.

As the beasts grew more exotic, so did the displays. Brockelsby was among the first animal exhibitors to decorate cages with rocks, minerals, flowers, driftwood, and even sculptures.

Automobile culture flourished in the 1950s, and with it family vacations. Brockelsby pasted Reptile Gardens stickers on copies of the local newspaper and delivered them free to nearby hotels. Billboards, some shaped like cobras or tortoises, sprouted along the roads. Brockelsby also bought used cars and parked them in the lot to make it appear full. "People thought there was something exciting going on and wanted to come in," says Maierhauser. "He really got in on the floor of car tourism."

Under the dome

In the late '50s, the government began widening U.S. Route 16 into a four-lane highway leading to that colossus of South Dakota attractions, Mount Rushmore. Fearful of losing the drive-by trade, Brockelsby acquired 20 acres by the expanded road and trucked his animals and cages there. He found a company in Germany that manufactured large domes and erected one over an open exhibit space, tricked out like a jungle, where visitors could wander among the birds and beasts. "Near as I can tell, we were the first place that did that," says Maierhauser.

In 1976, an electrical short ignited a fire. The plastic dome melted, and the aluminum structure supporting it caved in. Nearly all the animals perished. Forced to start over, Brockelsby persuaded Maierhauser, who had grown up working at the attraction, to come back to South Dakota from graduate school and begin rebuilding the animal collection.

Maierhauser progressed from reptile curator to gift shop manager to general manager, eventually working almost every job available. He became CEO shortly after Brockelsby died in 1993.

Life among the lizards

Reptile Gardens' fortunes wax and wane. The company, which employs several family members, is enjoying its fourth strong year in a row. But it remains vulnerable to a sluggish economy, high gas prices, and news of local forest fires. The Rapid City flood of 1972 didn't touch the attraction: Still, visitors stayed away.

Reptile Gardens earns 80 percent of revenue during just 65 days in the summer. But it incurs roughly the same costs year-round. Post-season, head count drops from around 100 to 24. But keeping animals warm in bitter South Dakota winters is expensive. Heating the dome can cost as much as $500 a day. And freezers must be kept stocked with thousands of rodents and chickens for chow.

Another challenge is acquiring exhibits. Reptile Gardens buys animals from breeders and also trades with zoos. But laws have changed, and the once-fluid international trade in animals has been curtailed.

With Galapagos tortoises no longer available for export, Reptile Gardens sources from Aldabra, an atoll in the Indian Ocean. A ban on interstate trade in pythons, now being challenged in court, temporarily dried up that pipeline.

For Maierhauser, questions like "Where's my next python coming from?" count as everyday business concerns. "Having done this our whole lives, we forget how weird it is to people," he says. "To us, every day we come to work and it's like Groundhog Day. The same thing over and over. But you never know what's going to come up."

Published on: Nov 7, 2017