Reptile custody battle leaves tangled snake pit

When reptile zoo curator Karel Fortyn died, he left more than 200 snakes and crocodiles in his Welland, Ont., house that also operates as a reptile zoo — and an unusual custody battle.

Crocodiles, pit vipers, boa constrictors land in a legal battle

When reptile zoo curator Karel Fortyn died, he left a mess as tangled as a snake pit.

The 52-year-old Czech-born man never wrote up a will. He died from a stroke May 2, leaving behind more than 200 snakes and crocodiles in his Welland, Ont., house that also operates as a reptile zoo — and an unusual custody battle.

Now his lawyer Margaret Hoy must sift through legal claims on Fortyn's property: a brother she says is the rightful owner, a former common-law wife who also has laid claim and government officials involved because of the endangered animals.

Karel Fortyn and his former common-law wife, Dana Kubias, appear in an old undated photograph. ((Courtesy of Dana Kubias))

"It's a typical estate without a will," said Hoy.

But the occupants are anything but typical.

Among the reptilian inhabitants of the southern Ontario home are a pair of highly endangered Orinoco crocodiles, several other crocodiles and a number of non-venomous and venomous snakes, including pit vipers (Fortyn's favourite), boa constrictors and many more.

The large snakes are kept in individual cages, crammed side-by-side on shelves in a garage renovated with floor-to-ceiling tiles to create the Seaway Serpentarium Reptile Zoo, a small facility that opened its creaky door to visitors three days a week.

An addition in the back houses the two Orinoco crocodiles — each creature is over 300 kilograms and three metres long —  plus a nursery for baby and smaller snakes.

More animals are housed in the basement. Fortyn used to reside in the main part of the rundown detached house, where his fiancée, Esther Dube, still lives.

Karel's brother, Jan Fortyn, flew from the Czech Republic to come to the funeral and deal with the estate.

But Fortyn's former business partner and ex-common-law wife of 27 years, Dana Kubias, also lays claim to the animals and says she still owns the house where the reptiles are located.

Kubias says the two separated last March and that she paid for much of the Seaway Serpentarium, even though the reptile zoo was registered in Fortyn's name. The reptile zoo opened in 1984, two years after Fortyn moved to Canada.

The Welland Humane Society stepped in and took temporary custody for 10 days while ownership issues were resolved, after two phone complaints about potential safety issues when teenagers were reported entering the building.

Welland Humane Society executive director John Greer says he felt the facility posed an "extremely high" public safety issue. "Someone gets bitten and chances are they'll die," he said, noting that there is no antivenin on site.

Brother wants collection kept together

Though the humane society has stepped out of the custody battle, all levels of government — local, provincial and federal — could soon be involved.

An eyelash pit viper is one of many venomous snakes kept at Karel Fortyn's house. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

Because the Orinoco crocodiles are critically endangered, it is illegal to sell the animals and move them out of country or even into a municipality with an exotic pet ban, says Greer.

Policing ownership of exotic animals is the domain of municipalities in Ontario — and there's a patchwork of bylaws in place. In the city of Welland, it's illegal to keep exotic pets, but zoos are exempt.

Fortyn's brother says he plans to make a final decision by Thursday, before he returns to the Czech Republic. He's looking at facilities in Ontario capable of taking the animals and plans to donate them.

"I would like that the whole collection be kept together somewhere else in my brother's memory," said Jan Fortyn. "It shouldn't be split if possible.… What you can see here is his kids, so thanks to that I intend to put them all together."

Kubias had already begun to make arrangements for Indian River Reptile Zoo in Peterborough, whose owner was friends with the former couple, to take the animals and place them elsewhere. She's angered by the brother's decision.

"Right now, my nerves are shattered, I'll tell you," said Kubias.

Former Seaway Serpentarium curator, Shaun Waite, has been caring for the animals over the past few days as a decision is made.

Waite said the place was in reasonable shape, but the gas had somehow shut off in the house, causing a "massive temperature drop" in the crocodile tanks from the standard 32 C to 20 C, "which can be extremely detrimental" and stressful for the dangerous creatures.

"We got it back up and they are much happier already," he said.

But the same cannot be said for Fortyn's loved ones. The dispute over the reptiles is weighing on family members.

His fiancée, Dube, 43, said the two weren't thinking far enough into the future because they were just focused on their upcoming wedding. A small ceremony was set to take place June 18 in the room beside the Orinoco crocodile tanks.

"It's very devastating," said Dube about Fortyn's sudden death and the ensuing custody battle. "It’s been very difficult."

Though some believe the custody battle stems from the potential for profit, Waite says that's unlikely.

"Reptiles is not a lucrative business. I've spent a lifetime making no money with these animals. And same with Karel," said Waite. "If you wanted to go out and buy a collection like this, yeah, you could spend $100,000 doing it. And overnight, if you try to sell it, it's worth virtually nothing."

One thing everyone does agree on is that they all plan to write up their own wills once this is all settled.