When Rick de Ridder’s then-10-year-old daughter, Suzy, said she wanted a pet sloth, he didn’t even blink. But what came next would give any parent pause.
“Since my wife, Sara, and our kids had been around all kinds of animals for their whole lives, Suzy’s request wasn’t that unusual,” says Rick, who helped create and starred in A&E’s “Wild Transports” in 2015. “We found a sloth, right here in Florida, but there was one catch: It came with a zoo. So we just bought the whole thing.”
That was 2017. Soon, Rick packed up his family and their home in Cocoa Beach and headed to Crestview to become the new proprietors of Emerald Coast Zoo.
Part of the deal was they would live at the zoo and the kids—David, 18, Suzy, 13, and Betsy, 12—would help out.
Rick comes by his love of animals honestly, with his passion nurtured by his father from a young age.
“My father grew up as a missionary’s kid in Sri Lanka, so he knew a lot about reptiles and exotics,” Rick says. “When I was growing up in California, he encouraged my fascination with animals and collecting reptiles.”
Rick’s hobby opened doors. Readily admitting that school wasn’t high on his list, his life changed when a high school biology teacher asked him to bring his reptiles to class.
“All of a sudden here I was, teaching people about exotic reptiles,” he says. “Wow. I was on to something.”
Within a few years of graduation, Rick turned his love of reptiles into a business. He presented reptile shows at are libraries, schools and kids’ birthday parties.
As his reputation spread, he became known as Rick the Reptile Guy by his late hero, crocodile hunter Steve Irwin.
Rick soon began doing shows at professional sporting events and made television appearances on morning shows.
In 2009, Rick and another man partnered to build a zoo in Michigan. Part of Rick’s work involved bringing animals to populate the zoo. He stayed on as director of Boulder Ridge Wild Animal Park for several years.
“I learned a lot about transporting exotic animals—from zebras and kangaroos to water buffalos,” he says. “A purchase of two alligators from the Swamp Brothers for the zoo opened another door.”
Rick and his family moved to central Florida, where he worked with the Swamp Brothers at their reptile sanctuary for a few years, wrestling gators and handling some of the world’s most venomous snakes.
He continued with his wild animal relocation business, transporting exotics to zoos and animal sanctuaries.
By 2011, Rick’s novel occupation and his connection with Orlando producer Tom Breslin netted him a one-year contract with A&E as host of “Wild Transport”—a half-hour reality show that featured his adventures moving tigers and ligers, a giraffe, a black bear and chimpanzees.
“You’d think that the chimps would have been the easiest,” Rick says. “We thought so, too. We just strapped them into the rear seats of an SUV and off we went. But they were worse than little kids. They got out of their seat belts, climbed into the front seat with us and wouldn’t leave us alone. When we stopped for lunch, we had to bring them into the restaurant with us. That was quite a trip.”
The show ran one season, then Rick turned his attention toward settling down with his family in Cocoa Beach.
“It was a chance to stay put for a while, but with my quest for adventures, I continued to transport wild animals,” Rick says. “When Suzy asked for a sloth, I started looking. We found one, but what we didn’t expect is that it would change our lives.”
It didn’t take long for the family to decide to move to the Panhandle and start another chapter in their adventure.
Several months of renovations led to the grand reopening of the 10-acre Emerald Coast Zoo in March 2018. Today, the zoo has more than 250 animals and many species, including lions, Bengal tigers, wolves, zebras, kangaroos, wallabies, water buffalos, camels, ostrich, lemurs, apes, several species of monkeys and one of their newest additions: a giraffe.
Each year, the nonprofit zoo attracts more than 50,000 visitors who come to experience walk-throughs of various habitats. Guests can take a goat yoga class and feed the animals, including a giraffe.
Rick recently added two white Bengal tigers, gifted to Emerald Coast Zoo in November by one of his friends. Putnam and Parusha, both males, have a history with the de Ridder family. In 2015, Suzy met Parusha, then a cub, on a family trip.
The zoo and its inhabitants are tended to by paid staff, volunteers and the de Ridder family, who also take care of the zoo, work ticket booths and feed the animals.
As attendance grows, Rick plans to expand the zoo’s footprint and add more animals.
“I’ve got a special pet project,” he says with a grin. “Ginormica, my reticulated python who already weighs more than 200 pounds and is more than 20 feet long, is on her way to becoming the world’s largest python. My goal is for her to reach more than 30 feet and 300 pounds. She’s only 8 years old now, and it’s possible that she could live to 50, so we’ve got a pretty good chance of setting a world record.”
A Different Family Dynamic
Sharing a bathtub with an alligator or a python was never Sara de Ridder’s idea of a calm homelife. But she lovingly went along with her husband’s need to provide his reptiles with the proper living environment.
“I knew what I was getting into when I married Rick in 2000,” she says. “He was already doing reptile shows and he was great about easing me into his lifestyle. Over time, I came to love all the animals every bit as much as he does.”
As the family traveled to follow Rick’s work, they shared their home with baby zebras, giant tortoises, exotic birds, kangaroos and monkeys.
When they moved to Florida, the menagerie came, too.
“From the beginning, the kids just loved it,” Sara says. “When David, whose nickname is Tarzan, was 13, he asked for his own monkey. Rick found a squirrel monkey that someone had as a pet and needed to rehome, so it was perfect.”
The monkey, Axel, fit right in, bonding with their pet Maltese dog, Miss Emily, which the kids got a year or so earlier.
“I have asthma and allergies, so as a kid I could never have traditional pets,” Rick says. “That’s why I took to reptiles. I heard that Maltese didn’t aggravate asthma, so this was the girls’ first indoor dog.”
“It’s so funny to see Axel riding on Miss Emily’s back all over the house and the neighborhood,” Sara says. “They get along well with each other.”
It was only logical Betsy and Suzy would have their own pets.
At age 7, Betsy asked for birds. The result? She raised a pair of rainbow-colored Gouldian finches.
“We had other birds in the house, such as parrots and macaws,” Sara says. “The bigger birds quickly learned to talk and after hearing the kids call out, ‘Mom, Mom,’ they learned, too. I couldn’t tell if the kids were calling to me or if it was one of the birds. At least the finches only make soft trills and chirps.”
Not to be outdone, at age 10 Suzy asked for a sloth.
“They were becoming popular on clothing and in books,” Sara says. “I think she thought that her request would be simple for her dad.”
Suzy’s ask was the catalyst for the family’s purchase of Emerald Coast Zoo.
“It was about to be closed and all the animals would have been relocated,” Rick says. “Sara and I knew right away that this was our next move.”
For Rick and Sara, part of their mission is helping rescue animals that are in danger.
“People sometimes buy unusual animals for pets, then realize that they can’t handle them,” Rick says. “That’s where we’ve gotten our animals in some cases. In others, the animals have been born in captivity and simply cannot be released into the wild.”
The de Ridder kids grew up around unusual animals because of their dad’s career.
The family lived in an RV from when they came to Crestview a few years ago until their house on the zoo property could be renovated. Earlier this year, they moved into the house.
“When we lived in the RV, I wasn’t always certain what I would find in the bathroom,” Sara says. “But now that we’ve moved into the house, I hope I won’t have a share a bathtub with a reptile anymore.”
Rick just smiles.