University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Reptile Rep

Emily Roberts earns a living demystifying things that slither and slide.

photo by Shelly Mosman

Like many girls who grew up in the St. Paul suburb of Woodbury, Minnesota, Emily Roberts (B.S. ’12) played on a softball team. But instead of being on the lookout for pop flies and grounders, Roberts spent her time in the outfield catching toads hiding in the grass. Her coach kindly held them for her when she went up to bat, before reminding her that the reason she was on the team was to focus on playing.

That early enthusiasm for animals turned out to be a stepping stone to a career as a reptile expert and the owner of Snake Discovery, a Maplewood, Minnesota-based shop and educational zoo. Roberts also hosts the wildly popular Snake Discovery YouTube channel, which provides informative videos on reptiles to over 3.1 million subscribers.

Roberts lived at home with her parents when she attended the U of M—majoring in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology at the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)—both to save money and to care for the exotic parrots she was raising. A summer internship as an interpretive naturalist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources after her junior year helped spark her interest in a career working with animals. It also taught her the skills that she needed to connect with the public about wildlife.

“We hired a man called Randy the Frog Guy, and he would come into the park once a year to do a camping program with the public,” Roberts says. “And he had a very well-structured, 45-minute program about frogs. That’s what opened my eyes to the fact that you can make a living doing educational animal programs.”

Roberts's love for reptiles in particular didn’t take hold until she started working at a local PetSmart during the school year. At first, she was struck by how easy caring for them is. “Reptiles don’t chew your furniture,” she explains. “They don’t poop every 15 minutes. They don’t demand your attention like parrots.” She also liked that reptiles are easygoing and affordable.

Roberts continued to work at PetSmart after graduation. Then in 2015, she took a leap of faith and started Snake Discovery, which she originally conceived as a traveling reptile experience aimed at park programs, scouting groups, schools, libraries, and birthday parties. Roberts says her U of M education helped cultivate her ability to research and learn about the animals, and to share that information with others.

Snake Discovery started with 10 reptiles, mostly native to Minnesota and Wisconsin: fox snakes, garter snakes, and bullsnakes. “I wanted to teach people about what they could find in their backyards,” Roberts explains. She made one exception to those parameters: Every Snake Discovery program ended with a boa constrictor, a showstopper that isn’t native to Minnesota.

Snake Discovery spread via word of mouth, and Roberts’s collection of animals grew to include an American alligator named Rex, who lived in a tank in the guest bedroom of the house Roberts shares with her husband, Ed. Another guest room housed 80 reptiles. She was doing 350 programs a year—up to four a day during the summer. Inevitably, audience members approached her after a show, wanting to learn more about any number of topics, including advice for keeping snakes as pets. Pressed for time, Roberts sped through her answers while she packed up.

That inability to thoroughly respond to all her audience’s questions made Roberts wonder if making educational videos could be a solution to her time crunch. In 2016, she uploaded her first video to YouTube. Soon she was getting requests not just for how-to instructions, but also information about reptiles in general, such as how snakes shed.

The Snake Discovery channel became so successful that her husband was able to quit his IT job to work full time for the company. Today, the duo creates two videos a week on anything from hognose snake hatches to how to brush a bearded dragon’s teeth (get it to open its mouth by gently putting your thumb and forefinger over its eyes). Each video takes hours of scripting and filming. Roberts estimates she and Ed spend half their time on the YouTube channel alone.

As the company has grown, the animals—including Rex the alligator—were relocated from the Roberts home to Snake Discovery’s current location in Maplewood, which has an educational zoo featuring more than 75 exhibits of reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. There’s also a pet store that includes reptiles, along with the live and frozen rodents they eat. In addition to selling animals bred at Snake Discovery, the company also functions as a rescue and adoption center.

Snake Discovery has 17 employees, including Kalie Berg Borowiak (B.S. ’19), a former interpretive guide at the U of M’s Bell Museum. “I like fostering that love and knowledge of reptiles, because a lot of parents are like, ‘Oh, my kid’s into this, but I’m not super sure about it.’ And so I get to teach them what’s really awesome about reptiles and how they’re not as scary as people tend to think they are.”

Sitting in Snake Discovery’s classroom, Roberts lights up when discussing the joy she feels helping people learn to love the misunderstood creatures that have become her life’s work.

“I love seeing the transition from kids at the beginning of a program, where [many] are terrified of snakes,” she says. “When you pull the first one out, they all scooch back 6 feet. But by the end of the 45-minute program, they scooch forward so much they’re at your feet.”

Likewise, the videos have their own rewards. “I think the most meaningful feedback I get is when I hear of somebody who hated snakes before discovering our channel, but then [has an experience where] instead of killing the snake they see outside, they pick it up, admire it, and let it go.”

If you liked this story, Minnesota Alumni magazine publishes four times a year highlighting U of M alumni and University activities. The magazine is a benefit of being a Alumni Association member. Join here to receive a printed copy at home.

Read More