Fear and Loathing in the Pet Store

Exotic pets are often unfairly maligned and reviled by the public at large. But given a little education and some patience, even the most skittish of potential customers can learn to appreciate herptiles.


One of my all-time favorite customers was a mother-daughter team. Mom loved snakes but loathed spiders. Daughter was a devotee of eight-leggers but shuddered visibly at the sight of serpents. The two would stand at opposite ends of the counter to purchase supplies and, with some frequency, new pets. Only when all the purchases were safely bagged and out of sight would they come together, often leaving arm in arm. They loved each other dearly and had come to terms with their divergent taste in pets.

Any smart pet retailer will lay out their store with the exotics section discretely tucked toward the back of the store. Many who dote on their dogs, cats, birds, small animals and fish would rather shop elsewhere than come face to face with something as horrific as a garter snake or millipede. On the other hand, many people who find herps and the like repulsive will head straight to the exotics section to indulge in their desire to get creeped out. I see these people in my store every day, because the other side of the coin of fear is fascination.

I do, on some level, understand these people. Everybody is afraid of something. For me personally, it’s horses and babies. That being said, I have ridden horses and held babies. I know that these fears have, at best, tenuous connections to reality. Likewise, the truth about almost all exotic pets is that the only time they will inflict harm on a human is when the human has crossed the line and frightened or hurt them. They generally only want to be left alone.

So, how do you deal with fear in the pet store? The answer is, as with most things, education. When I see someone in the store acting hysterical or, worse, teaching their child to act that way, I like to engage them, and as kindly as possible, present them with the facts. Whatever the source of their fear, the truth is usually a framework by which they can start to, if not dispel their fears, at least act more appropriately in my place of business.

One of the best facts you can impress upon people is this: humans innately fear only one thing; all else is learned. The only thing newborns fear is height. That’s it. The only one. Studies with babies at the age when they first learn to crawl show them perfectly willing to approach fire, snakes and any number of devices making noise. The one thing they refuse to do is crawl across a transparent plane with open space below. Everything else, from fear of dogs to public speaking, is learned. Once you know that, you have the ability to unlearn.

I work with kids a lot, doing a traveling reptile program. I rarely encounter a child who fears my animals at all, and those few who may start my show with looks of abject terror are, by the end, excited with the prospect of petting my boa constrictor or monitor. Adults, on the other hand, are like deep repositories of loathing and disgust, and nothing I say seems to budge their attitudes an inch.

This is exacerbated by a plethora of television programs that, under the guise of education, constantly tweak people’s fear of animals as a way to accrue ratings. Also, the very shows that purport to promote understanding of these creatures often resort to scare tactics to keep you watching.

A retailer’s job, on some level, is to break through that wall of misinformation and misunderstanding to demystify these creatures. A teaspoon of facts can often turn a disbeliever into a believer and, eventually, a customer.

Fear No More
To that end, I have worked many times over the years with psychologists and psychiatrists whose clients are victims of ophidiophobia, an intense fear of snakes. Over the course of a few weeks, we work together to desensitize these folks. Initially, they might simply stand across the street in front of the store for a half hour, getting used to the idea that within those walls live those squirming, writhing, hideous and deadly creatures—and look, people are walking in and out of there, as if nothing is wrong!

A session or two later, we can now have them stand right in the doorway, where I come out, greet them, introduce myself and assure them that, as close as they are, they are perfectly safe. Next, we bring them into the store, where the snakes’ cages are visible, and they can witness the general pleasantries happening at the counter. On the next visit, these folks, who initially could barely bring themselves to stand across the street from us, are touring the store, and seeing everything from tiny baby corn snakes to the 16-foot albino Burmese python that lives down the aisle. By the last visit, these clients are holding ball pythons and joking about themselves.

Here’s where it gets really amazing. More than half the cases I have worked with have ended with the client so delighted at their own progress that they walk out of my store with a pet snake. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome than that.

Now, you may be thinking that that is a long way to go to sell a snake, but I think few of us are in this business solely for the gold mine that is the pet industry. That may be the attitude of the business majors who end up working for the big-box stores, but you and I do this because it is a way to make a living doing what we love: working with animals. Look upon this educational aspect as the dues we pay to make the world a better place.

Sometimes, I must admit, we play the fear game ourselves just a little. Above our sales counter we have a set of hanging branches and plastic foliage in which we sometimes display our chameleons. When the branches have no live lizards, we keep a plastic lizard we have modified by adding some feathers. He is hidden amongst the leaves and attached by a fishing line which pulleys out and down behind the counter. When first timers come in and are staring at the baby snakes displayed within our glass counter, we will drop the feathered lizard down amongst them. It certainly does wake people up.

One more thing: Every once in a while, when I am in the rare circumstance of having an empty cage and nothing to fill it, I will post a large sign on it with the legend: “The Most Dangerous Animal in this Store.” Within it I will place a mirror.

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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