snakes on a plane | 

Dedicated reptile ranger back to work at Kilkenny zoo only four days after microplane crash

James Hennessy, who caters for 180 unusual reptiles and animals at his Co Kilkenny resort, was caught up in the plane accident last month.
Animal ranger James Hennessy

Animal ranger James Hennessy

Eugene Masterson

Even being injured in a recent horrific plane crash did not stop dedicated animal ranger James Hennessy from tending to the creatures he owns in the National Reptile Zoo.

James, who caters for 180 unusual reptiles and animals at his Co Kilkenny resort, was in the plane accident last month near his home.

“I’m a pilot and I crashed a small microplane at the back of my house, I had an engine failure and it just crashed unfortunately,” he tells us.

“Thankfully there was no one else at me at the time. I went down parallel with a road and people saw it going down and came running over when it saw it crash into a field.

“It happened so quick, you don’t get the chance really to think too much and you go into emergency mode and you run through certain drills.”

Emergency services rushed to the scene where he was given assistance.

“I had a full neck brace and spinal board. I had a lot of breaks and spinal damage.

James had been flying around five years.

“The plane is now a ball of fibreglass and aluminium,” he reveals.

He’s now getting back on his feet.

“I was out after three days,” he explains. “They eliminated any spinal issues. Everything else was minor surgeries on the likes of my hands

“I have a full cast on my hand and I’m in the middle of fitting a new brace on my ankle. I was really lucky, two bones on my right hand were broken and I have a broken chest plate, so my sternum was cracked in the middle of my chest.

“I was back to work within four days. I put my mind to going back. It was very limited, I was more overseeing rather than doing the physical stuff, but I did manage to feed a few of the animals myself and I’m still hovering around doing bits and pieces.”

The zoo has been going 15 years and was in hits new expanded location for about two months before Covid hit.

“We have 180 animals and we are down to six staff now, from 10,” he notes. “In the Summer we would have 12.

“We got a (Covid) grant of €30,000. But it costs us €30,000 to run the place for a months, its not cheap. We use a lot of electricity in trying to recreate the tropics in here, we have that many animals

“We used to get about 40,000 people a year before we moved to our new location and we were tripling the numbers. We kicked off quite well, then Covid hit.”

The zoo has a variety of animals, including snakes, lizards and alligators.

“It looks like we will re-open in May,” he beams. “We are looking forward to getting back up and running properly again.”

James has built up an international reputation as one of the world’s foremost crocodile breeders and conservationists.

James’s pride and joy is a 12 foot American alligator called Battle, which weighs 20 stones.

“He came from a zoo that closed down in the UK about 16 years ago and we have him about 13 years,” he adds.

“We named him Battle after Cormac Battle, the Kilkenny musician and DJ.

“He basically helped put him in with us while he was doing a show with Grainne Seoige.”

Battle has a female partner called CC, who is shorter in length by a couple of feet and more slender.

“I have Battle so long I hand feed him,” he reveals. “

He comes up. He responds to his name and is trained. He stands upright and goes back when told. His partner is CC.

“We get eggs off them every year but we don’t hatch them because there’s no demand, no other zoos that require them. So we just destroy the eggs. We don’t want to bring an animal into the world and them not have space for it.

“They are quite long living, they live to 80 or maybe 100.”

James, who hails from Kilkenny, has had crocodiles since he was a kid.

“I suppose like any kid, every kid loves dinosaurs and I got a chance to start collecting crocodiles, which are close enough,” he enthuses.

“I was big into animals and I did a lot of travel. I do a lot of conservation work abroad and then I said I’d bring my research home with me. It was all above board. Most of the stuff that we have would be born in Europe, would be born in other European zoos or collections.

“They have to be crated over. I shipped over six salt water crocodiles from New Zealand about six years ago, which I supply to other zoos as well.”

James was back to work within four days

James was back to work within four days

James describes himself as a herpetologist, which is somebody who studies reptiles and amphibians.

He has about five crocodiles and likes to breed them before sending off their offspring to other centres.

“I’m not sad as normally I kind of handpick where they go, they’re going to big facilities,” he points out.

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