Frank Exotic

Musings on the Exotic Pet Trade

Frank Exotic
A Common T-shirt slogan among the Reptile Community.

I started keeping reptiles about ten years ago around the same time I started teaching. If you can afford it, it can become an addiction. “Passion” would be a better word. Addictions hurt people. Passions can too, but they’re usually more positive. There are Youtube videos of people with Reptile Rooms. I have one too (though I don’t have a Youtube channel yet), but a lot of these guys may also have venomous or dangerous animals as well. Like alligators (surprisingly it only seems to be illegal to keep alligators in states where they occur in the wild. But don’t quote me on that.) There are memes about reptile addiction. T-shirts. The Reptile business itself is a billion dollar industry with small expos and large breeder conventions held several times a year. Expos can be “normal” or “hot”. “Hot” expos sell venomous reptiles, usually in deli cups with red tape. Reptiles are often sold in deli cups of various sizes. They don’t have the space requirements that a dog would for example, so its not entirely inhumane. But for some people it takes some getting used to.

The venue has to be carefully chosen for reasons of legality. Many counties don’t allow the sale of venomous reptiles for reasons obvious to most of us. Often these shows will have reptiles and amphibians, sure, but also invertebrates as well. Tarantulas, Scorpions, centipedes and so forth. There may also be mammals for sale. Often more exotic fare like Sugar Gliders and hedgehogs, not so much cats and dogs.

A lot of the people at these shows are expert breeders who can show you tips and tricks on how to better care for your pets. They also have different “Morphs” of the same species. Morphs are to reptiles, like breeds are to dogs. For example, Ball Pythons are a popular beginner snake because they are tolerant of handling and they don’t get too big. So over time breeders have made Ball Pythons with many different patterns on them. You have Spider Ball Pythons, Clown Ball Pythons, Leucistic, Albino, Banana, Pied, Scaleless: there seem to be new varieties every year. Another common species for beginners is the Leopard Gecko. Usually a yellowish lizard with black spots and a lot of personality, native to Pakistan, it has been bred into many different morphs as well. Blizzard (White), Jungle (large black spots and stripes), there are orange ones and red ones now that fetch a lot of money. Breeding reptiles is a fountain of knowledge regarding genetics and artificial selection. It’s evolution in action. You breed two pythons and most of the babies look like the parents except for one or two who were born with a random mutation of Spider patterns. Then you breed those with another one with spider patterns from another breeder and they have a few offspring with a new mutated pattern etc.

Of course, if you can’t make it to an expo you can always buy a reptile online and have it mailed to your house. Obviously, you have to pay a lot in shipping to get them overnight. Usually $40. The less time they spend in the mail the better. I have had animals arrive dead before and it ain’t pretty. People don’t seem to mind cuz they’re reptiles and arthropods. If it was a panda it would be another story. We have a term in Biology, “Charismatic MegaFauna”. Most people only care about the “Big Cute Animals” when it comes to animal conservation. I went to school for Marine Biology to study Ghost Crabs. I was an anomaly. Almost everybody else there wanted to work with dolphins, sea otters, sea turtles, seals….etc. Charismatic megafauna. It’s why Axolotl’s are extinct in the wild and only cost $40 dollars. And no one knows what they are. Meanwhile a tiger will cost you a couple grand. Only a couple grand. To buy. Food, Vet Care, and Housing will probably send you to the poorhouse…unless you got a system like Joe Exotic did.

One of the things viewers learned in Tiger King is how surprisingly (and disturbingly) affordable some rare endangered species are. I know a website where you can buy a lemur for $3000. That’s it. A rare endangered prosimian only found on the island of Madagascar, and you can buy it for the price of a used car. Some of these places seem to be coming up with new species people can keep as pets. What obscure animal defines me as a person? Maybe a Serval (a cheetah-like hunting cat with tall, long legs)? Or a Capybara (the largest rodent in the world which kind of looks like a small furry hippo)? Some people feel the need to define themselves by having an exotic pet. Whether this is morally in good standing is up for debate. If the animal and the keeper are happy and everything is done safely and responsibly, no problem right? But if something goes wrong, you end up on the news and you make the whole exotic pet business look bad. And US Fish and Wildlife is not as toothless as many people think. There are consequences. And the Animal Rights groups and celebrities will be up in arms. As long as the species is endearing.

I personally wouldn’t keep anything that could eat me or rip my arm off. Or that is going extinct because it is “Wild Caught” or WC as they say in the business. It’s almost always advised to buy CB, “Captive bred”. Getting captive bred is safer for the wild populations. This way people aren’t collecting them illegally in another country to be shipped here, where many of them could die in transit. Wild Caught tortoises in many cases are a big problem. Many different species have been collected with some wild populations decimated. Because they are slow and easy to catch, there have been instances where hundreds or thousands of them have been exported…and their numbers dwindled in the wild. At this point, most reptile species in the pet trade are captive bred. The decades of the reptile smugglers seem to have tapered off now that there is a pool of specimens in the pet trade that have been bred successfully. And now it is up to the Reptile breeders and hobbyists to keep the animals alive in the event that they do become extinct in the wild.

Here’s to the invisible ark. If you turn the planet into Coruscant from Star Wars (Which I don’t think humans could survive turning a planet into a giant city but that’s for a different article) at least we can keep the animals alive in some form. For better or worse.

exotic pets
Francisco Diaz
Francisco Diaz
Read next: Calling All Wannabe Pet Owners
Francisco Diaz

That's an old pic. I'm way older and fatter now. Getting back to writing. Maybe I'll get those Sci-Fi stories finished now eh? Plus I got about 1000 pages of journal entries I'll upload for your entertainment.

Hooah!

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