I always like to have my April column for this esteemed journal veer away from the education/ information format and instead tell of some of my adventures in the herp business. Please indulge me in a little light-hearted story telling; I’ve got a million of ‘em!
This year is a special one for me. On Feb. 5, 1979, I started a new job. I was trying my hand at a career playing music and, like most artists, I needed a day job to pay the bills. I had kept lots of reptiles as a kid, and had visited this really great little local reptile store many times. It turned out that a friend’s boyfriend managed the place, and she suggested I hit them up for work. I did, and the 5th was my first day.
I walked in bright and chipper at 10 a.m., was introduced to the shop’s owner and the staff, and started the day. To my surprise, my first job was to feed, clean and water the psittacines. Now, I had some experience with reptiles, but my history with parrots amounted solely to a very adversarial relationship I had endured with my mother’s conure, which considered me an evil enemy whose every fiber of being was intent on stealing her affections away from him. So, I gritted my teeth; today would be a trial by fire—or beak and claw, as it were.
Ninety minutes later—and several attempted deadly attacks thwarted—I was done. Years later, when I was negotiating managing the same store, the boss and I arrived at a mutually agreed hourly pay rate. I then requested he take a dollar an hour off and get rid of the birds. He did the math and agreed.
My next job was more harrowing. A LOT more harrowing. We had just received a shipment of live animals and my job was to unpack the centipedes. These were giant Asian centipedes (Scolopendra spp.): 8 in. of flailing, furious, frenetic misanthropy.
Centipedes have a particularly nasty venom. The bite initially burns and swells, as one might expect. However, the venom does not tend to move through the bloodstream and dissipate. Oh no, that would be too easy. Instead, it tends to stay put at the wound site and act as a digestive, for about a week. So, the bite, rather than diminishing in pain, gets worse. And the wound, rather than healing, actually gets bigger and nastier. Of every animal in the store, this is the last thing you want to bite you.
Back then, they were packed for importation in a very interesting manner. Workers would take a single section of a large bamboo stem, hollow out one end, run a single crack down the side, and let a centipede run inside. Once it was in, they would quickly stuff the opening with a mixture of mud and cement that would harden to imperviousness. And off to the U.S. it would go.
The idea here was that I would take the cracked tube and snap it apart, releasing the Krak…er, centipede. Now that’s just a jim-dandy idea. Except, I was supposed to break open a length of bamboo that, even cracked, was rather like trying to rip a phone book in half. On top of that, the occupant was, shall we say, a bit peeved. And, of course, I was supposed to direct said occupant into a 10-gal. tank. I was directed to perform this task 24 times!
So, it was two and a half hours of wincing, praying and chasing loose centipedes—they seemed remarkably adept at going anywhere but in the tanks—around a 10 ft. by 10 ft. room. Fun!
After lunch, I returned for the relatively straightforward task of cleaning gecko tanks. I thought to myself that I had well earned a respite, and I was eager to change out the various leopard, fat-tailed, frog-eyed and day geckos. I had some experience with leopards and fat-tails, and was warned to take great care with the frog-eyes, which are high strung and tend to drop tails easily. I had never worked with day geckos, but since I had grown up in South Florida and was well acquainted with handling Anoles, I assumed this would be something similar.
My first was a tank of peacock days. I carefully opened it, and as if they possessed the ability to warp time, they seemed to tesseract out of the cage and up the wall. In a panic, I flat handed one, only to have it run straight out of my hand and up the wall…sans skin. There he was, looking like a kid’s model kit for The Invisible Lizard, guts, musculature and bones all exposed. In my hand was his skin, formerly like a piece of felt made of emerald and ruby dust, now a sad, limp little rag, like Eyeore’s burst balloon. I burst into tears, only to look around and see the entire staff, my manager and boss, all looking sternly at me. I begged for help, and apologized for killing this little lizard, certain I was out of a job and would bear this guilt for a very long time.
And just as suddenly as I had burst into tears, everybody burst into laughter. What I didn’t know is that this is a standard day gecko defense mechanism: (painlessly) lose your skin and get away, only to regrow it another day. I had been the brunt of a very mean—but very funny—joke. I had been through some very tough tests, and was now one of them. They helped me recapture the loose geckos and I thought that I had made it through my first day.
Nope. I had to clean the rabbit bins.
I went home that night, exhausted but elated. I couldn’t imagine what day two would hold for me. But I also couldn’t wait to find out. What I really could not foresee was that this would become my life’s work. That was 40 years ago, and I am happy to report that I still go into work every day wondering what adventures might lie ahead.
My point is that we are blessed to be in this business. It is hard work; you know that. It is often without much in the way of fiscal reward. It wasn’t that long ago that I went for several years pretty much paying to work. But on the other hand, we get to work with creatures that invite us into their wholly alien worlds. For a little while every day, we work on what might as well be other planets. We interact with customers who appreciate our expertise and share our passions. And we get to work with other folks who get the same animal pleasures we do.
Ain’t life grand? 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.