Cutting the ribbon on Putnam County’s ‘Zoology Zone’ was a dream come true for owner Andy McKee

By Autumn Shelton, RealWV

HURRICANE, W.Va. – The September grand opening of the Zoology Zone Science Center in Putnam County was a dream come true for President & CEO Andy McKee, who fell in love with reptiles, amphibians and education when he was just a kid. 

“It was all just circumstance that this came to fruition,” McKee said in a recent interview with RealWV. “God definitely had a plan.” 

Located at Valley Park, the Zoology Zone Science Center is a nonprofit organization that contains the area’s only dedicated reptile and amphibian rescue and shelter. It is also quickly becoming one of the best educational locations in the state for a hands-on, immersive science learning experience. However, with the organization’s current success, it’s hard to believe this business had a humble beginning in the back of a middle school classroom. 

Andy McKee holds a herpetology class.

In 2011, following his service in the U.S. Army, McKee returned home from Iraq after an injury forced him into medical retirement. Eight years later, he began his next career as an educator at a middle school in his hometown of Huntington. 

“I started teaching in 2019, and I began an after-school herpetology program to teach students about the science of reptiles and amphibians,” McKee said. “While I was teaching, I started getting a lot of calls from people who had reptiles, but couldn’t take care of them anymore. They wanted to see if we could help. Some wanted to donate animals to our program, so our herpetology program was literally made up of rescued and donated animals.” 

As word about the program spread, local animal control officers began contacting McKee to see if he could help them rescue the animals they weren’t able to.

“That just continued to grow, but then Covid hit, and everything went virtual,” McKee explained. “I had to keep taking care of the animals, but the rescue calls didn’t stop. In fact, it got worse. People just didn’t have the funds to take care of their animals anymore.” 

That was when McKee, who had been taking care of the rescued animals using his own money, decided it was time to incorporate a nonprofit to offset the costs. He started Mountain State Reptile Rescue, based in his classroom. 

One year later, McKee knew it was time to commit to opening a full-time rescue.

“I decided to go all in and I did not renew my teaching contract for the following year,” McKee said. 

Instead, he opened a small office in Huntington, started fundraising and continued to educate by offering programs either in his office or by traveling to local schools. But, the need for a larger rescue continued to grow. Eight months later, he was able to move to a larger location inside the Huntington Mall and, rebrand as The Reptile House and Rescue.

“When we first moved to the mall, we had nothing,” McKee said. “We had our animals, but some of them were just on makeshift racks. We weren’t open to the public every single day, but we were doing shows on the weekends. That’s when it really hit us that people want to see this stuff and they enjoy learning about these animals.” 

Then, a chance encounter with Putnam County officials led McKee to the possibility of opening an even larger location–with 10,000 sq. ft. of indoor space and an additional 5,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space–but the first time he toured the new site, he thought he would never be able to afford it. 

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” McKee recalled of seeing the facility for the first time. “My eyes got huge and my jaw just dropped. This is a beautiful, beautiful building. But I thought we just aren’t going to be able to make this work.” 

Yet, good things can happen to good people, and, as it turns out, it was possible. 

“When I tell you that this was nothing short of God saying alright here you go–that’s exactly what it was. It truly came out of nowhere,” McKee said. 

Today, this new facility is the Zoology Zone Science Center. 

“We wanted to teach more areas of science and use this as a large classroom,” McKee said. “That’s what we do. We have built out educational opportunities here that span beyond just animals. But, ultimately, everything that happens here revolves around our mission statement which is: To inspire wildlife and environmental conservation through a hands-on, immersive education. So, no matter if we are doing a science experiment, or an animal show, or a storytime, it all caters to that mission. That is what is so important here.” 

Over the years, McKee estimates that he and his team have rescued more than 300 animals, from lizards and snakes to bearded dragons and American alligators. Currently, there are over 90 animals at the center. 

“We have five of the three largest land tortoise species in the entire world here that were all surrendered,” McKee continued. “One of the biggest reasons is because they grow to be giant and can live for 80 years. People see them when they are sold as little hatchlings and think they are the cutest thing ever . . . but 10 years later, it is walking through your wall.” 

McKee also said they have accepted a Prairie dog as a surrender, and they have named him Clyde. 

“Every one of our animals on exhibit have been rescued and rehabilitated,” McKee continued. “So, we’re not just limited to talking about the species, we get to talk about their environment and native habitat, but we also get to talk about how they were rescued. We have some animals that were literally on death’s door and we are able to talk about how they survived. We discuss that even though a person may not like a particular animal, like snakes, no animal deserves to be mistreated or neglected. Every animal deserves a chance, and they play a very important role in our environment.” 

He said he has watched people, who had been terrified of a certain animal, shift their perspective once they learned more about it. 

“I truly believe that education is the key to that shift, and education is the key to saving more animals,” McKee said. “I would love nothing more than to shut down the rescue side of our center because we are not needed anymore, but until then we will be here.” 

In addition to learning about the reptiles and amphibians, those who visit the Zoology Zone Science Center can learn at various stations and exhibits, including a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math) sensory hallway, an optical illusion wall, a hands-on circuit table, a category one hurricane simulator and much more. 

McKee is also doubling down on creating sensory friendly days for learners with special needs, and is currently fundraising for an adult changing table. 

Andy McKee.

“There is a sensory therapeutic aspect for kids of all abilities when they pet animals. It does something. It unlocks something,” McKee said. “We have been bringing in more and more special needs groups from those in our region. Special needs classrooms have had field trips here where we close down specifically for them. We can kick off half the lights or turn off the tvs. It is extremely important for me and this organization for anything we do to be truly for everyone–all ages, all groups, all demographics. Education is not just for one lane, it is for everyone. That’s the goal that we have here.” 

For all of McKee’s successes, he remains true to himself, and credits his father, Pat, with his love for all things herpetology. 

“The apple really fell from the tree,” McKee said. “I credit my dad with every bit of who I am right now. My dad taught high school science for 33 years, and he started the first herpetology program at Huntington High School in 1986.” 

McKee’s father passed away in 2012 while getting ready to go to work and teach his students. 

“When I was growing up, me and my dad were thick as thieves,” McKee said. “I was attached to his hip. Science and animals were our thing. I was always there working with the animals. I fell in love with learning about these animals, and I fell in love with education. He coached basketball as well, and if I wasn’t in his classroom, I was in the gym. I grew up in the locker room.” 

McKee said his mom, Jane, taught elementary school in Wayne County, so education runs in the family. 

“My mom did not tell my dad no a whole lot, except when it came to reptiles,” McKee laughed. “He did so much for our family, but everything had to be kept at school. I was always in a creek outside. I was always looking for animals. I couldn’t bring them to mom, because that was the understanding–I would bring them to dad.”

He said his dad facilitated accidental learning through his high school program by having students take care of the reptiles and amphibians. 

“They were learning, but they didn’t even know they were,” McKee recalled. “That’s one of our rules here that we always joke around about. We say the first rule is to have fun and the second rule is to accidentally learn something. That’s what dad figured out back in the dark ages of the ‘80s. He figured out that students taking care of these animals were learning things without even knowing they were learning things. That was a really cool concept.” 

In the future, McKee said he hopes to expand even more and open a zoo and aquarium. Additionally, he said he is currently seeking people who are willing to serve and fulfill his mission on a board of directors, and he is always welcoming to anyone who wishes to volunteer.

“I think what we are doing is such a cool concept,” McKee concluded. “We are sitting on a powder keg of opportunity. I think we can bring in people who really want to be a part of this. If someone just wants to drop off a truck full of cash, that would be pretty cool, too.” 

To learn more, or to check out volunteer opportunities, visit https://zoologyzone.org/.

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