Whenever I sell a family its first reptile pet, I always let the parents know that they can expect the experience to go one of three ways: either the kids will love the herp as a pet and be satisfied on that level, or perhaps they will soon figure out that the fantasy of owning these unusual pets doesn’t match up to the reality for them, resulting in boredom. The third option is that the kids will become fascinated with these animals to the point of obsession and start a mini-zoo in their room.
The third option is, of course, the best scenario for you. So, how can you inspire that kind of fascination with our hobby? The obvious, yet rarely pursued strategy in a pet store is to have your own animals in habitats that inspire wonder and awe in your customers. A beautiful cage is often the swaying factor that wins over the one family member who was digging in his heels over acquiring a reptile pet. I recently witnessed the most extreme example of this that I have ever seen; a family came in to buy some hermit crabs and ended up spending a flabbergasting $500-plus to create a setup that was palatial.
When displaying your animals, you need to balance beauty and functionality to create a micro-environment that has depth and richness, yet can be worked comfortably. Of course it must display, rather than hide, the inhabitants. Since many of animals depend on being unnoticed in the wild, balancing these factors can be quite a challenge.
The resident in the enclosure determines how you will outfit it. Just as desert animals will do poorly if given a waterfall, chameleons will suffer in a cage designed for a corn snake. The first priority is establishing the creatures’ needs. Basic heating and lighting are the first step in cage design; everything else flows from there. Once you have determined the occupant of the cage and decided on your heat and light strategies, you are ready to move on to bedding and cage furniture.
There are many attractive and excellent alternatives on the market for bedding, and a lot of them are versatile as well. There are also some inappropriate options out there. I know of one store that tends to put all its stock on crushed walnut shells, and while the shells are attractive, I think this bedding is too sharp if accidentally ingested. Corn-cob bedding, because it swells when dampened, can sometimes block the intestinal tracks of many herps. Sand bedding can also result in blockage, though I find the vitamin-infused, fine-grain sands designed for herps to be fairly safe. Sand is also capable of being an irritant if lodged between a reptile’s scales, so I avoid it even for a lot of desert species, especially tortoises.
I find that cypress mulch and redwood bark are easily accessible choices that make cages look fantastic and are appreciated by a wide range of animals. I also like aspen bedding for animals that like it a bit dryer. One advantage of aspen is that it tends to maintain its shape when worked, so snakes can easily form little burrows and pathways. A number of companies make nice bedding out of reconstituted newsprint, which has the added benefit of being recycled material. Of course, there are the old standbys: potting soil, pine shavings, and on occasion, sand. One more note: most species of chameleons rarely venture out of the trees and can muss up their tongues if they are shooting at and catching insects at the bottom of a bedded tank. For them, the best substrate is often no substrate.
You are finally at the fun part of the project: interior decorating. There is a wonderland of products at your fingertips for this—log hides, caves, humidity chambers, waterfalls, drip systems, plants—both live and imitation—and more. I find that each store I visit seems to have a unique aesthetic regarding cage design. I have seen recreations of cityscapes that have the fun fantasy element of turning herps into giant monsters (though I think the fantasy would be hard to maintain while keeping the real animal clean and comfortable). I have seen over-the-top garish assemblages; not to my taste, but some folks eat it up. I have seen faithful recreations of wild habitats. I have seen dart frog tanks that make you cry for the beauty of them. I have seen desertscapes with noble uromastyx lording the terrain. I have seen colony cages of pink -toed tarantulas that took me back to watching The Lost World as a child. This is an opportunity for you and your staff to express yourselves artistically while really wowing your clientele.
As you experiment and reconfigure your designs, always keep in mind the idea that the customer needs to see the animal. For instance, a hide log that has the open end facing the front of the tank will still keep a snake comfortable and happy, while making it at least partially visible to a browser. On the other hand, if the hide log is positioned side-to-side, the cage might as well be empty as far as shoppers are concerned. You might even post notes on the front of your cages clueing folks in as to where the tenant might be. In my shop, we have some above-head height cages in which we have installed mirrored ceiling tiles so that the snakes and lizards are still visible to those below.
I have found, by the way, that manufacturer sales reps who see that you are serious about sophisticating your animal displays will often fall all over themselves getting you samples to use within them. After all, nothing sells product off a shelf like seeing it well used in the store. Sales reps know this, and you should too.
Of course, not every cage need be a showpiece. Simple, basic cages that fulfill the animals’ needs make for efficient maintenance and a clean, tidy appearance. But show stoppers are what will drive a lot of your sales and get your clients to think about their hobby in new ways. Many is the customer that has told me that seeing us install a beautiful setup put them in the frame of mind to do exactly the same thing.
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.