When it comes to caring for reptiles, Nathan Lysaght knows his subject.
“I’ll do talks and educational events,” he said, “and the adults come up to me at the end and say, ‘This is really, really cool. Where did you go to school?’”
His answer may be surprising to some.
“I’m still in high school,” he said.
Actually, he graduated from South Park High School in May. And at this point, the 18-year-old already has five years’ worth of experience in running his nonprofit Nate’s Reptile Rescue, dedicated to education about and proper care of all animals in the taxonomic class Reptilia.
That includes some unusual specimens for the Pittsburgh area.
“We’ve taken eight alligators over the last five years,” Lysaght said. “Our largest one was about six-and-a-half feet long and 150 pounds, very well-tempered, surprisingly, for such a large alligator. We actually cared for him pretty well.”
He works primarily with supportive family members to take in animals at his South Park Township home for a variety of reasons.
“When people can’t take care of them anymore, usually it’s because they’re moving, or they get too expensive or they’re just too large to care of anymore,” he said. “We have them sign our surrendering form, and as long as the animal is in good health and within our range of capability, we’ll take them in and rehabilitate them if necessary. If not, then we’ll care for them until we can find them a new, suitable home.”
Sometimes the animals are taken from homes after living in conditions that are far from satisfactory. A glaring example cropped up during Nate’s Reptile Rescue’s first year of operation.
“We got a call from a frantic mother whose son had been arrested and was not getting out of jail anytime soon,” Lysaght recalled. “She said he had several large snakes that needed to be picked up, and she didn’t know how to care for them.”
He said the scene was memorable.
“The cages they were in were actually very, very nice and very, very expensive,” he said. “However, the snakes were in the worst condition we had ever seen. They were all malnutrioned. They had reptile mites, which are basically the equivalent of fleas. They just kind of suck the blood and dehydrate the animals.”
Some of the Burmese pythons, up to 12 feet long and 150 pounds, didn’t make it. Others went to a rescue location in New York, and one to a local owner for educational purposes.
Lysaght has been educating himself about reptiles since when he was 4 and received a ball python as his first pet.
“I couldn’t have anything that was furry, like a hamster, mouse or dog or anything, because I’m allergic,” he said. “So it kind of forced me into one part of the pet market.”
He went on to expand his collection.
“When I was 9, I had the idea for the rescue because family friends had given me reptiles, and I kind of got the idea that a lot of people are giving theirs away,” he said, and he started Nate’s Reptile Rescue four years later.
Today, he is looking toward continuing his education.
“I’d like to go to school for business as well as vet medicine, so that I can open my own practice and keep the rescue going at the same time, and help as many animals as I can,” he said.
Beyond snakes, lizards and other reptiles, he also has rescued various types of fish, crustaceans, arachnids and amphibians.
“We took in about 50 or 60 poison arrow frogs back in the spring,” Lysaght said. “A lot of people hear ‘poison arrow frogs,’ and they think they’re actually dangerous. However, if they’re raised in captivity, they have no poison to them, whatsoever.”
A collector, he explained, had run out of room for the frogs.
“We’re still taking care of them now,” he said. “They actually have continued breeding and are at about 70, and they’re doing very, very well.”
Although he receives donations of enclosures and other supplies, the costs of caring for the animals include purchasing food and bedding, plus paying for the electricity needed to keep everything in optimal running order. Family members help cover expenses, and Nate’s Animal Rescue accepts donations.
“I’m looking into increasing that and getting more people involved over the next year,” Lysaght said. “Since I’m out of school now, I have a little bit more time on my hands.”
The educational aspect of his venture includes talks and demonstrations – in the spring, he spoke to 120 veterinary technician students at Parkway West Career and Technology Center – and he is available to take animals to children’s parties. He also posts “care sheets” for more than 100 species on the Nate’s Reptile Rescue website.
“A lot of the other information that we get is actually from our own experience,” he said. “The care sheets that we have are only animals that we’ve taken in or had experience with. We have a really good idea of how to care for the animals and what their needs are.”
Certain animals are available for adoption and fostering, and Lysaght has a thorough vetting process to make sure they are going to suitable locations.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve done so far,” he said.
For more information, visit www.natesreptiles.org.