Selling the Dinosaur

Retailers should take advantage of any opportunity to channel the widespread human fascination with prehistoric creatures into a passion for herpetology.




Perhaps nothing fires the human imagination so universally, or so early on, as the notion of the dinosaur. Ask any five-year-old to tell you something about dinosaurs and the overwhelming odds are that you are in for a 20 minute lecture, part fact and mostly imagination, about the magnificent beasts that once ruled our world. Ask that child, boy or girl, what his or her favorite dinosaur is, and expect another lengthy dissertation on the pros and cons of Ceratosaurus versus Rhamphorhynchus (my two favorite childhood imaginary pets).


Even before we knew dinosaurs existed, people dreamt of dragons, lake monsters and other legendary creatures in virtually every culture on the planet. With the advent of paleontology, the confirmation that such things were real, even if only in the past, simply amped up what seems to be somehow wired into our circuitry. The fine art of animation just about started with Gertie the Dinosaur, and every leap in film technology brings each generation that much closer to envisioning prehistoric giants as visceral, living and within reach.


We are in a unique position in the pet industry to capitalize on this, and I am always surprised more stores don’t key into this potential offshoot of our business. Every day, without exception, someone visiting my store will peer into a cage and remark “Look! It’s like a dinosaur!” It’s not, actually, unless they are peering into the chick enclosure.


You see, the truth is that the closest living relative to a T. rex is a bird. We have known this for nearly 50 years, since the publishing of The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs, the book that laid out the theory that has since become generally regarded as scientific fact. That may seem deflating to some, and so, while I am often sorely tempted to disabuse adults of their notion that they are looking into the cages of primordial monsters, I bite my tongue and let them dream. Kids, on the other hand, always thirsty for facts, seem to love the idea. What’s more, even when they absorb the notion that the pesky pigeons outside the store are actually little modern velociraptors, they still turn their heads back to the reptiles.


Dinosaurs for beginners

Now, the truth is, most of the reptiles that evoke this inspiration are decidedly not good first-time pets. Overwhelmingly, it’s monitors and chameleons that make the connection. Most monitors are large animals, and many are a bit more aggressive than a novice should be asked to deal with. Chameleons don’t present the size issue, but are famously prone to lethal levels of stress over things that would hardly set back other reptiles. But both of them can act as temptations by which families can be drawn into the hobby. For instance, those who come in thinking they want a Jackson’s chameleon (who truly do appear to be tiny Triceratops) will happily go home with a crested gecko under the notion that, once they have mastered basic lizard care, a tiny horned dinosaur might yet be in their future.


Those who have their heart set on a water monitor, which, though easily tamed, have the potential to get to eight or nine feet in length, might be mollified by the significantly smaller savannah monitor, or perhaps a Tegu, or, even more amenable to the abilities of a novice, a blue-tongued skink or bearded dragon (the name “dragon” of course having its own cache with youngsters).


It’s not just lizards that evoke the imagery of eons past. Turtles, snakes, crocodilians and even tarantulas can touch people in much the same way. Turtles and crocodilians have a legacy that indeed stretches back in time to the age of the dinosaurs, but serpents, surprisingly to many, are actually a very modern animal that seems to have had its earliest origins in the middle of the Jurassic Period. It may have been the golden age of the most giant dinosaurs, but snakes in that era were no more than a few feet. The enormous Titanoboa (all fifty feet of it) flourished long after dinosaurs had disappeared from the scene.


The prevailing theory for how snakes emerged is itself a fascinating tale. Before snakes, some lizards diverged to exploit life in thick leaf litter, and eventually even underground. To adapt to this new environment, three obstacles needed to be overcome. First, bare eyes get clogged with dirt and are prone to infection, so a lens covering would be needed. Second, ears are subject to similar problems and even more useless underground, and would need to be covered. Finally, limbs, very useful above ground, would be a hindrance in tight spaces and tunnels (imagine  crawling through a tunnel not much bigger than your body). Over millions of years, these lizards lost their external ears and limbs and covered their eyes with a clear cap. Millions more years saw these lizards leave the confines of living underground and exploit myriad other environments, from treetops to deserts to even oceans. We call these evolved lizards, snakes.


Through stories like this, you can easily reinforce the fascination with modern day reptiles and show how they link in the history of animal life back to those magical prehistoric times. You can take one fascination and let it lead to another. You can start a young mind (and sometimes not-so-young people still have young minds) down the path to fascination with herpetology. To that end, I love to engage my own employees with facts and stories like this. They might not realize it, but what I am really doing is giving them the tools by which they can engage people who come into the store. Many an unsuspecting family comes in to gawk, and goes out with a seed planted that will bring them right back in for a pet.


Of course, that’s not true for everybody. There are parents for whom a love of dinosaurs is all well and good, but…a live reptile in the house? No way.


No problem. That’s why, as people exit my store, they come upon a display of dinosaur posters and models. A company we very much like called Safari Ltd. produces an excellent line of museum gift-shop quality, reasonably priced plastic dinosaur miniatures that I highly recommend. It does my heart good to know that I am not just selling toys; I am selling science. They are not only instant child-bait of the highest order, but, when a family that is interested in a pet but not quite ready to make the plunge needs to mollify an inconsolable and disappointed kid, this does the trick every time. PB


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.


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