The Seemingly Empty Cage

Retailers can find creative ways to reveal the shy creatures hidden in the nooks and crevices of its herptile displays.


We have a shoebox rack of baby snakes behind our counter; it is often the focus of interest for customers in a store that has many interest-inducing diversions. Kids in particular line up asking to see this or that inhabitant of what I like to refer to as the baby snake condo. They are often drawn to the boas, a snake I consider ideally suited as first pet snakes—kids usually agree with me. However, sometimes parents argue against a pet that could potentially grow to be nine feet long. When the conversation goes that way, I suggest rosy boas or sand boas, two of the dwarf boa genera. Since I am particularly fond of the Kenyan sand boas, I will often pull down a box containing one.

With a great flourish, I will open the box, saying, “See? Isn’t it exquisite?”

Of course, there appears to be nothing in the cage except bedding—I do so enjoy perplexing children. I then pull the sand boa out from under the shavings, as, true to their names, they spend the vast majority of their lives buried and out of sight. This is the point at which I introduce my audience to the word “fossorial.” It’s a great word, and while it may seem like it should mean “extinct” or “rocklike,” it means “digging” or “burrowing.” Many of the animals we sell are fossorial.
One of the great reptilian strategies for survival is to remain out of sight. This can pose quite a dilemma for those of us trying to sell them as pets. It often seems as if two-thirds of the cages in my store are empty, when the truth is that only a few are ever without an occupant. How do you sell something that appears to not be there?

There are a number of strategies for making animals visible despite their desire to be anything but. One of the most common ways is to post a photograph on the front of the cage representing the species within. As common a solution as this is, I find it to be fraught with problems, and I don’t recommend it. I find that customers expect the animal, once revealed, to look exactly like the photo, and the truth is that photos tend to both be of outstanding specimens and to be a bit “doctored” in terms of color, pattern, etc. The picture establishes false expectations in the customer, and the ensuing let-down often results in a no-sale, as your client goes off in search of a specimen to match their ideal. 

Instead, a cleverly worded sign on the cage can have the opposite effect: “There is a veiled chameleon in this cage. Can you find him?” or “There really are brightly colored dart frogs in this enclosure. Have you seen them yet?” Signs such as these can engage customers in a game, and the end result is their pleasure at having finally seen the residents within. That pleasure can in fact lead to a sale. 

Fossorial animals such as lizards and tortoises—and nocturnal animals that spend their daylight hours in crevices or burrows—can often be induced to occupy some form of hide space that makes them feel secure while still allowing observers to have at least a partial view. Part of the trick to this is to arrange the hide in such a way as to have an open end toward the front. There are any number of “half logs” and “corner logs” on the market that will provide this, and yet I am astonished at how often I observe stores that place them sideways within a cage so that nothing is visible but the log itself.

One issue that has constantly confronted my business is how to maximize space usage. One solution we have evolved over the years is to have a level of caging well above the sight-lines of most of our customers. This is excellent for our chameleons and other arboreals, as they enjoy being both up in the trees and above the reach of those possibly predatory simians that seem to wander through their forest every day. From the perspective of us simians, we can still observe them, once we can spot them. We keep some of our larger animals in these high cages as well; pythons, boas, iguanas and monitors are typical residents of these out-of-sight enclosures. So, how do we expect to sell them?

We certainly don’t want customers climbing the stepladders we use to service these cages; that just seems like a recipe for injury and lawsuit. We marked every store stepladder “Employee Use Only.”

Here’s our solution: We went out to a hardware store and purchased one-foot square mirrored tiles, which we glued to the ceilings of the cages. With just a little strategy, the animals are completely visible from below. You simply have to adjust your line-of-sight, and all is revealed. This is yet another thing that customers often turn into a sort of game. 

Of course, one essential piece to the puzzle is to have your store well stocked—with employees. My employees know that if they see someone looking into a cage with a puzzled look, it is probably a good point to ask if they need help. Oftentimes, “What is in here?” is the first sentence in a sale. If you have no employees on the floor ready to engage folks, they are just going to walk out mystified and in the belief that they were in an empty store. 

A well-stocked reptile section will include fossorial animals, nocturnal animals and animals so well camouflaged as to be virtually invisible. Add to these features reptiles’ penchant for economy of movement, and it sometimes feels like we work in a live animal version of Monty Python’s famous cheese shop—there is no cheese in there! Nothing is apparent; nothing moves; no one is at home. That is, until you teach your clients to look into cages in a different way. 
After all, the fascination of reptiles is their “otherness.” They are nothing like us, and that is half the charm. Seeing wildlife, both in the wild and in a cage, often requires new skills in looking. Once you have your customers on this path, you have won them for life.  

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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