The LIVING Interview: PHILIP “WILDMAN PHIL” RAKOCI

Area Resident, Wild Animal Performer
Interview by Bea Lueck

It seems area resident Philip “Wildman Phil” Rakoci was born to be wild, as they say. From the time he was a child, Rakoci was fascinated with wildlife. While many people outgrow their childhood interests, Rakoci only deepened his – earning his degrees in biology and zoology and spending his life working with the creatures he loves. You may have seen Wildman Phil and his many reptiles, birds and other animals at a local presentation, a festival or even on national television. One-part comedian and one-part scientist, Wildman Phil can usually be found with a safari hat on his head, a snake around his neck and a smile on his face. And as he gives his educational presentations here locally and across the country, the crowds are always smiling too. Wildman Phil sat down to talk with us about his career, his wildlife and why we need to respect the creatures we share our world with.

Philip “Wildman Phil” Rakoci

GC LIVING: So, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a wild animal performer.

Wildman Phil: Well, it all started when I was a little kid. I always tell everyone, “I’m just a little boy who never grew up,” because I still come home with lizards and snakes in my pockets.

I have learned to take them out before doing laundry. That’s important. I’ve always had an interest in wildlife since being a child. I remember second or third grade, I learned early on you have to do book reports, and you might as well read about something you like, and so I did. I grew up every Sunday afternoon having Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” on TV, with Marlon Perkins, and thought, “That looks fun. That’s what I’d like to do.” And then when I was fourth or fifth grade, we ended up moving into a rural place and I got to see some of these things I’d just been reading about up to that point. And the more I learned, the more questions I had, and the more I had to learn, and one thing led to another.

And then I found out that a lot of people didn’t know about the animals that they lived with, and what they did know was usually false anyway. So that’s how it all started.

GC LIVING: So, did you grow up here in Arizona?

Wildman Phil: I am actually a Casa Grande native, born at Hoemako Hospital.

GC LIVING: Well, at least you were born, not hatched.

Wildman Phil: That’s true! That’s a step in the right direction.

GC LIVING: So, what did your parents think of the pets you brought home?

Wildman Phil: Well, first off, I didn’t get to bring stuff home and keep it for a long time. I remember praying for a good solid 12 years or so that my mom’s heart would be softened and let me keep a snake or a lizard. I don’t know if it was that, or the fact that I’d done enough reading and research that she felt comfortable that I knew what I was doing, but when I was 12 years old I got to keep my first little snake that I brought home. It was a night snake. It had to stay outside. And I did great, and kept it alive, and then winter came and I convinced her that it couldn’t stay outside, so it had to come into my bedroom, and then that turned into another snake, another snake, another snake and some lizards, and whatever.

At first, they would say, “Why do you like these things?” You’re reading all these books and all that, and it’s an interest, but this is different. I mean, it’s something that got turned around and we had pets at the time. We had gerbils and we had dogs and cats and that’s probably about it. But our next-door neighbor, when I was 13, was a first-grade teacher at Saguaro Elementary school here in Casa Grande, and she asked me one day if I would be up for bringing my animals in and telling her kids about them. And I said, “Sure.”

GC LIVING: Who was that?

Wildman Phil: Jan Shafer. And then one teacher led to another, who wanted me to talk to their kids. I ended up on the front page of the “Casa Grande Dispatch” holding a lizard the next day, and that was my first wildlife show. When it was time to graduate high school and go to college, I decided, well, I like animals, I’ll go be a biologist – kind of beating the system again, you know?

While I was in college, I wrote some letters to a variety of schools and said, “Hey, I have these animals, if you want me to come and show the kids, I can.” And Mary Pettinger, who was a teacher at Saguaro, contacted me and said, “Hey, we’d like you to come to our school,” and I ended up doing that, and also going to a couple other schools. And then I found out that schools paid money for this sort of thing, which worked out well because it costs money to keep the animals alive, and as a college kid, anything that paid money, I was OK with.

When I was in college, I ended up working for the college through the continued education department, through their Elderhostel program. And my desert biology professor and hiking professor, Bill Kinnison, was a botanist. He had been teaching for the Elderhostel kind of a moonlighting gig, and they needed somebody who knew about animals, and he knew from me being one of his students that I could, apparently, do a good job. And so I got into doing that, and I spent probably a decade, because that moved on to other programs, so I taught Elderhostel for University of Arizona, Grand Canyon University, Yavapai College, lots of different programs.

I found that people would rather be entertained than educated, so I started tricking them into learning by adding entertainment to my educational presentations. And now I travel all over basically the western U.S. doing entertainment shows/educational shows at RV parks and festivals, fairs, churches, comedy clubs, schools, scout groups, and whoever will have me.

GC LIVING: So, you graduated from college with a biology degree?

Wildman Phil: I got my degree in biology and zoology and kept doing what I was doing.

GC LIVING: So, what are some of the animals you currently have?

Wildman Phil: Well, currently I have probably over 250. I have a lot of different things. Things have changed a lot over the years. I ended up getting educational permits from Arizona Game and Fish Department, so I get to have some super cool stuff that most don’t get to possess, which I’m happy with. Things like a Gila monster, Mexican beaded lizard – those two are the only true venomous lizards on earth, and I have those, so that’s cool. And a couple alligators, an alligator snapping turtle, common snapping turtle, I have permits for. I have bullfrogs, an armadillo, but then I’ve got a lot of other animals – everything from a brown lemur to potbelly big, a variety of birds, like lorikeet, conure, cockatoo. We’ve got pythons. I’ve got, I think, five species of pythons, a variety of rattlesnakes, a lot of harmless snakes, lots of lizards and a lot of tortoises.

GC LIVING: You have pet rattlesnakes?

Wildman Phil: Not pets! No, none of these are pets. Well, maybe our dog. We have a pet dog. I want that to go on the record, because it’s not all crazy stuff in our world.

GC LIVING: OK, what kind of dog?

Wildman Phil: [Laughs] He’s white and little.

GC LIVING: You have a fluffy dog?

Wildman Phil: No, he’s not fluffy! He’s short-haired. He doesn’t shed very much.

GC LIVING: Wildman Phil has a fou-fou dog.

Wildman Phil: His name is Marshmallow, but he’s not mine! He’s my daughter’s. I have daughters, so that’s why we have things like that. Hedgehogs aren’t fluffy, but they’re cute.

Wildman Phil: But back to rattlesnakes as pets – they’re not pets. Most of the animals I have, some of them, are treated more like pets – like Stumpy the Tortoise with a Wheel – he’s definitely more on the pet side. Although he and I have a love-hate relationship, because he stinks and goes to the bathroom a lot, but …

GC LIVING: We’ll circle on him for a second. Stumpy is a Sulcata Toroise with only three legs?

Wildman Phil: More like two-and-a-half. He’s completely missing his front left-leg. He’s missing part of his front right-leg.

GC LIVING: And he has a wheel attached?

Wildman Phil: He does, yes. So, Stumpy the Tortoise, our two-and-a-half- legged sulcata, also known as an African spurred tortoise, came to us probably about 13 or 14 years ago. He was dropped off missing his legs. I never really got the story. I came home one day, and on the front porch there was a milk crate with two baby African spurred tortoises in it, probably about 4 years old.

I got the first one out, and he was cool. The second one I got out and he was a little different – missing his front left-leg and part of his front right-leg. We put him out in the yard with the other tortoises, and everybody got along great. He would clunk around. We had him for a little while, and started thinking, “There has to be a way to help this guy.” So, working with my neighbor, Ken Hillery, who was a retired fabricator, we put our minds together. It took us about a year, but we finally were able to get a way to attach the wheel to him. And his first wheel was a little red Razor scooter wheel that worked out well. He outgrew that pretty quickly, because as soon as he had a wheel and he could get around better, he doubled in size the next year. And we tried an extension and we found out it was better to have a bigger wheel, and that’s what we’ve learned over the years. And basically, every year, he gets a new wheel. He actually wears them out. It’s a metal frame that holds it on, and it’s made so that as he grows, it will break off, so it doesn’t hinder his growth. He gets a new frame about every two or three years now, depending on growth.

Stumpy the Tortoise gets around great now, and he’s super nice. People love him, and he loves people. He’s literally internationally famous. A lot of it has to do with an incident in 2012 when my vehicle was stolen in the Denver, Colorado area, and he was in there. And that’s when I found out that he has more friends on Facebook than I do. As soon as the world learned that Stumpy the Tortoise was missing, I ended up being interviewed on a number of news stations. They actually found the Suburban the next day with all the animals inside. All my stuff was missing – like $10,000 worth of stuff out of it – but because Stumpy the Tortoise was in there, along with snakes and lizards and scorpions and all that, it literally made international news, and I had interviews all over the country. Everybody just wanted to know about Stumpy the Tortoise. Nobody cared about me. Whoever stole it actually left it running with the heater on overnight, which kept everybody warm enough that they all lived, and Stumpy and all the rest were returned, and that got him lot of notoriety. He has followers everywhere that keep up with what Stumpy is doing.

GC LIVING: So, I interrupted you when you were telling me about the rattlesnakes.

Wildman Phil: Oh! [Laughs] So, I have rattlesnakes. I use those in a few shows. Usually it’s a safety show for places like Central Arizona College when they have new kids in the dorms. I also do safety shows for some of the utility companies, where they have guys who’re going to be out working out in the environment where these guys might be found.

GC LIVING: Are they defanged?

Wildman Phil: No, they’re regular rattlesnakes, which aren’t really that dangerous, I mean, as long as you don’t try to pet them or pick them up. They’re just snakes that, if they bit you, it could hurt a lot and you could end up in the hospital.

GC LIVING: Of which you’ve visited a time or two?

Wildman Phil: Well, yeah. I actually wrote an ebook on rattlesnakes a few years ago, and it was an interactive thing, so we had a lot of video and pictures and stuff, so it worked out well to have rattlesnakes. Also the rattlesnakes have been used in a few different movies, TV shows and documentaries and different things where they need some of these animals. On January 8, 1998, I got bit by a rattlesnake while doing a presentation for Central Arizona College. Not at the campus, but at an offsite thing. And it’s a very long story, but basically I got bit by one of my rattlesnakes when I was moving it from one place to another. It bit me in the leg. I didn’t let anybody know it happened, so nobody freaked out. I got done with the class and went home to relax and rest knowing that, statistically, I was going to live through it and be fine. My brother Jeremiah, at that point, who’s six years younger than I, had been bitten probably eight or nine times by rattlesnakes. And his body had actually built a resistance to it, so I figured, “Well, I’m going to end up going down that road.”

Well, that was not the case. I ended up in the hospital, got air-evacuated to the Arizona Poison Control Center, and found out that I was having an allergic reaction to the rattlesnake venom. I was only the third person they’d ever seen with that, and only the fifth person they knew of anywhere in the world. So they wanted to take pictures and document it all. I obviously lived through that, but then got to meet with the doctors regularly for a short time afterward. And we exchanged a lot of information back and forth, and I discovered that I probably should not get bit by a rattlesnake again. And by “probably,” I mean that their consensus is that I’d probably be dead in less than half an hour if I were to get bit –not because of the actual effect, like most people, but because my body would go into anaphylactic shock. My life has changed a little bit. I now carry an EpiPen, snake bite kit and first aid kit and all kinds of things with me when I go out and about. And I’m a little bit more careful around rattlesnakes.

But interestingly enough, I had to have had venom in my body before to build an allergy to it, and they think that all started a few years before when I was in Louisiana and was showing a copperhead to some folks and ended up getting some venom in my system. I’m still here and I’m alive, and I had one of the worst reactions, so there you go.

GC LIVING: Does that make you think a little bit more cautiously about your career path? Especially in light of what happened with Steve Irwin and the stingray? (Editor’s Note: Steve Irwin, known as “The Crocodile Hunter,” was a famous Australian zookeeper and conservationist known for his TV show where he handled wildlife in many dangerous situations and talked about different animals. He died in 2006 after being pieced in the heart by a stingray barb.)

Wildman Phil: Right. I was just going to say that! I’m a lot more cautious in the ocean than I am around rattlesnakes. I know there are people out there who have died from rattlesnake bites. But yes, it’s changed. I’ll still handle rattlesnakes. I still go out and look for them to get pictures and take other people out to show them to them. I encounter them out in the wild or go pick them up from people’s porches or living rooms. [Laughs] Where they find them, I’m there, but I am more cautious about it.

I was cautious before, and it happened, so now it’s that next level of cautious. Not that I’m afraid of them. I still know that they’re not out there to get us, and I’m not going to say I don’t mess with them. I do, but not like my brother. Rattlesnakes usually let you know when they’re around. I go travel other places, and they have copperheads and water moccasins that are basically rattlesnakes without rattles, and you have to pay more attention there.

GC LIVING: So you do this for a living?

Wildman Phil: Yes. [Laughs]

GC LIVING: But at the same time, it’s not exactly inexpensive to feed all of the creatures you have in your menagerie.

Wildman Phil: Right. [Laughs] I’m one of those people who get to make a living doing what I like to do. You know, it’s an old adage that if you do what you like, you don’t have to work a day in your life. I’m not going to say it’s not work sometimes – it is – but I love what I do. I love working with animals, I love working with people, and I’ve had the opportunity to bring those things together.

I’m not Steve Irwin or Marlin Perkins or Coyote Peterson, where I’m out in the field looking for these things. I’m bringing the field to people, so I have to keep these animals alive. Yeah, it’s pretty costly. I probably spend more on crickets, mice and produce than probably most. A lot of that has to do with the types of animals that we have. It’s one of those things that, over the years, we have had people who have to get rid of some exotic animal. For years, people would get a hold of me because I know how to take care of these things, and it’s grown.

A lot of those have been used for educational purposes. Some of them, like our Lemur, just does not travel. She’s cool and fun, but something that unfortunately isn’t able to help educate too many of the people.

A couple years ago, my daughter, Emily, when she was 13, she came up with the idea to start an exotic pet rescue. She realized that there are more and more people with exotic animals, and when they have to get rid of them, you can’t just turn them in to the Humane Society or whatever. Nobody knows how to take care of them. So, she officially started Stumpy’s Exotic Pet Rescue. That was about the same time that we partnered with the Black Box Foundation locally. They’re a performing arts and educational, not-for-profit organization, and I am a performing arts educational person, and we ended up partnering up.

They are a 501(c)(3), and that helped, because now people can donate, so we were able to open Stumpy’s Exotic Pet Rescue. We get to help bring them in and, if possible, re-home them, making sure they are going to a good home, because we’re not in a hurry to try and get rid of them. We can take care of them. We have some animals that we’ve had for years and years. We have people who donate food items for the animals and supplies. We’re able to make it all work out.

GC LIVING: So what do your neighbors think of your zoo?

Wildman Phil: Um, [Laughs] that’s funny. A lot of my neighbors, they all react differently. Some think it’s neat to have a small zoo in the neighborhood. We have people come over all the time who want to come over to see the animals. We have kids in the neighborhood show up at our door and go, “Hey, we hear you have some animals. Can we see them?” We generally say, “We need to talk to your parents, and here we have this nice little ‘Release of Liability’ form filled out before we let you on the property.” You know, things like that. But, it’s one of those things where everybody reacts differently.

One of our neighbors loves to come over and talk to the animals on the other side of the fence from him. And it’s fun. And the neighbors on both sides have certain animals that they checked with us if it’s OK if they give them different food. And so they’ll bring over a head of lettuce or fruits and vegetables for the tortoises or the birds.

There are some people in the neighborhood who, honestly, I think they’re a little more worried than they let on.

GC LIVING: Well, you haven’t had an alligator walking down the road yet.

Wildman Phil: Right! A lot of people are super afraid of alligators, and we’ve never had one get out. We’ve had small lizards over the years get out from time to time, native stuff, but we live rurally, and most people are more worried about having a rattlesnake come out of the desert or off the golf course onto their driveway. More people get attacked by dogs every year than alligators. And dogs get out; alligators don’t. Anyway, to me it’s all kind of silly.

GC LIVING: Is that a concern of yours – having animals get into your property?

Wildman Phil: Yes. I actually have a greater number of concerns and have had more trouble with animals getting into my property than my animals getting out. I seriously have lost more lizards, rabbits, birds and other small mammals, and even baby tortoises from neighborhood cats coming in and dogs getting in, than I have ever had with animals getting out.

GC LIVING: So, because of your career path, you have gotten to go to a number of locations, and even television?

Wildman Phil: Yes. [Laughs]

GC LIVING: “The Conan Show?”

Wildman Phil: I do feel blessed that I have the life that I have, and who knows where it’s going? I’m not planning on being done yet, but because of doing this, I’ve gotten to see a lot of places and do a lot of things and meet some interesting people. Some of them famous; some of them not. I’ve been in different TV shows and movies and things. I’ve been on “The Conan Show”. I’ve gotten to meet Jeff Goldblum and (the band) Jimmy Eat World – cool people. I did some work at a lot of different festivals, events and music festivals, and had the opportunity to meet a lot of big-name bands and different celebrity people, who are pretty cool. I’ve worked with the Brave Wilderness guys, Coyote Peterson and Mark and Mario. My family and I, and our animals, have been on Ghost Adventures.

GC LIVING: The award-winning episode about the Domes!

Wildman Phil: [Laughs] Yeah. That was when I found out that my kids do creepy very well. And sacrificing my nephew Ryan was pretty cool. Growing up in Casa Grande, it was fun to enjoy the domes legally.

GC LIVING: What memory do you hold the most dear? What have you gotten to do that has really impacted you?

Wildman Phil: I’ve made some really good friends because of what I do and having these animals.

When I was in high school and soon after, I was big into the bicycle (BMX) freestyling scene. We had a little group here in Casa Grande that would perform at different festivals or the O’Odham Tash Parade and different things. And to make a long story short, I ended up meeting a guy who was a big professional in that field. I ended up finding out that Dino Deluca, this professional freestyler, was just a normal guy like the rest of us, who was really good at doing super cool tricks on a bike. Do you know what I mean? He ended up moving to Casa Grande. We hung out. We’re good friends. We still chat with each other to this day. He’s a normal person, and that’s kind of what got to me to not be afraid to talk to people.

I’ve had some wonderful opportunities, and all this has come about because I’m good at what I do. But as far as actual memories, I want to say the most memorable things were not necessarily meeting this person or that person. I laugh about some of the stories. I mean, when I met a couple of guys from the band, The Fray, I had no idea who they were. I hung out with them for a few hours. We chatted just like guys would chat. And then found out later, I was supposed to get autographs for all my friends.

So that’s kind of a memory there, but a lot of mine are on the other side of it. They’re not famous people. They’re people who, because I was doing what I do, I was helping people out. And I’ll be honest, sometimes I didn’t even know it. Hearing later when somebody comes to you and is like, you know, “You changed my life,” Uh, “OK.” [Laughs] That’s why I do what I do, but it wasn’t like I woke up one morning and I’m like, “Hey, I’m going to go find somebody to change their life today.” I’m doing what I’m doing, and to hear stories like that, those are, I think, the ones that are the best memories.

GC LIVING: What do you urge people to do when they have encounters with a scorpion, a tarantula, a non-venomous snake, or even a venomous snake?

Wildman Phil: I can tell you what not to do. Don’t turn and run the other way and run into a cactus. That’s not good. Don’t scream like a girl. That, especially if you’re around friends, isn’t good. You don’t whip out your gun and shoot away. And I guess that’s one of the reasons I do what I do, is I try to get people to understand these creatures, because unfortunately, a lot of things are all lumped into the same category – creepy and crawly – so it doesn’t matter if it’s a scorpion or a spider. Maybe it’s a caterpillar. Everything is just, “Hey, that must be dangerous,” and really they’re not.

Everything out there is out there for a reason. Now, I get it if it’s in your house. None of us wants to walk into the bathroom and step on a scorpion, and I get that. So when you come across these things in the wild, you can usually avoid them and let them go on their way. It’s different for each creature, though. It’s one of those things that, really, there’s very few things that are out there just trying to attack people. At the same time, they don’t purposely wake up in the morning and go, “I’m going to help a human today,” but they’re out there eating mice or eating bugs or keeping disease under control. They’re keeping various creatures’ numbers under control. They’re spreading seeds. They’re aerating the soil. They’re doing whatever they’re doing that’s helping us.

So, I guess the bottom line would be if you’re out in the wild and you find something, get a good picture. At the same time, stay away from it, and don’t get too close. Don’t try to handle it, especially if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Also, you stay in your house, and let them stay in theirs. You can visit each other’s houses, but try to be nice.

If you find a scorpion in your house, honestly, you’re not going to greatly impact the ecosystem in your neighborhood by smashing the scorpion that you find crawling behind your toilet. You’re not going to want a trip to the hospital or be in pain, so you might want to take care of that. Now, if you get something like a rattlesnake or skunk in your house, that’s a little bit different. You call somebody who is a professional that will come and get it – animal control, the fire department or myself, or somebody that you know who specializes in removal. A lot of pest control services take care of some of those kinds of creatures, and if not, they know somebody who does.

I want people to know the facts about these things. If you find a bird with an injured wing, there are definitely people who come take care of that. I get calls every once in awhile, “We have a baby owl.” There are a lot of specialized rescues that can help raise, rehabilitate and, if possible, release the animal back into the wild. If you find something injured or suspect to be injured, get a hold of somebody who knows the animal.

Understanding and knowing the wildlife is the key, which is why I do what I do.