Frequently Asked Questions
Retailers in the herptile trade need to be prepared for these common inquiries from curious customers.
If your store has even a moderate selection of reptiles and exotics, you are probably used to the idea that, as well as doing business, you also function as something of a tourist attraction. My store, which has a substantial exhibit of interesting beasts, serves as an actual tourist destination. So I am, and you should be, used to hordes of people who have no intention of buying anything. I am fine with that, because some percentage (albeit small) of those looky-loos will get the bug and become your next generation of customers.
I am in the habit of spending a lot of my in-store life on the sales floor. I do the lion’s share of dry goods stocking. I know that’s atypical for a store owner, and in another article, I will fully explain that decision. But for now, just know that I recommend that all store owners follow suit.
One reason is that I enjoy the challenge of engaging these “tourists” in my store, knowing full well that some of them will become clients. I see the looks of horror and revulsion on their faces and wait for my opening to talk with them. Very often, they are the ones to start, with very predictable questions. The first one is always “Do you work here?”
“I do! What can I do for you?”
“Aren’t you afraid of all these animals?”
Now, that’s a great question. Since it’s obvious I am not, the subtext of it is “Make me not afraid of these animals.” I can work with this. The first thing I like to do is talk about fear itself.
We humans are born with only one fear: a fear of heights. This has been tested time and again with infants. The world is an open book to them, with the sole exception that they will not crawl out onto a clear surface with nothing below.
All other fears, from public speaking to the number 13 to fire to snakes and spiders, are somehow, somewhere, learned. If you can learn a fear, it follows that you can unlearn it. So, even if tarantulas are the scariest things you can imagine, if you are motivated to get over it, you can with a few hours of careful guidance.
Many people prefer to wallow in their fear. That’s why we go to scary movies, after all. But you don’t have to be afraid.
The truth is, most of the animals in my store are absolutely harmless. Movies lie to you. If you see a tarantula or a snake in a movie, you can be pretty sure that within a few seconds it will threaten someone’s life. It’s there as a cheap scare and is not based on reality.
At this point I like to look the person straight in the eye and say, “You know what the most dangerous animal in the store is?”
“I’m looking at it.”
This generally garners a laugh, and now the ice is completely broken. I continue to explain that, unlike every animal in my cages, even the ones that are not tame, humans are unpredictable.
Animals’ motivations and actions tend to be straightforward and understandable, but this isn’t so with my two-footed friends.
“But can’t they break through the glass?”
No. I ask people to imagine trying to break through a pane of glass face first. Then I show them the snake skull we have on display. “See how delicate and fragile their bones are compared to ours?” There is no way even a very large snake would or could burst through the display.
“But why are they scratching at the glass? Don’t they want to get out?”
Millions of years of evolution have not prepared these animals for the technological mystery of glass. It’s as if they are thinking, “I can see forward. Why can’t I go forward?” And so they ponder one of life’s great mysteries. Many of them—monitors and tortoises in particular—are grazers or scavengers, so it is in their nature to forage or dig, and that is exactly what they are doing.
“But how can they be happy in a cage? Don’t they want to be free?”
The truth is, almost all the animals in my shop have never seen a day in the wild. Born and raised in captivity, they know nothing else. A well-cared-for captive animal gets 24/7 care with precisely the right temperature and humidity, safety from predators and guaranteed regular food of the highest quality. The truth is that life in the wild is harsh and unrelenting. Many of these animals go through seasons of deprivation and hardship in which substantial numbers perish. In captivity, they get what I like to call “eternal spring,” with optimal conditions year-round.
It is, in fact, a very good life indeed. Also, as most of them are in no way social animals, the lack of competition is a bonus.
“But isn’t that cage too small? The snake can’t stretch out!”
For many of our creatures, a large enough cage is important, and that is why you see our tortoises and lizards in fairly substantial cages. Snakes are, however, by and large, agoraphobic. They spend their entire lives, even in the wild, sequestered in burrows and with an extremely limited range. Most species don’t even hunt. Instead, they take up residence along well-travelled rodent trails and snag their prey as the rodents run by. They have no need to stretch out. In fact, snakes’ muscles don’t even atrophy, meaning they don’t need to exercise as mammals do.
“But…what if one bites you?”
And now we have gotten to the crux of the problem. The horror! The humanity! I gently explain that I, along with all my employees, occasionally get bitten. Why? Because we have learned that most reptile bites are really quite inconsequential. Their teeth tend to be small and fine, even in very big snakes. The pain is generally minimal and the damage typically no more than a row of pin pricks. Paper cuts are worse! Because of that, as humans, we get sloppy. The animals’ bites are generally our mistakes. We should know better.
Now of course, that’s not always true. Big lizards, venomous snakes and water turtles can make you greatly regret your lack of caution, and their bites can be painful and damaging. But mostly, bites in my line of work are nothing more than temporary badges of honor. Snakebites, in particular, are often a bit laughable. Not only is there little blood or pain, it turns out that snakes’ mouths carry virtually no infectious bacteria. No swelling, no infection. Easy peasy boa squeezy.
The truth is, most people don’t have as much curiosity as I have dealt with in this article. You will find yourself answering maybe one or two of these questions. But having good, solid, fact-based answers at hand for many people’s worst nightmares can only serve your business, and these animals’ reputations, well.
It will also greatly improve your Yelp profile.
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.