Controlling Customer Conduct

With a healthy dose of patience and good humor, pet retailers can curb disruptive customer behavior and protect their animal charges without ruffling any feathers.



I remember a day from many years past as vividly as if it was this morning. I was deeply focused on cleaning a row of lizard cages in my store’s center aisle. Around one corner was our workroom, where we kept supplies. Around the other corner were some of our larger enclosures, one of which contained Bear, a 17-foot Burmese python. Bear was as tame as a puppy, and because of his lovely disposition, we sometimes got sloppy with our safety regimens—such as locking his cage.

I had run out of glass cleaner, so I rounded the corner to get a fresh bottle when, in my peripheral vision, I saw a customer slide open Bear’s door and reach right in to pet him. One of my coworkers had forgotten to lock it, and, despite knowing his gentle disposition, I panicked. After all, a snake of his size does indeed pose a potentially lethal hazard. I nearly yelled at the guy who was now leaning into his cage: “Stop that! Get back!”

The guy laconically turned toward me and, smiling, asked “Why? Is he poisonous?”

The recent tragedy of the killing of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo has had me seriously reflecting on the very odd and often irrational relationship humans have with wild animals in public displays. It boils down to this: how do we, as pet specialty retailers, keep our charges safe from the general public? This is, of course, something with which all of us in the live-animal business have to cope. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can tell you a few things we do in my shop.

Because my store features a much higher ratio of live animals to product than any of our local competitors, many people treat us as if we are a zoo—a zoo with no admission charge. There seems to be something inherent in many people that makes them think they can, and indeed should, interact on some level with the animals. The fact that we have free admission seems somehow to loosen the strictures on their behavior even more.

Do Not Disturb
The problem is widespread, and it is restricted neither to adults nor children. In fact, I sometimes see parents actually encouraging their kids in this bad and disrespectful behavior.

To that end, we have put up prominent signage on cages throughout the store that reads, “Please do not tap on the glass.” One would think that would do the trick. One would be naive. I have seen people move from the cage bearing the sign to the cage next to it, and start to tap. I have seen people tapping on the glass directly above the sign that is on the same glass. The only effect the signs seem to have on many people is to make them apologize when store personnel catch them in the act.

And here’s a bizarre twist: I have seen many people waving their arms, jumping up and down, and even miming rushing the poor creature behind the glass. When I have asked them to refrain, they have said, “But I wasn’t tapping!”

The good news is that most animals quickly adapt to parading humans and become completely inured to their presence. Sometimes, when I bring a new animal to the floor, it is skittish at first, and I will cover 90 percent of the glass with newspaper to help it adjust. I have seen people actually peel the paper away to get a better view, as if their curiosity needed satisfying no matter what the cost. If the animal takes a defensive posture or strikes at the glass, it only seems to prod people on.

So, while signage helps a little and sets a boundary that people can at least recognize even if they choose to ignore it, it is not quite enough. What to do?

One thing that we have found effective, and is actually a bit of a moneymaker, is to have a “five dollar for five minute” petting fee. We find this surprisingly successful at relieving that desire for interaction within people. If a family has spent a few minutes holding a tortoise or a snake, it seems to quell their desire to disturb the animals.

On our busier days, I often just stroll the floor, asking people if they need help and answering questions. I also spend some time disabusing people of their desire to mess with my creatures. The trick is to not lose your patience, and to do so with kindness and good humor. For instance, I recently saw a family of serial tappers in the store, and after a few minutes, I chose to talk to the little boy rather than his parents. “Son,” I said, “when you do that to the snake, it makes him think that he might be getting fed. I know you don’t mean to, but you are teasing him. You wouldn’t want somebody banging on your bedroom window all the time, would you?” He got the message, and turned around and scolded his mother for the same behavior. That made me feel great.

I have learned never to say to people: “Please don’t tease the animals.” Why? Because the almost inevitable response is something along the lines of, “Oh, I wasn’t teasing him; I was playing with him!” Now you are put in the position of contradicting the teaser, and I have found that never goes well. This is not an argument, and if you are drawn into making it one, you will only end up with a disgruntled and resentful person. Don’t set it up as an argument; set it up as what you, as the person in charge, expect of a guest in your shop. I like to frame it this way: “Excuse me, sir. Please don’t try to interact with the animals.” There is no room for an argument, though sometimes people will want an explanation. That I can deliver with good sense and a smile.

Sometimes, of course, people just feel entitled to do what they want, where they want, and without interference from the likes of you, no matter how politely you ask. For them, I like to tell the story of Tatiana the tiger.

Tatiana was a very beautiful tiger that lived at the San Francisco Zoo. One day, some teenage boys reportedly decided to taunt Tatiana, throwing garbage and stones at her, and yelling at her. At some point Tatiana had enough, and, to everybody’s surprise, she leapt out of her enclosure, chased down the specific boys who harassed her, and killed one of them.

“Now, of course,” I continue, “that couldn’t happen with my animals in here. But that doesn’t mean you should bother them with impunity. Please leave them be.” For all but the worst people, that gets the point across, and I like to think they walk out of the store maybe a bit more enlightened.

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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