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Fate of hundreds of reptiles rests with court after Serpentarium owner's death

There is a home in Welland, Ont., with about 200 reptiles in it.

About 150 of these are venomous snakes; others, including two very large Orinoco crocodiles, are extremely endangered. The man who owned these reptiles, Karel Fortyn, died in May of a stroke. The home's sole living owner is Daniela Kubias, Mr. Fortyn's former common-law partner of 27 years. The reptiles now belong to Mr. Fortyn's estate - which, because he had no will, is in the hands of his brother Jan, who lives in Prague. The house is occupied by Esther Dube, who was engaged to Mr. Fortyn before his death, and now lives in his self-built reptilian kingdom.

A lot of people in Welland have a lot of snakes to deal with.

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Ms. Kubias would like for the reptile collection to be in competent hands, so she enlisted the Indian River Reptile Zoo to take them in. Margaret Hoy, the lawyer in charge of the estate, has other destinations in mind and, pending a case before the Superior Court of Ontario on Tuesday, would see them sent to zoos in Ottawa and Vaughan. The reptiles are currently being cared for by two experienced local handlers.

How did this happen?

Mr. Fortyn was an avid reptile lover who fled Czechoslovakia in 1980 for West Germany. Ms. Kubias and her then-husband, also a reptile enthusiast, sponsored Mr. Fortyn to come to Canada, and he arrived with a collection of creatures. Soon afterward, Ms. Kubias's marriage dissolved and she found herself with Mr. Fortyn - he was "something that I had always hoped my husband could be" - and they became common-law partners. She supported him as he opened the Seaway Serpentarium out of a garage-like attachment to their home on Steel Street in Welland, just south of St. Catharines.

Mr. Fortyn died on May 2 at age 52. Just days later, after reports of teenagers entering and exiting the Serpentarium, Welland's humane society took on a temporary care and custody agreement for the property, until someone could figure out who owned the reptiles. Members of the humane society continue to patrol the building in the interests of community safety.

But how long can reptiles stay in a dead man's home?

Ms. Kubias and Mr. Fortyn separated - amicably, she said - last year. Ms. Kubias would very much like the reptiles to be taken care of. So would Mr. Fortyn's brother, but he doesn't have to worry about looking after the home.

Ms. Kubias is falling into debt, having already paid for Mr. Fortyn's funeral, she said. She wants to put the collection into capable hands and sell the home - but the estate owns the reptiles, and Mr. Fortyn's fiancée lives in the home.

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Ms. Kubias enlisted Peterborough-based Indian River Reptile Zoo and its curator, Bry Loyst, to take in Mr. Fortyn's collection. Ms. Hoy, the estate lawyer, said that for "many reasons" the estate refuses to let Mr. Loyst and Indian River take control of the animals, delaying the process of finding them other care.

And because Ms. Kubias never previously charged rent - she let it slide when Mr. Fortyn's new partner moved into the home - she's having trouble getting Ms. Dube to move out or pay for the costs of the home.

The cost of the utilities are draining to Ms. Kubias. On top of normal utilities, the Serpentarium has numerous costs associated with the reptiles, many of which need humid climates to survive.

"I'm getting sick and tired," Ms. Kubias said. "I just want to straighten up everything and start living normally."

There is also significant concern for the animals' long-term well-being. On a hot day, Mr. Loyst said, "it's probably 110 degrees inside. Reptiles need to be warm, but they can die if they're too hot."

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