Comedy of Errors

Selling herptiles and related supplies is definitely serious business, and yet pet specialty retailing offers no shortage of amusing anecdotes.


Regular readers of this column will know that every month, I try to pass on tips and inspiration to bring greater success and pleasure to those who have chosen to work as reptile-sales associates. This month, however, in recognition of April Fool’s Day—one of my favorite holidays—I am going to take a breather, and simply share some of the most incredible, strange and wonderful moments I have experienced in my 35 years as the go-between for herps and the most scary of creatures, the human customer.

Our live-food section has always been fodder for some wonderfully silly questions. For instance, there was the time a sincere and very nice young schoolteacher peered into a bin of crickets and, after a moment’s contemplation, asked me, “Are those bats?” I was relieved to find that she was not teaching biology.

Another young person once asked, after spending a few minutes trying to choose a pet mouse, “Will this mouse get along with my cat?” Yes, for about 12 seconds. There was also the man who wanted to know how much the $3-rats cost. Um, about $3. The great comic Bobcat Goldthwait supplied me with a great answer when people ask me the difference between mice and hamsters. “Well,” I like to say, with an air of professorial wisdom, “the hamsters have more dark meat.”

One of my favorite stories involves king mealworms. As most people know, mealworms are edible—there is a famous line of lollipops with embedded mealworms, and many people bake them into cookies. However, live or raw worms have an incredibly acrid taste. Every once in a while, I like to amaze kids by eating one; the trick is to swallow without chewing, as there is no external flavor at all. One day, a new employee, hearing that I did this but not believing it, challenged me in front of several other employees, saying he would eat one if I did. I was game, and my fellow workers were not about to let him off the hook. I popped one in my mouth, mimed chewing and swallowed. His turn. He reluctantly popped one in his mouth, actually chewed, ran to the bathroom and lost the worm—and his lunch, and his breakfast. He never challenged me again.

I delight in giving special guests to the store after-hours or behind-the-scenes tours, and never more than when I know in advance they are coming. Like most professional herpers, I always keep a garbage can nearby, and as I am pulling out snakes for guests, I also spot-clean the cages, throwing away old, dried defecations. What my guests don’t know is that before they arrived, I planted an unwrapped candy bar in one of the cages. Halfway through the tour, I open a cage, pull out the chocolate and casually pop it in my mouth. The real joy is seeing how long my guests can go without saying something.

Another trick I have enjoyed over the years involves the occasional empty cage that inevitably happens in the course of a busy day on the floor. If I cannot quickly refill it, I like to place a mirror in the very back of the cage. I then label the cage with a sign that reads “Warning! The most dangerous animal in the store! Caution!” This gives a lot of people pause for consideration.

I will not deny that working in the reptile business can give one a darker-than-average sense of humor. Sometimes, when we are cleaning up at the end of a day, we will find a baby’s shoe or pacifier abandoned on the floor. Those inevitably somehow find their way into the enclosures of some of our larger pythons and monitors. (I just don’t know how that happens.) We also like to decorate some of our tanks with faux human skulls, with the words, “I tapped on a cage,” emblazoned across the forehead. Funny, but it does seem to reduce the amount of that bad behavior.

The truth is that animal behavior is, by and large, predictable, understandable and explainable. Human behavior, on the other hand, is often downright mystifying. For example, can you explain the phenomenon by which humans are seemingly incapable of picking a product up off the shelf and returning it to the place and position in which they found it? I cannot. Can you explain the mechanism by which parents can turn off any scintilla of awareness as to what their children are doing within inches of where they stand? Me neither. I am certain that, as shop workers, these things resonate with you. But these things fall well within the parameters of “normal.” How about an example, just to boggle your mind?

One day I had returned from picking up our veggies—past-human-consumption produce saved back from the dumpster for us by a wonderful local grocer. As it happens, the entrance was a bit blocked by customers, so I left the load in the parking lot near the door. To my astonishment, a few minutes later, one of our visitors wandered out and picked up a half-rotten apple as if to eat it. But he didn’t—that would have been disgusting. Instead, he walked over to our outdoor turtle pond, washed the fruit in the heavily populated pond—and then ate it.

I will conclude this little diversion of a column by going in exactly the opposite direction of that last story, by relating to you the very best day I have had in three and a half decades of professional reptile work. One thing about working with captive animals is that sometimes you can forget exactly how ultimately cool they can be when put in an out-of-the-ordinary context.

Many years ago, I was hired to work on what is called a “reference shoot,” for a horror film about gigantic Komodo monitors. The filmmakers wanted to see how actual monitors move in order to animate their fictional monsters. They constructed a large room with stairs, hills and other landscape features surrounded by five turrets on which cameramen would film. I came in with a half-dozen large monitors and spent an entire day interacting with them in the open space. I chased them; they chased me. They climbed, they reared back on two legs to intimidate me, they chased prey—we all had a blast. At one point, a large Argus monitor climbed two thirds of the way up one of the turrets before I retrieved him. The cameraman’s reaction was, from my perspective, hilarious. I don’t think he shared my enthusiasm. It was a marvel and a joy to work with these animals in this unusual circumstance, and I have to think we all had a ball. It was my best day ever.

I hoped you have enjoyed this little foray into the jokes, foibles and pleasures of the reptile pet business. And I really hope it has brought to mind some of the stories of your own time in the trade, and that you might share them with me. Write me, and if I can gather enough material, perhaps next year’s column will include your story too.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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