Day For Night

It is uncommon-perhaps, nearly unheard of-but having a designated “dark room” can give customers a chance to see a retailer's nocturnal creatures in all their glory.


Some things are a double-edged sword. There is nothing worse than that 3 a.m. phone call from the security company, letting you know that the store’s alarm has been activated. My shop, with no traffic, is a 12-minute drive from the house. I have been known to make it from deep sleep to the front door of the store in 14 minutes. Almost without fail, one of the store’s larger creatures has been accidentally left on the honor system, and in the process of surveying the store, has triggered the alarm.

Much as I hate getting pulled from my lovely comatose repose, there are a few bonuses to my nocturnal sojourn. First, the police are inevitably intrigued with the prospect of roaming through the store, and what should be a five-minute check for thieves and ne’er do wells, often devolves into a half hour of conversation, demonstration and once—I swear—doughnuts.

Even better, once the police have been dispatched to more serious activities, I have the pleasure of walking the store solo, observing dozens of cages that by day appear empty, but in the wee hours, are simply bustling with activity. The geckoes are out and hunting. Scorpions skitter about, searching for food and looking for love. Frogs are competing in a cacophony of choruses. And that is nothing compared to the roar of activity in our rodent room, where the sound of feeding rats and mice resembles nothing less than the sounds of an army approaching from just over the hill. The entire store is positively writhing with action.

Many full-line pet stores have invested in a low-lit room for aquatics. I have not, but I should. I think those rooms really draw customers in. They are inherently intriguing and coolly inviting. Yet, I have never seen a store take advantage of these rooms to display herps.

I find that many first-timers in my shop find their expectations quickly deflated when faced with row upon row of seemingly unoccupied cages. But if I had an aquarium room, with its quiet atmosphere and mood lighting, I could work wonders. All the animals that seem to be absent could have their natural cycles inverted, and be out for a nighttime romp at two in the afternoon. Some of them will even show significant improvements in coloration. Crested geckoes, in particular, color up brilliantly only at night.

Some may say, “What am I running: A pet store or a museum?” You will never sell unless you get people into your store. A set of cages that looks of museum quality will not only draw customers in, but it will also spread word-of-mouth and bring new people in that will unwittingly become customers.

I would guess that fully half my inventory of reptiles and amphibians are naturally nocturnal. It makes sense to display them to that advantage. Most snakes are of course diurnal, as are many lizards. But there are some wonderful and attractive nighttime prowlers in the snake world. Mangrove and cat-eyed snakes, some of the arboreal boas, and even many rat snakes will forage at night. Day geckoes are, as the name implies, strictly diurnal, but leopards, fat-tails, tokays, leaf tails and many others are strictly on the graveyard shift.

Arachnids, as well as most of the other invertebrates on the pet market, are exclusively out and about well after last call. My invertebrate wall is inevitably a hive of activity during my evening visits to the store. Tarantulas, scorpions, millipedes and centipedes are all out strutting their stuff.

But, of all the animals I have witnessed at night, nothing comes as close to a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation as the amphibians. The red-eyed tree frogs—by day nothing more than a green swollen area on a broad-leafed plant—are at night, gaudy partiers out for a little Mardi-Gras action, festooned in their bulging red eyes, flanked in blue chaps with gold brocade. Toads, by day asleep buried in shallow soil, emerge eyes first at dusk, throats pulsing like a billowing sail, and ready for work.

If you carefully select your subjects, adding them into your dark room will get people excited about entirely new ranges of animals, so there is strong financial incentive to doing this. I am generally not an advocate of dual-lighting rigs. I find that the vast majority of herps easily adjust to one light or another, given that they have adequate hide space to get out of the light. The dual-light idea is simply a way to double sales on light bulbs, and most customers will soon see through that, and will not be pleased with the salesperson who led them down that path. However, in this instance, where you are trying to invert the activity patterns of your animals, the use of alternating daytime and nighttime bulbs is the way to go. The daytime bulbs will actually drive the animals to sleep at night, and the nighttime bulbs keep them up in your manufactured night.

Keep in mind that even UVB bulbs are important for some nocturnals. For instance, leaf-tailed geckoes, whose color patterns closely mimic bark, will sleep in the daytime fully exposed to sunlight on tree trunks. Without UVB, they seem unable to breed or produce viable eggs.

As I said, I don’t have a dark room. However, I think I may just have convinced myself to do a little remodeling.

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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