Exotic Pets, Wild Blood, and the Search for Human-Animal Connection


An aisle or two over, I visited the Kammerflage Kreations booth, a company “dedicated to supplying you with the most incredible ‘living art’ via our spectacular panther chameleons!” Alec O’Brien was wearing art on his arm: a Madagascar chameleon, the size of a kitten, with turquoise skin, yellow lips, a nubby beard-like structure under its chin, feet that gripped like human hands, revolving eyes, a sawtooth ridge down its back, and a little knob on its head. It looked like a character in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. 

The indigo snake may rule the forest, but the chameleon is, according to the Greek origin of its name, the “earth lion.” O’Brien, 25, works part-time for a veterinarian who specializes in exotic pets and part-time at Kammerflage, a business owned by his girlfriend’s family; he works in the breeding lab and at the shows. His hair is dark, short, hip, neatly combed. His ears are pierced with silver double studs, and his smile is pleasant and sincere.

I was struck by his orchid-illustrated flowered shirt, buttoned at the top, mainly because its colorful print almost matched the complex yellow-and-red chromatophores and reflective guanophores of the art piece that now crawled down to his fingers, rotating its eyes. 

O’Brien grew up in Richard Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, California. He haunted the nearby hills, flipping boards over and looking for reptiles and amphibians underneath. As a child, he preferred them as an alternative to the norm, and he still does. “As far as dogs and cats, sure, a lot of people like them, but the reptile movement is gaining momentum. It’s really a community. There are more and more kids coming to the shows. Facebook, Instagram—so many people connect through them. They trade animals, they sell animals, they breed, and they can post and update pictures, and everyone can follow along and get excited about it.” 

He still goes reptile hunting—“herping,” as it’s called by hard-core, well, herpers. He cruises desert highways at night with his high beams on, watching for snakes, toads, and geckos crossing the road. “I’ll just look at them, take pictures of them, document them, and let them go. Some people will take them for breeding colonies, and if you have a California fishing license, you’re legally able to collect certain reptiles. There are places where people go consistently. Some are “operations,” he said, “laying board lines”—like fishing trotlines, only instead of a cord strung with multiple hooks between two trees, board lines are pieces of plywood distributed in reptile territory. Smaller reptiles often like to hide under boards. 

I asked him where the animals at this show came from, and he said that the vast majority of reptiles sold as pets are bred and raised in captivity. “They’re not wild blood,” he said. “People correlate that term with wild-caught chameleons.” And what’s the opposite of wild blood? “Generationally captive-bred animals. We try to breed the healthiest, prettiest, most colorful individuals with each other.” 

About then I noticed the chameleon looking at me with one eye. The other eye was staring at the ceiling. 

O’Brien emphasized that his company breeds responsibly and does not take from the wild. But some breeders believe that an occasional infusion of wild blood helps. Wild blood. A hint of danger. Unexpected behavior in a programmed world. 

A few months earlier, I’d attended a cat show held at the nearby Del Mar Fairgrounds, where rows of booths displayed a dizzying variety of products, including Almost Invisible Cat Litter (“anti-icky-poo”), pet hair picker-uppers for house and garment care, and, for cats and their owners, water filtration systems. (The ScoopFree ultra self-cleaning litter box was nowhere in sight. Too bad. No demonstration. “But wait! There’s more!”) 

Wild blood was there, too, including the Chausie, a mixture of nondomestic species of jungle cat; the Egyptian Mau cat, a naturally spotted breed that looks like a miniature cheetah; and the Pixie-bob, said to be bred from the natural offspring of bobcat hybrids. A pleasant young woman, wearing a knit cap with cat ears, showed me a photo on her smartphone of the recently popular breed, the werecat, also known as the Lykoi cat (lykoi being the Greek word for “wolf”), which looks like a little wolf or, depending on the stage of the moon, a werewolf. This breed, which sells for as much as $2,500 each, is said to act like a canine. 

Meanwhile, breeders are producing oversized cats as dog surrogates. (Who knew the need existed?) These long-legged creatures, called Savannah cats, are designed, as the website The Dodo reports, to “walk on a leash, play fetch and snuggle up to you at bedtime.” They’re “a cross between a regular domestic cat and the wilder (and larger) serval—which accounts for the animal’s stupendous proportions.”

Issues with the exotic pet trade go far beyond snakes to include lions and other large predators.

Savannahs are commonly “compared to dogs in their loyalty and they will follow their owners around the house like a canine,” a breeder told the Dodo’s reporter. “Some owners even shower with their Savannah cats.” The problem is, they’re still wildish. They tend toward sudden viciousness. Susan Bass of Big Cat Rescue in Florida told the reporter, “You have to go through at least five generations to get a cat that’s even remotely docile enough to live in someone’s family. They are notorious for howling at night. They bite. They can’t be controlled. They are going to spray all over your house. They aren’t safe to have ’round children or elderly people.” In other words, a Frankenstein cat. 

Planned or unplanned, an infusion of wild blood is occurring in every state in the union. Since the 1970s, the exotic pet trade has imported, legally or illegally, some two million constrictors, including boas, anacondas, and pythons. In 2015, the National Park Service estimated that as many as 100 thousand nonnative constrictors were loose in the Everglades. 

Some of these critters returned themselves to the wild by slithering down toilets, drain pipes, and heating ducts. Or the owners, realizing that reptiles aren’t always as easy to keep as advertised, released them outside. The care and feeding of a Burmese python, which can, on rare occasions, grow to 20 feet and 250 pounds, can be, well, consuming. In Florida, feral pythons are a serious threat to indigenous species, cats and dogs, and small humans.

In 2009, a two-year-old toddler in Florida was killed by an escaped Burmese python that belonged to her mother’s boyfriend. This eight-foot-long snake, which was later found to have been severely malnourished, broke free, coiled itself around the girl, and squeezed her to death. The mother and boyfriend were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Public python hunts have been organized in Florida, and snake hunters from India have come to lend their expertise, but there has been no appreciable dent in the population. Meanwhile, the snakes are reducing the number of raccoons, possums, bobcats, and even deer.

Issues with the exotic pet trade go far beyond snakes to include lions and other large predators. Even pets indigenous to the United States, or parts of it, can and have been problematic. Take those little dime-store turtles that so many baby boomers kept in bowls in their childhood bedrooms. They were eventually banned because they spread salmonella, and when let loose, they overpopulated local waterways.

All manner of other exotic invaders, or importees, are threatening native wildlife in America. Among them: Asian carp threatening the Great Lakes, Argentine tegus (a large omnivorous lizard), venomous Asian lionfish, African monitor lizards, and Russian zebra mussels. 

Naturalist Paul Roberts once shared with me his conflicted feelings about keeping reptiles or any wild animal in captivity. He did allow his son to catch and keep a lizard “because of the lessons” a lizard could provide, “most immediately those of habitat needs: moisture, nutrition, lighting type, intensity and periodicity, and fundamental ecosystem requirements, especially important with aquatic critters. They offer a tangible experience in responsibility, knowledge, mindfulness.”

Roberts recently buried the lizard, which died in captivity. He does feel regret. “Our love for animals, our biophilic relationships, can be a direct passage to the deeper meanings we all want for our children. But the world is bigger than our own selfish thoughts and desires. It requires more of us and offers more for us.” 

Where would a reptile show rank on ecopsychologist Patricia Hasbach’s human-animal interaction spectrum? Distorted, I suspect. Still, she would like and admire many of the people here, and she would recognize the therapeutic value for the humans, though probably not for, say, the blue-tongued skinks, known affectionately to herpers as “blueys.” 

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The folks of Reptile World are understandably sensitive to how other people see them. Reptile people are far from cold blooded; they feel the bond to other life every bit as much as those who cross any of the more publicly approved bridges to the wild. 

Many hope to revive a connection with the particular animals who showed them the way, in their earliest years, to the other-than-human world. A blogger on one reptile community website writes, “Why is it that people who don’t like snakes feel like it’s ok to say such mean things to us that do like snakes? I get it, not everybody loves snakes—but that doesn’t mean they have to be rude. Just imagine walking up to some stranger and telling them, for no reason, that you think their dog is disgusting!” 

At a booth in the last aisle of the Reptile Super Show, I met Jimmy Cruz, owner of Ball Life. He raises and sells ball pythons. He wore a black Ball Life T-shirt with his company’s slogan in white gothic lettering: let the addiction begin. Cruz is from Fresno, California, where he grew up, as he told me, getting into a lot of trouble. 

“Ten years ago,” he said, “my son was like six years old, and he goes, ‘It’s Father’s Day. I’m going to get you a snake, Dad.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? All right.’ So I got my first ball python.” He was hooked. Six years later, he was in the mood for a radical shift in his life. He went shopping for pythons. “We had a pet store in Fresno called Reptile Room.” Cruz became the owner’s new best friend. That first week he spent just over $2,000 on snakes, tanks, equipment, and food. Two weeks later, he owned over 40 snakes. “Then I was up to 200 snakes. In one room.” 

Now wait a minute, you were living in one room? 

“No, I had a house,” he clarified, “but one room was devoted to snakes. Then, after that, I started doing a rack system. I’m currently just over 100 snakes, and I’ve got another 80 to 100 on the way. I’ve got my incubator filled and more females dropping eggs.” 

What I saw at the reptile show also reflected species loneliness, the hunger for a deeper connection—an injection of wild blood.

He started his own company, in part to pay for his reptile habit. He also works for a company called Freedom Breeder in Turlock, California, which manufactures acrylic racks, trays, and tubs for snake and rodent breeding. As he explained, reptile love isn’t cheap love. 

“People jump into this hobby without thinking. If you have a couple of snakes, it’s one thing, you know. But then some people start getting up there, 15 or 20 snakes, and then the feeding starts being really expensive,” he explained. Live or frozen rodents called feeders(frozen baby mice are called pinkies) can cost $1.50 to $2 each. “With the ball pythons, you have to start getting rats. And that starts costing anywhere from$3 to $6 per live rat.” Some companies will “send the feeders with dry ice. You stick ’em in your freezer.” 

What’s the personal connection to snakes? Where’s the payoff? Partly bragging rights, he admitted. “I like looking a little bit different. Tattoos, all that. I like the attention. Driving around Fresno, my town, walking around with a big old snake on. I would see guys that were six foot something, and they’d run. I’m like, dude, you’re like ten times bigger than the snake.” Cruz’s smile was warm and kind. He was not a large man. But the ink that covered most of his right arm below the elbow read do not start with me. you will not win.

“I’m 41 years old and I kind of grew up,” he said. “I have three boys. My youngest is six, my middle is nine, and oldest is seventeen. So my seventeen-year-old and my six-year-old, they want to do this with me.” Sometimes Cruz takes his boys herping on the land around Fresno. “My little one helps with the feeding. He’s just as involved with this as I am.” I asked him to describe the essence of his relationship with animals, any animals. 

“You just appreciate everything a lot more. Some people are afraid of spiders; some people are scared of bugs. And now, for me, it’s like you want to preserve everything. You want to save it instead of trying to kill it, smash it, whatever. You are like, ‘No, leave it alone, it’s not bothering you.’ . . . Even the rodents, you know, you’re not trying to be mean. Scurry along, you know. It just changes the way your outlook is on a lot of things.” 

Including people? 

“It actually does, you know what I mean?” he said. “In the reptile industry, it’s just all walks of life. You have people who look like me, all tatted up. You have the people you would never imagine they would have reptiles. You get a little friendlier, I guess. You are not so judgmental anymore. People who don’t have reptiles, they look at you like, ‘Oh, you’re just weird.’ But ones who do have reptiles, and that’s more and more of us, we’re less judgmental. We don’t look at you for your exterior. We’re like, ‘Oh, okay, how you doing?’”

Restricting pythons to a 12-by-20-inch ReptiSun-heated terrarium may seem cruel, even with that cooling Mini Mister. Yes, the exotic pet industry has a dark side. But what I saw at the reptile show also reflected species loneliness, the hunger for a deeper connection—an injection of wild blood. As vampiric as that sounds, the thirst is real. For a connection to other species. For a larger family. For a kind of healing, as one sided as that may be. 

Admittedly, I grew up conditioned to accept the show. More than once as I walked through the aisles, I saw my mother’s trembling hand holding the penicillin capsule and my father standing next to her. 

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From Our Wild Calling: How Connecting With Animals Can Transform Our Lives—And Save Theirs. Used with the permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Louv.