Stocking the Pantry

Having a broad selection of live food that meets customers' specific needs will garner a devoted customer base and steady sales.


I got a call the other day from a woman who had purchased a baby bearded dragon from me a few months ago. Her dragon had recently started regurgitating its crickets. She asked if this was a problem and why it might be happening. I replied that, indeed, it was a big problem, as when any reptile throws up, it ruptures the lining of its esophagus and stomach and requires time to heal. Further feedings might exacerbate the problem and lead to the animal’s demise.

Typically, and especially in lizards, the problem is a result of feeding a food item that is too large. I told her to imagine that I had force fed her an entire chicken—whole. She would have quite a hard time trying to digest it, and she would probably forcibly evict her meal as did her pet.

She quickly realized that she had bought her crickets from a chain store that only carries two sizes, and given the limited choice, she had opted for the large crickets.

Selling reptiles and amphibians requires any responsible dealer to also carry live food. It also obligates a dealer to carry food items in a variety of sizes, so the customer is not forced into a position of having to choose inappropriately sized prey items. This does make our job a little more complex, but right is right, and selling a meal that has the potential of killing a pet is, well, the opposite of right.

Variety is Key
My store carries four sizes of crickets, from pinheads (one week old) and smalls (two weeks), through mediums (three w eeks) and larges (five weeks). As crickets typically only live about six to eight weeks, we avoid the older bugs. This provides a broad enough spectrum to satisfy most needs—but not all. We also offer two species of fruit flies, as even the tiny bellies of baby geckos, chameleons and dart frogs requires some variation.

Movement-inspired feeders usually prefer the activity level of legged insects, but many herptiles find an interest in worms. In the early years of our hobby, standard-issue mealworms were often the only live insect food that stores carried, and they were often prescribed to animals that either wouldn’t eat them or that would meet their nutritional demise from eating them. Baby water turtles are the classic example of the latter. I liken mealworms’ nutritional value to a person trying to survive on a steady diet of chicken bones. We still sell mealworms, but only as a minor component of a larger and more complex diet. The comparatively giant king mealworms are a better source of nutrition, but again I wouldn’t recommend them as a staple food in most cases.

Even earthworms are a live food we sell in multiple species and sizes. Box turtles and many aquatic herps love them, and they are convenient to keep, as they will do well in a refrigerator for relatively long periods. As long as you are stocking them, however, you might as well order both large and small, as well as their smaller cousins, the bloodworms. Our fridge also houses our aquatic worms, the tubifex, which the small aquatic newts and frogs relish.
In the door of our fridge, you will find the spikes (a polite term for maggots). These serve a dual purpose; as larvae they are an attractive food for many animals, but removed and kept at room temperature in a pet’s cage, they will pupate and emerge as flies. Arboreal lizards and frogs will find this a fine development.

Waxworms, the larval form of the bee moth, are a fatty little snack that will help underfed lizards put on some quick weight. I liken them to eclairs; great for weight gain but not a well-balanced staple diet. They are easy to maintain but need to be sold  quickly, as warm weather will do them in after a few weeks, and the refrigerator is a bit too cold for them. I have a few customers who enjoy raising silk worms and silk moths, and they often sell me their excess production. The silk worm is a very large caterpillar that is enjoyed by large chameleons. There are a few professional breeders for them around the country, but their use is a bit limited. I have experimented with other live worms and larvae over the years and have mostly found them wanting for a variety of reasons.

Those retailers who carry fish will already be familiar with the necessity for various sizes and species, and they probably carry feeder goldfish in a variety of sizes as well as smaller prey fish like guppies, minnows, etc. My store doesn’t sell tropical fish, and so, aside from an occasional special order, we seem to do well simply carrying small feeder goldfish. This is a good lesson: let your customers’ demand and your knowledge of the nutritional needs of their as well as your animals shape your inventory or you might invest a lot of time and money stocking a live food that doesn’t pay off in sales.

In other words, what works for me might not be exactly right for you. For instance, I have many customers who need feeder rabbits, chickens, finches and even anoles. I carry them all. These are specialized food items for giant snakes and arboreal snakes. You may not have enough customers with needs that meet that profile.

Of course, the most commonly sought food items are rodents. I am a big advocate of breeding your own rats and mice, and aside from the advantage of garnering a reputation for having a consistent stock of live rodents, you will find that having them in a variety of sizes will invoke a rabid loyalty from your customers. Many of them are incredibly picky and precise about the rodent they need for their pet, and I will often resort to simply letting folks pick their own from a large tray of them.

My rodent colony is large enough to produce several hundred rats and more than a thousand mice per week, and still, between maintaining my own animals and sales, I need to regularly purchase rodents from a few local breeders. However, I would never consider simply resorting to the fortunes of my vendors’ breeding success and abandon my own colony. Having my own production guarantees that I can always meet the demands of my customers, and that is the bottom line. More importantly, I have sizes of mice and rats that would be near impossible to stock without having the in-house facility. Bright red newborn pinkie mice fresh out the chute? No problem. Retired breeder jumbo rats? Let me check—why, yes I do. That ability makes me golden to my clients.

By the way, remember that customer of mine who had been buying crickets from the more convenient chain store? She swore to me that, if her baby survived she would make the extra effort to drive down and buy her crickets from me.

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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