Mr. Keszey, who lives on a 40-acre farm where the sanctuary is and where “Swamp Brothers” was filmed, said that after dinner, his son went to “shut down the room” as usual. Moments later, his son ran back screaming about the fire.
“I tried to open the door, but the handle was so hot, I couldn’t even touch it,” Mr. Keszey said. “Fire was shooting out the sides of the building. I just fell to my knees and started crying and throwing up.”
Mr. Keszey told police that the last time he’d seen Snowball was Friday at about 11:30 a.m.
The police are “chasing down every lead that they have,” Mr. Keszey said.
When asked if he had ever received any threats or knew of anyone who wished him or his animals harm, Mr. Keszey said: “No, no one. Everybody loved Snowball. Kids loved Snowball.”
Mr. Keszey regularly used Snowball, who would turn 3 years old in August, as an educational tool. He said he especially enjoyed teaching groups of children about the animals.
“Snowball was incredible to use because he looked different than an alligator,” said Mr. Keszey, who also referred to the sanctuary as an education center. “I believe in conservation through entertainment. If you can make people laugh, you can get them to pay attention.”
In 2013, Mr. Keszey and Robroy MacInnes, his business partner at the time — they owned the Florida reptile dealership Glades Herp Farm — were charged by the Justice Department with conspiracy to traffic in protected reptiles. They were both found guilty. Mr. MacInnes was also charged with and convicted of trafficking in protected eastern timber rattlesnakes. In 2014, Mr. MacInnes was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $4,000. Mr. Keszey was sentenced to 12 months and fined $2,000.
A lawyer for Mr. MacInnes did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Looking back, Mr. Keszey said: “You live and learn, and you go forward. That’s why when all that happened, Stephen and I dissolved the business and got rid of that business partner and went on to do our own thing.”