Profiting From Backyard Safaris

Well-intentioned people who find an animal in the yard and want to keep it as a pet can become life-long customers.


Barely a day goes by that my shop doesn’t receive a phone call from someone who has caught a lizard in the wild. Generally, this person wants to know what they should do next. Since they rarely know what kind of lizard they have found, we always ask them to bring their new pet into the store so we can help them figure out how to take the next steps.

The telephone is a retailer’s conduit to neophyte herpers, and even pre-neophyte herpers. These conversations often take patience and stamina, but if handled correctly, they can help create a new hobbyist. Always remember that the phone call shows some motivation, but a retailer will not gain a new customer until that caller ventures into the store for an actual visit.

Once that potential customer is in the store, the real work begins. It is not enough to have a knowledgeable staff that is conversant about the animals in the store, they should be the local experts on all things animal. That means that they should be conversant on all the local species, including identification, habitat and captive care. A really good employee will be able to talk about local sites to observe nature and even offer anecdotes about things that he or she has witnessed. If they show that kind of expertise, the store is well on its way toward making a sale.

Non-Local Species
Not only will folks bring in animals they find in their yards, they often return from vacations with animals they have collected, and occasionally even the unintended suitcase hitchhiker. The advice you give should be legal, ethical and honest, and geared to the specific animal that comes across your counter.

For example, we don’t have horned lizards in my immediate area, but over the years, people have brought in several different species that they have collected on vacation. These well-intentioned people have no idea how to care for the lizards, which are heartbreakingly cute but a nightmare to keep. This is because most species thrive on a diet of ants, and many only eat certain species of ants. Fortunately, my store is in touch with professionals who are either able to return these lizards to the wild or keep them responsibly. These are important contacts to have, as many of these extraordinary creatures will wither away under inadequate care.

In addition, every state, county and city has a myriad of difficult, and sometimes contradictory, laws regarding local wildlife. In my state, for instance, it is illegal to take any animal out of the wild without a fishing license, which limits the amount and species one can remove. It is also illegal to release any animal once it has come into captivity. And endangered species are not supposed to be touched.

If someone walks into the store with one of our two local turtle species, both of which are endangered, we aren’t supposed to keep them, but we’re not supposed to release them back either. So we recommend contacting the local state fish and game office, explaining the mistake and turning the turtle over to the proper authorities (who will be happy to take them back without recrimination). Inevitably, there will be a child in tow who will be heartbroken, but there are lots of legal turtles in the store that will appease this heartbreak.

Local Catches
Oftentimes, the animal that crosses our threshold will not be what the phone conversation purported it to be. What we thought was going to be a lizard turns out to be slender salamander, which are great for gardens (they eat tons of slugs), but impossible to acquire food for in captivity. We suggest that this well-meaning customer put the salamander back in the yard where it was found and check out the stores selection of leopard geckos instead.

Some local catches have the potential to be good candidates for the home, but their lifestyle requirements go beyond the abilities and pocketbooks of their captors. Rough green snakes, for instance, are beautiful and graceful, and people are often excited to learn that they are insectivores.

However, these snakes spend their days foraging and sunning high up in brush and trees, and then they spend their evenings sleeping on the ground. This means that they have wildly divergent temperature requirements within a given 24-hour cycle, as well as needs for intense UV lighting and an unusually tall cage. Sure, these needs can be accomodated in captivity, but the profile of a typical backyard collector precludes the extensive financial and spatial requirements to do these little guys justice.

Then there are local animals that do make great pets. For us, it’s the gopher snake, a hardy, pretty and easily tamed pet that adjusts to captivity well. This is the easy sale for the staff, because everything that applies to selling a corn snake works just as well here. The only difference is that the store isn’t selling the actual pet. However, in any given animal sale, the real profits come from the materials around the animal, and from the long-term needs, like food and bedding. Therefore, I look at these backyard catches as potential revenue.

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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