The Importance of Knowing Local Fauna
Knowing the ins and outs of the herptiles in your region can build a relationship of trust between you and your customers.
In our business, bonding with customers is of primary importance. Of course, any salesperson worth their salt will say that, but in our chosen field of animal exotics, we want to engender a special feeling of trust and respect. After all, we are dealing with precious little lives here, and when it comes to that, bonding with kids might be the most important relationship you make. I often joke that I’m nothing special to adults but a rock star to six year olds.
I have found over and over that, for many youngsters, the journey into our hobby begins when they catch a local lizard, bug or snake. To that end, a working knowledge of the identity and care of local fauna is almost equally important to our literacy of the wildlife of the world. When a child walks in with a toad they just found, they expect you to be able to identify it, explain its care and maintenance, and be excited about the little thing! If you can’t perform these basics, why would anybody, adult or child, trust you with something exotic from half a world away?
Conversely, if someone walks in with a native creature that’s not a good candidate to be a pet, you’re obliged to explain the whys and wherefores of that and help find alternatives for both the animal and the family.
Let me give a few examples of animals to be found in the wilds of my local region, Northern California. Kids come in to my shop all the time with bullfrogs or Pacific tree frogs. Bullfrogs are an introduced species around here and are responsible for untold damage to the local environment. They get bigger, grow faster, are more resilient and outcompete all our local frogs. They literally consume our native frogs and endanger many species of frogs, fish and even turtles. They are also miserable as pets.
They’re leapers, meaning that they will bash their faces in if given anything less than a 100-gallon tank, and they never get used to people or handling. There’s no joy in a pet bullfrog, for both the human and the animal.
When people bring them in, I start out by thanking them, as every bullfrog removed from our local outdoors helps the environment. I then explain the myriad problems in either keeping it or releasing it, and give people the option of turning the frog into state wildlife officers or leaving it with me.
The silver lining to this is that I now have people in my store who have suddenly become aware of the idea of a frog as a pet. Gee, whatever might I be able to do with that situation?
Let’s say, on the other hand, they walk in with a Pacific tree frog. These little cuties adapt very well to captive life, and while they aren’t handle-able, they are a lovely introduction to the idea of bringing a little bit of the natural world into the home. While I may not be selling the frog itself, I am selling the tank, supplies and food, and starting folks down a path that will keep them in the fold for years.
As for the importance of being conversant in the local fauna, here’s an example. I tell every family that comes in with a Pacific tree frog that their new pet is a movie star. I let that sink in for a few seconds, enjoying the quizzical looks before I explain that no matter where a movie is shot, post-production almost always takes place in Hollywood. If there is an outdoor scene—especially at night—the people responsible for making the film will dub in “nighttime” sounds, such as frogs. And, to record these sounds, they’ll simply walk outdoors. Lo and behold, the dominant frog in the Hollywood Hills is the one and only Pacific tree frog! No matter where a movie is taking place, from Paris to Hong Kong to Timbuktu, the frog you hear is the Pacific tree frog!
I have now imparted a fun anecdote that will give these kids a special story to share with their friends and elevated a simple frog into something that’s unique and fascinating. I have made the experience richer, ensured that they will have even more lasting enthusiasm and have also given them the idea that my store is the place where they walk out with that something extra.
The truth is almost all animals have an interesting back story. I can spin equally great yarns about our bluebellied lizards, gopher snakes, tarantulas and Pacific newts. Once you get to know your local animals, you’ll be able to do the same.
I would be remiss to not mention a third category. I am sad to say that there are also animals that should not be kept as pets because they are endangered. In my case, these are Western pond turtles, tiger salamanders and so many more. You should be well acquainted with what animals in your area are endangered or illegal to keep.
When people come in with them, I carefully explain the situation. In my state, there is a very good law that makes it illegal to release any animal, local or exotic, into the wild once it has entered captivity. The act of being in captivity allows for animals to possibly be exposed to foreign diseases, and if those diseases get into the wild, they could potentially exterminate entire populations or even species.
While this is a law in my state, it may not be in yours. Either way, it is still irresponsible. But, even in this situation, you now have a potential customer.
When I was a boy, I had a little book—an antique even back then—called, “How to Keep a Miniature Zoo.” That book, which contained everything from setting up a microscopic zoo of unicellular pond life to keeping opossums, served as a major inspiration in my life. Such books no longer seem to exist, which makes it all the more important for you to be the living embodiment of that book. We are lucky: We have jobs that make us a living and make us rock stars. Be a rock star. PB
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.