Phil Colclough: ‘You don’t have to pet them’

Beth KinnaneInside 640, On the Grow

Majoring in anthropology isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a man whose passion is reptiles, specifically snakes. But that is exactly what Phil Colclough did. He even had the famed Bill Bass as his advisor when he was studying at UT.

Colclough is the director of animals, conservation and education at Zoo Knoxville. He once ran into Bass at the zoo, and his former professor quipped, “Gross! You work with snakes!”

While the memory is a fond one and elicits a chuckle, Colclough is a roaming ambassador for the less cute and cuddly fauna of the great outdoors.

“They’re as valuable to the ecosystem as an elephant, as a tiger, as a great ape,” Colclough said. “I may not be able to teach anyone to not be afraid of snakes, and I don’t belittle them for that. I can just teach people not to harm them and, hopefully, appreciate them. From a distance.”

He also reminded that killing snakes, any snakes, native to Tennessee is illegal. If it’s minding its business, leave it alone.

Phil Colclough

This week Colclough is busy with (and full of excitement for) the opening of the Clayton Family Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus (ARC) at the zoo. The official ribbon cutting was Monday morning, with remarks by Zoo Knoxville President and CEO Lisa New, Zoo Knoxville board chair Chelly Clayton, city of Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Commissioner Dr. Dasha Lundy.

For Colclough, the opening is a dream that’s been a long time coming, made a bit more difficult to get to the finish line coming off a year when the zoo was stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic. The new facility isn’t just a fancy place to show off some animals, it’s a key to the preservation of several species.

“A real feather in our cap is our work with the Malagasy (radiated) tortoise,” he said. “It’s not just work we do here, it’s work we do in the field. And some of the animals must remain in human care to ensure the species survives.”

While his official title at the zoo involves a lot of meetings, phone calls and emails, Colclough said the opening of ARC is allowing him to get back to his roots a bit actually caring for animals. As a self-proclaimed “snake guy” who started out as an entry level keeper, he’s getting back into snake handling again, with a green mamba and a king cobra included among his charges.

Colclough said “conservation is a huge word, it encompasses a lot of things, including educating the public. It’s a challenge, a challenge I readily accept.”

Enjoy this carousel of photos of some of the critters at ARC.

A large crowd was on hand for Monday’s festivities, including lead donors to the project, Jim and Michell Clayton as well as U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie, state Reps. Eddie Mannis and Michele Carringer as well as county commissioners Larsen Jay, Justin Biggs and Courtney Durrett, just to name a few. Here’s a carousel of photos of some of the attendees:

To learn more about Zoo Knoxville or to become a member go here.

Beth Kinnane is community news editor at

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