Spending time with Augustus (Gus) Ben David 2nd at the World of Reptiles is a learning experience from start to finish.
But it is in the snake room, in the basement of his home in Edgartown, surrounded by over a hundred feet of slithering reptiles locked in wooden cages, where Mr. Ben David is in his element.
"There has never been a snake recorded on earth that has been measured at 30 feet," he says, his piercing eyes lighting up. "Don't believe anyone who tells you different. The Bronx Zoo had a 26-foot python, but it has since died. That makes our python here the longest in the United States at 22 feet."
That said, he points to another one of the thick coiled snakes across the room.
"Science considers the Green Anaconda the largest serpent because of its length and its girth," he says, "but you can't handle them. They have a nasty temperament."
The temperament of that snake lies in stark contrast to Mr. Ben David, who beams with every fact about the various turtles, iguanas, frogs, miniature caimens, eagles, pheasants - and, of course, snakes - that inhabit the World of Reptiles - his part-time farm of exotic and indigenous wildlife tucked away in the woods off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.
But it is Mr. Ben David's full-time job as the executive director of the Felix Neck Wildlife sanctuary where he has become an Island icon, teaching generations of children about the Island's fragile ecosystems and their inhabitants. This week, after more than 36 years as the sanctuary's only director, he quietly announced that he will retire from Felix Neck at the end of the year.
On Tuesday morning he reflected on his tenure at Felix Neck and discussed his plans for the future, which he sees as a chance to return to his roots and begin - rather restart - the next phase in his life.
"In some respects, I have put my boyhood dreams on hold for 36 years," he says, looking around at the part-time business he has operated at his home for over eight years. When he leaves Felix Neck, he plans to run the World of Reptiles as a full-time business.
"My father didn't want me to go when I was offered the job at Felix Neck. He said ‘You can never be your own man if you work for a board or a committee.' I knew back then that I was relinquishing this dream to take on something new, but it's not like I have any regrets. My life at Felix Neck has been so rich and wonderful."
Mr. Ben David was hired in 1969 by the Martha's Vineyard Natural History Society. Before that, he ran Gus and Gus farm with his uncle.
"We're not supposed to be born with innate traits, but I was," he says. "People always ask me ‘Gus, when did you start getting interested in animals?' Well, I didn't get started. I have always been fascinated, since I could breathe. I got started out of the womb."
As the sanctuary's first director, he helped develop the educational programs that have taught thousands of Island children about snapping turtles, ferns and feathers and ospreys.
Now, as he prepares to leave, he says the sanctuary is at a critical juncture.
"I had always hoped that it would be in a better financial situation when I left," he says. "But Felix Neck needs financial help. And finding the money, that has gotten progressively harder to do. There is much greater competition out there - hospitals, libraries, more conservation land. Unfortunately, we're not there yet," he says, adding:
"Our endowment is not at a sustainable level. I think our biggest need is to get our endowment big enough to protect the educational mission that has lasted for so many years."
He cites a critical need for a new educational center. The current building is beginning to deteriorate.
"It's totally inadequate. We don't have any room. In the summer, we have to put up temporary screen tents for our programs," he says.
Mr. Ben David says the role of director has changed over the years.
"Mine is an atypical directorship, in a way," he says. "I mean, to me, my work means changing 40-pound tractor tires and mowing the paths. I am not the type of director that sits in front of a computer all day."
The sanctuary was created through a gift of land from George Moffett in 1968, who Mr. Ben David says inspired him throughout his tenure.
"George is always on my mind," he says. "I remember what he told me years ago, almost verbatim. He said to me ‘I want this place to be happy.' And that's what I think about when I think of Felix Neck. That's what I think of when I think about my job."
That also means keeping Felix Neck above the political fray, not an easy task, he admits.
"That was George's mandate, and I have always demanded that Felix Neck not become a political entity," he says. "It's a balancing act, and people have wanted me to take sides in one fight or another, but I would never allow it. Felix Neck is the place you can come on a Sunday afternoon and walk the trails and you're not going to have to scream at anyone."
He is director, land manager, consummate naturalist, but above all a teacher.
"You've got to be a kid to be an educator," he says.
"I teach those kids about nature, but people assume I want them all to grow up and be naturalists," he says with a grin. "I don't care whether they grow up to be lawyers or doctors. I do care that they grow up to be caring, compassionate individuals."
He adds with a laugh: "Just don't anthropomorphize the animals. One thing I always say is that yes, there are animals that will kill you, but there are no animals that will hurt your feelings. And that's a Gus original."
On Dec. 31 Mr. Ben David will end his 36-year career at Felix Neck.
"I'll need time for this to hit me, emotionally," he says.
Back in the snake room, he explains another marvel that is coiled around his wrist and hand - a black rat snake. Despite its name, the reptile is pure white - not an albino, Mr. Ben David explains, but leucistic, which means the snake lacks any pigment. Albino snakes are yellowish.
"Leucistic snakes have been stripped of the color spectrum," he says, studying it as it slithers up his arm. "I mean, isn't that just an evolutionary wonder?"
Walking through the World of Reptiles, he is constantly reminded of where he started and where he has arrived. Two letters, framed and hung on the wall inside the snake room, illustrate Mr. Ben David's journey. One is dated April 1969, the original letter from the Martha's Vineyard Natural History Society offering him the director's position at Felix Neck. Next to it is his acceptance letter, a prescient look into Gus Ben David's life of dedication to conservation and education.
"I have no doubt that the Felix Neck Wildlife Refuge will, in time, become the focal point of conservation on Martha's Vineyard and have far reaching effects in other places," he wrote to his future employers. "I will devote all of my efforts to this end."
He studies the letter, lost in thought for a moment.
"I am proud of Felix Neck and what I have done," he says. "And I am proud of what I have done here. My goal now is to have a place of the utmost quality where kids and families can come and learn about animals and get personal attention. It's the personal time that makes the difference. Oh, what a difference it makes."