An Exotic Challenge

Retailers that deal in exotic pets must navigate a jungle of challenges and scrutiny from regulators.


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If you ask most owners of exotic pet stores why they are in the business, they’ll tell you they were drawn to it by their love and passion for the animals they sell. On the flip side, talk to these retailers about the challenges of their business and their language gets more colorful, faces flush with anxiety and you can almost feel their blood pressures rise.

It’s a business fraught with pressure. Like merchants from other industries, pet retailers face changing market forces, including competition from online vendors and the economy. But exotic-pet sales can be a particularly thorny business as retailers come up against legislative challenges and the scrutiny of animal-rights and environmental activists concerned about animal welfare and the impact the industry has on the environment, directly or indirectly.

Still, it remains an important slice of the overall pet business industry. Most exotic pet retailers are standing firm, braced by their personal passion for the business and continued consumer demand for non-traditional animals.

For those who aspire to be in the exotic-pet business, retailers warn that it’s a labor of love. Don’t even think about it unless you absolutely love it, they say. And be prepared to work hard–too hard. Between the ever-changing legislative landscape and a plethora of other challenges– some unique to the business, others not–a foray into the world of exotics will be paved with trials, tribulations and a considerable learning curve.

First of all, any conversation about the exotic segment of the pet industry inevitably begins with the question: what exactly is “exotic?”


What’s in a Name?
The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) is at the helm of the industry’s efforts to help clarify the term exotic. The problem, explains CEO Marshall Meyers, is that the definition varies from state to state and those definitions cast a wide net over the pet trade to include anything from goldfish to parakeets. “It runs the gamut,” he says.

The term exotic generally refers to any non-native animal or plant species, meaning any wildlife not found naturally living in a particular ecosystem or environment. Meyers says that under the law, exotic pets make up a significant percentage of all livestock pet sales in the U.S. since there are clearly more fish than there are cats and dogs. “The clear majority of animals in the pet trade are technically classified exotic wildlife under the law,” he explains.

For example, the sugar glider, beloved by many for its tiny stature and wide-eyed gaze, is just as exotic as the ornery spectacled caiman. But so is the parrot, a rather popular pet and not exactly uncommon. Many animals that are deemed “exotic” under the letter of the law are, in fact, commonplace in the pet trade and have been beloved pets in many American households for years.

For clarity’s sake, however, says Meyers, when talking “exotics” it’s best to differentiate between traditional pets– including many amphibians, birds, and freshwater and marine fish–and non-traditional pets, such as boa constrictors or venomous species of reptiles.

Bill Brant, a staunch herpetoculturalist and owner of Jonesville, Fla.-based The Gourmet Rodent, which supplies feeders for reptiles as well as wholesale reptiles, says the term “exotic” is becoming harder to define. Reptiles are easily and often branded exotic, since many are not native to the regions of the U.S. in which they are being sold–many aren’t native Americans at all. But, according to many in the industry, these animals’ status as immigrants should have expired long ago, since pet owners have enjoyed raising reptiles of all kinds in their homes for years.

“Reptiles have become more and more mainstream over the last 15 years,” says Brant, who is on the PIJAC board of directors and active in advocating on behalf of the reptile industry. He says the anecdotal evidence alone is overwhelming. “I don’t care where I am, whenever I’m talking to someone and they find out what I do, invariably they say, ‘Oh, my son has boa,’ or ‘My friend’s daughter has a corn snake,’” he says.


Laws of the Land
Despite the apparent popularity of many exotic species, retailers are faced with a gauntlet of bills and new regulations that will impact the way they do business. In some cases, new laws will determine if they do business at all. Many in the trade concede that there has been cause for concern when non-native species have ended up becoming an invasive species that endangers the natural ecosystem. The proliferation of Burmese pythons in Florida in recent years has become among the most talked-about examples of this scenario.

The pythons released into the wild, particularly in the Everglades, have been undeniably problematic. In reaction, Congress has been mulling over a bill that would ban the sale or purchase of nine types of snakes, a law that many in the industry are watching closely because of the impact it would have on the business.

Other examples of household pets becoming invasive in the wild are less dramatic, but have been damaging nonetheless. Fish and aquatic plants, whether accidentally released by aquariums or purposefully by tank owners, can cause problems for natural habitats.

“The poster child is the lion fish,” says Chris Buerner, owner of Quality Marine, a Los Angeles-based marine fish and invertebrate wholesaler. The venomous fish species, which is native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean, has disrupted marine life up and down the eastern coastline and down into the Caribbean, he says.

Still, retailers in the trade will tell anyone who’s willing to listen that even in the worst-case scenario when someone does release a pet into their local ecosystem, the introduction of the species rarely leads to much damage. Often, the animal dies, unable to survive in the new conditions, demonstrated recently by a colder-than-usual-winter in Florida that proved deadly for many of the invasive pythons. And quite often, the animal is a one-of-a-kind in its new home, and can’t mate or reproduce, even if it does manage to survive.


More Regulation Ahead
However, enough non-native animals have shown up where they don’t belong–causing damage to other animals, the environment and themselves– that state and federal lawmakers have now identified the import and sale of many exotic pets as an area of commerce in need of more regulation. Animal-rights activists and environmentalists are drawn to the fray for their own reasons, some purely philosophical and others having to do with environmental concerns.

It’s hard to tell where national public opinion falls on such issues since the issues vary greatly state to state, but Meyers warns that public scrutiny of the pet trade is likely to increase, and will revolve around three central issues: the threat of invasive species, dangerous animals and zoonotic diseases, diseases that spread from animals to humans. He predicts a bumpy road ahead as more state governments explore these issues and draft or amend legislation to better regulate the trade.

“I think we will see a significant increase in regulation at the state level of the nontraditional exotics, and that will become a specialized hobbyist community, which it is in large measure today,” he says.

As for what he calls “traditional exotics,” he predicts there will be more scrutiny of the importation of animals and increased screening to ascertain whether an animal poses a threat to the native ecosystems or to public health.

“This is a states’ rights issue,” he adds. “The states are on the ground, managing their natural resources and therefore have a far better feel for what will be tolerated in their ecosystems. We will hopefully see a 50-state approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all federal regulatory mechanism that doesn’t work on a federal level or on a state level.”

While PIJAC has been busy leading the charge in working with lawmakers on finding middle-ground solutions that will protect animals and the environment but won’t cripple the industry, retailers are keeping a close eye on proposed legislation that can affect their business.

Owen Maercks, owner of the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., describes the nail-biting suspense of waiting for to see how legislators vote on such issues as “nightmarish.” He recalls that even well-intentioned regulations can sometimes over-shoot their scope and make a major dent in the industry. A perfect example, he says, is how concern over the ownership of spectacled caimans, which can’t be tamed, set the wheels in motion 20-plus years ago for an all-out ban on owning any kind of crocodilian in California, including types that are easily tamed but expensive and bought almost exclusively by true hobbyists.

“It’s a whole class of animals that nobody can have,” he says. “That cuts into my business and cuts into my rights.” He adds that the same thing will happen if a federal nine-species snake ban goes through. And he’s not alone in his frustration.

Daniel Keeper, owner of ZooKeeper Exotic Pets and Pet Supplies in Austin, Texas, has to be ready at any given time for random inspections and visits from local game wardens checking in to make sure he’s not selling banned species. He says even his own customers–well-meaning though they may be–may call authorities based on what he says are erroneous suspicions that the store is marketing an animal that should not, by law, be for sale. It’s a frustration that for Keeper is now sewn into the fabric of doing business.

The aquatics end of the industry is feeling the heat as well. Last year, Sandy Moore, PIJAC board member and vice president of Segrest Farms, a Gibsonton, Fla.-based supplier of ornamental fish, aquatic plants and reptiles, was keeping a particularly close eye on a federal bill dealing broadly with nonnative species that she says would have essentially shut down her business.

“One by one, they are picking away at [animals] that aren’t warm and cuddly,” says Moore, who finds comfort mostly in the fact that PIJAC has been so vested in advocating for the pet industry.

If the idiom “for every force there is a counter force” is to be believed, however, it may be the consumers themselves that will apply much of that force.


The Good News
Enduring and robust though it may be, the pet industry has felt the effects of the recession. Sales of non-traditional pets, which are often accompanied by budget-bending price tags and considerable maintenance costs, slipped in some segments. Aquatic retailers and their vendors reported bleak sales last year. Their counterparts in other areas, such as the reptile segment, seemed to be have fared slightly better, but it’s all relative; they, too, felt the sting.

Fortunately, things are looking up. Reptile retailers say their customer base is stable, if not growing. And an increasing number of these consumers are vocal about their support of the reptile business.

“I think legislators have been surprised in the past couple of years how big the reptile community is,” Maercks. “There are a lot of us. And a lot of these proposed laws have failed because the ‘herps’ community’s outrage has been felt.”
He adds, however, reptile owners are still a minority. “It’s constantly scary as to what will happen if we drop our vigilance,” he says.

In aquatics, sales have been down over the past couple of years, Moore reports, but she says this has nothing to do with any debate over exotic pets or proposed legislation. Blame it mostly on the economy, she says. However, she notes that the industry has proven to be very resilient over the years, and she expects it will continue to do so, as consumer demand ensures the survival of the business.

Traditional pets may continue to be the lifeblood of the pet industry on the whole, supporting billions of dollars in sales. But as in any retail segment, the “next best thing” has great appeal. Buerner of Quality Marine says the “bread-and-butter” species generate the bulk of the sales volume in his business, but increasingly, it’s the more exotic fish and coral that are creating a buzz in the market.

“It’s changing in the direction of more and more exotic,” he says “There is more interest in species that are less frequently seen, that are more unusual and rare. That’s where the energy happens to be.”

The excitement these animals create will draw interest to the industry, he adds, although he’s not sure it will add to overall sales volume–at least not immediately. Still, it’s a start.

Quality Marine, Buerner reports, has seen an up-tick in 2010, but at this point, he can’t say that’s reflective of an overall industry trend or if his company has just snagged more market share. But many in the industry are expecting better times ahead.

The Gourmet Rodent’s Brant says the reptile business is on a slow recovery path, with 2010 already showing promise, and he expects 2011 to be better than its predecessor. Moore is also heartened, trusting that the aquatic business can rebound.

Many trade insiders, however, believe that success will hinge largely on the industry’s ability to do a couple of things. One is to navigate through what seems to be a minefield of proposed and passed regulation in a way that doesn’t further alienate its challengers. The other, which is actually intrinsically tied to the first, will be the trade’s ability to educate the public–or more specifically, its consumers–as to why responsible ownership is one of the most important things animal lovers can strive for if they want to retain their right to buy and own many of the pets on the market today.

“The final conclusion is that it’s easier to educate than regulate,” Meyers says. In doing it’s part to help educate the public, PIJAC launched its Habitatitude campaign, aimed at educating people about responsible ownership and discouraging the release of unwanted marine and freshwater fish and aquatic plants into public waters. Meyers says that the program–an initiative developed by the Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) Task Force, in conjunction with PIJAC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration–will soon expand to include other animal groups including amphibians and reptiles.

The online campaign–found at www.habitatitude.com–has attracted members at all levels of the retailing spectrum, from large national chains to the smallest stores, and has the support of universities, environmental organizations and native tribes. Of course, the one thing that Habitatitude could use more of is financial support.
“The program needs to be expanded; it needs more funding,” he says.


Grassroots Efforts
On a smaller scale, retailers themselves are taking up the mantle on the front lines where responsible pet ownership actually begins with responsible retailing. Retailers like Keeper and Maercks understand the risks involved with selling an animal to consumers who are not fully prepared for the responsibility, and they do their best to prevent that by educating customers before they walk out of the store. They may even discourage a sale they predict will turn sour.

A good number of the customers walking into exotic pet stores, be they stores specializing in reptiles, tropical fish or furry exotics, have done their due diligence, self-educated either on the Internet or by way of past experience. But many store owners and staff invest substantial amounts of time in educating customers.

Maercks says that he and staff members spend at least a half-hour to an hour on educating customers for every sale, whether it’s a five-dollar reptile or a $500 reptile. “It’s very labor intensive,” he says.

Keeper boasts similar vigilance about making sure people know what they are in for. He, of course, wants to make sure the consumer has a good experience, he says—that’s just good business. But from an ethical standpoint, stemming from his passion for the animals themselves, he also wants to ensure the pets get the best care they can get.

“We try to get [the customer] to come back to the store, and we sell it under the guise of a ‘free health check,’” he explains.

Keeper adds that the “health check” is on one hand a goodwill offer from the store and, on the other, it gives us him a surreptitious way of checking in on the animal and making sure the owner is on the right track.

He adds that he also regularly hosts school trip visits, during which kids from schools including the Texas School for the Deaf and Blind, get to explore and meet the store’s many animals.

“It’s nice to give this opportunity to kids and to spark their interest in wildlife,” he says.

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