Ty Park has always had a passion for what some might regard as creepy crawlies.
“My father gave me a turtle when I was 6, and I was hooked,” recalls the energetic 67-year-old. “I would spend my allowance on small fish and then release them into the ocean, not realizing that the fish were supposed to be in fresh water.”
At age 13, the native South Korean emigrated with his family from Pusan to Urbana, Illinois, so his father could accept a professorship in chemistry.
Rather than focusing on medicine, academia or even science, “I wanted to grow up to be a director of a zoo,” Ty says.
His early mishap with fish was hardly indicative of his life and career, which includes plans to open what he hopes will become the world’s largest collection of reptiles and amphibians—or “herps,” as they are known.
Ty married, raised two children and established and then sold several successful enterprises, including a restaurant, a bar, three pet shops and several real estate investments, finally “retiring” in his 40s.
“I worked 16-hour days to make sure that my family was taken care of and educated,” Ty says.
His wife, Yon, and two children live in Los Angeles, where his son, Stephen, is a trauma surgeon and his daughter, Victoria, plays Kamilla Hwang on CW’s “The Flash.”
No one in his family—especially his wife—shares Ty’s enthusiasm for herps, so he divides his time between their home in Los Angeles and the 12-acre former nursery he bought in 2007 near Punta Gorda and transformed into Iguanaland.
Iguanaland represents the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. Ty plans to open the zoo with 250 to 300 species of amphibians and reptiles. Currently, he has an estimated 140 species and 2,000 animals.
“The numbers are changing because they do reproduce,” Ty says.
The critters go between zoos and other animal welfare organizations, sometimes being nursed back to health at Iguanaland.
Because of Ty’s commitment to education and research, Iguanaland is divided into two distinct areas.
With a planned public opening in late 2021 or early 2022, the zoo portion features multihued iguanas, gargantuan tortoises, unusual-looking turtles and other herps in natural, ecologically functional habitats. It will include koi and turtle feeding ponds, recreational areas and a snack bar.
Scientists, veterinarians and animal welfare professionals can access an adjacent center for rare animals focused on breeding and study. Tours are available to the public for a fee that goes toward the preservation of iguanas.
Once Iguanaland opens, visitors will see some of the world’s rarest reptiles, such as rock iguanas. Ty is recognized for breeding the endangered species that is native to the West Indies.
“Essentially, we have three goals,” Ty says. “First, we want to educate young people and the public about the diversity and the importance of reptiles and amphibians to nature and humanity. Second, we want to provide a place where professionals and students can do scientific research. Third, we want to raise $250,000 a year for reptile and amphibian causes such as conservation, education and research.”
Ty held Iguanafests in 2017 and 2018, raising more than $120,000.
“I was thrilled and amazed at the turnout and enthusiasm, even though we haven’t yet officially opened our doors,” he says.
Even non-herp enthusiasts might enjoy meeting Ty’s residents at Iguanaland.
Donkey Kong—a 25-pound, 5-foot-long rhinoceros iguana with a horn protruding from his snout—resembles a mini-dinosaur. He is chill and graciously accepts petting.
There are three huge Chelonian turtles that lived together peacefully for years but suddenly stopped getting along.
“Just like people, they have arguments,” Ty says, “or maybe it’s a love triangle gone wrong.”
Ty hops over an enclosure to visit Ally, a 42-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise who cranes her neck so he can stroke her head.
“Each one has a different personality,” Ty says. “Some are friendly and sociable, while others just want to be left alone.”
While a cage full of cute, lively baby green iguanas might seem as enticing to take home as a puppy, kitten or now-illegal baby alligator, Ty offers a warning: It is not the same.
“Some species can live for 50 to 60 years, so it’s a huge responsibility,” he says, noting that doesn’t factor in the tons of vegetables, fruits—and, for some species, eggs and frozen meat—required to feed them.
Along with media recognition for his preservation efforts at Iguanaland, Ty has garnered the respect of his peers.
“Ty has raised the profile of the reptile industry in many ways, including breeding species that were never before bred in captivity,” says Sean Perry, a reptile specialist and veterinarian who works at the Mississippi Aquarium. “He also provides a great deal of financial and other support to programs, including the International Iguana Foundation and Turtle Survival Alliance.”
Robert Krause, a herpetologist and pet industry guru who led such organizations as Pets International/SuperPet and Noah’s Ark Pet Centers, is a longtime friend and colleague. He praises Ty’s generosity for sharing his knowledge.
“Ty is very passionate,” Robert says. “He really walks the talk and because of that inspires others through his efforts.”
Ty keeps his eyes on one main prize.
“It’s very important that preservation be taken seriously, otherwise many of these species will disappear forever,” he says.
Until Iguanaland officially opens, tours are available by appointment only. For more information or to arrange a tour, visit the Iguanaland Facebook page.