Cold-Blooded Comedy

The wealth of herptile-related misinformation that persists among the general public can sometimes be as entertaining and funny as it is frustrating.


As the monthly herptile columnist for Pet Business magazine, I aim to share ideas and what I laughingly refer to as the wisdom I have gathered from 36 years of reptile retailing. But over the years, I have also accrued a backlog of stories and amusing anecdotes along the way. Once a year, on April Fool’s Day, I like to take a little vacation from facts and figures, and share some of the gems I have collected through the years.

Kids are a great resource and can offer a unique perspective on the natural world. They just see things differently, including what things are called and why. Perhaps you are already familiar with the “boa construction.” How about the “bald python?” When I asked a seven year old why it had that name, he said, with a look of exasperation befitting a surly teenager, “Do you see any hair?” He had me there.

Here’s a question I love to ask kids: What’s the most likely snake for any foreigner to think of as an American snake? I aim to get them to respond with “rattlesnake” to lead into a discussion of why rattlers are beneficial to humans, but you’d be surprised how many kids, even older ones, name cobras, pythons and anacondas as natives of the U.S. There is a lot of education left to be done out there, folks. 

Speaking of education, teachers themselves are often responsible for kids’ misinformation. School groups frequently tour our facility, and I like to tag along for the lesson—but sometimes, what I overhear is frightening. I want to interject: “No kids, despite what the teacher said, that boa constrictor won’t crush you. It isn’t capable of that. Oh, and it won’t kill you. You don’t taste like food. In fact, it won’t even break through the glass. It isn’t that strong.”

Teachers and parents sometimes make up stuff when the real answer is either unknown or inconvenient. For example, contrary to what some adults may say, monitors aren’t so-named because they are constantly on the lookout—frankly, the answer to why monitors have that name is lost to etymology, though their excellent vision might be the answer. Also, water turtles don’t actually like each other. When they are piled on a log, they are simply vying for the best spot for thermoregulation. On the other hand, those two tortoises over there do like each other, though in a way that might be tricky to explain to a five year old. 

Speaking of tortoise love, there is a video making the rounds on the Internet that shows one tortoise ramming into another that is flipped onto its back. The accompanying info claims that one tortoise is trying to help his friend right himself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tortoises are famously territorial, and male-on-male aggression is common and vehement, even though it generally amounts to little more than a shoving match. The tortoise has almost certainly flipped the upended guy onto his back, but being a tortoise, it isn’t quite sharp enough to realize what he’s done. Further incensed that this intruder refuses to leave—as if he could—the first tortoise will continue to ram the second until, equally by happenstance, the second is once more righted and proceeds to move on post haste. I have had to explain the truth behind these tortoise “friends” more that a dozen times now.

Still, I am amused on a daily basis by some of the conversations that take place at my counter. Not only am I amused; I am delighted by the amazing things I learn from—and about–my customers. I am not a people person by a long shot, but I now recognize the value of engaging folks, both personally and professionally.

Of course, counter work often is just a matter of banter, and it can help to have a little reservoir of quips to lighten up otherwise mundane sales. For instance, I always conclude a live-food sale with a polite, “Bon appetite!” And when people ask me how I can possibly count so many crickets so quickly, I always respond, “I count all the legs and divide by six. Hey don’t make fun; this is my only job skill!” 

First Day of the Job
As I write this column, it is the eve of my 36th year in the business, and with your indulgence, I’d like to wax nostalgic about my first day at the store. Back then, we had a full line of psittacines as well as the reptiles. My first job that morning was feeding, watering and cleaning the cages of 24 loud, demanding and highly eccentric parrots. For a reptile keeper, that was certainly a trial by fire. I completed the task in under three hours—I soon learned that was a store record—and, feeling a touch winded but proud, I was ready for my next task. I naively believed that, having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous birds, I would settle into something a bit more benign. Hah.

The manager of the store—someone who, up until that morning, I had counted as a friend—showed me into a small workroom, in which I was to unpack the centipedes. You read that right. Back in the day, giant Asian centipedes were shipped into the United States in sections of bamboo. The packers overseas would take a length of a bamboo tube, hollow out one end and run a crack down the side. Once a centipede ran in, the tube would be resealed with cement-hard mud. Once in the tube, one could break open the tube along that crack and release the centipede into a tank. Well, that was the theory.

The fact was that, when the bamboo cracked open, out would come a foot-long, flailing, snapping, angry demon intent on death and destruction. I spent the next hour holding those tubes as far from my body as possible, wincing, grimacing and hoping that as the tubes broke, the centipedes would drop into their cages without incident. That happened about half the time; the other half I spent pursuing and being pursued by the little monsters, until, with a bit of luck and pluck, I corralled each and every one into its cage. I went home that night, secure in the knowledge that I had made it through my first day, and that it certainly could never be as harrowing as that first day. I was wrong. But that’s another story, for another time.

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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