It's a scene out of your worst nightmare. Thousands of snakes, lizards--reptiles of all kinds--crawling and writhing and slithering about in a space the size of a living room. It's enough to make Indiana Jones, or any ophidiophobe, go down for the count.
There are albino Burmese pythons. And seven-foot green anacondas. And Colombian, Brazilian, and Argentine rainbow boas. There are tree boas, milk snakes, rat snakes, corn snakes, Carpet pythons and Baja rosey boas. Iguanas, monitors, skinks and chameleons are also scattered about. Any cold-blooded little crawly thing that your warm-blooded heart could desire.
Escondido's Reptile Haven, 2205 E. Valley Parkway, is one of only a handful of reptile "pet" stores in the United States. It specializes in more than 100 species of snakes, tortoises, turtles, lizards and amphibians. At second glance (if you make it to second glance, that is), it is apparent that all of these beguiling beasts are safely behind glass or in aquariums--save a less-than-frightening tortoise or two--making it possible for visitors to browse the aisles and keep a comfortable distance while feigning bravery.
It is just this discomfort and fear that brings many of Reptile Haven's patrons to its doors for the first time.
"A lot of people come in to get over their phobia," says owner Chris Estep. "A couple of months ago two little old ladies came in. They were shaking at the door. They have 20 snakes now. They're really into it."
Reptile Haven has gotten downright educational about this phobia. It has taken some of its specimens to psychology classes at Palomar College at which students overcome their fears by handling the animals.
"We start out real slow," said Estep. "First, they look at (the reptiles) for a while, and then someone else holds (the reptiles) in front of them, and then they start at the tail and pet them, and, before you know it most of them are holding them and they feel good with them."
Estep insists that, once people overcome their fear, reptiles can be wonderful pets. What, exactly, are some qualities that make snakes good pets?
"They hold onto you and constrict around your arm," said Estep. "They're real slow moving, so they don't run away from you."
Perhaps some people find a constricting snake endearing. For those who wish it were a little faster-moving so it could run away from them, there are other options. Like iguanas or tortoises.
"Tortoises are my No. 1 love," Estep said. "We have a huge breeding colony set up in Lakeside for super-rare tortoises. They're great." They're so great, in fact, that Estep is looking for another location to expand his enterprise.
"They have a way of looking right into your eyes," he said. "They're really personable."
"Tortoises definitely have a lot of character, and are really smart. They'll come out of their hiding places in the back yard to see what you're doing." Estep points out that tortoises eat mostly vegetation, and they're not aggressive when they eat. "They don't seem as bloodthirsty as snakes--not so cold-blooded. They're really docile. Very few people have been hurt by them," he said.
Although Estep doesn't have any pet reptiles at home, he maintains they make better pets than cats or dogs.
"They're low-maintenance pets," he said. "You can leave your pet snake for a month if you fill his water bowl before you leave, and, when you come back he'll be the same way, other than the droppings in the cage. You can't do that with a dog."
This low maintenance was one of the draws for Estep to open Reptile Haven. When he opened the doors in June, 1987, Estep also owned A Bird Haven, a few doors down.
"With the bird shop, I had to do a lot of work every day," he said. "Here, I can take off for three or four days, and, when I come back, other than it being a little messier, they're going to be alive."
Reptiles' low susceptibility to virus and disease is another advantage.
"The bird shop got wiped out three times. Everything in the whole shop died" because of a severe and fast-moving virus, Estep said. With snakes, however, viruses are rarely transmitted between species.
As far as personality goes, however, reptiles fail miserably. "Snakes have the least personality," Estep said. "Most people have a snake for a year or so, then switch over to a lizard or a tortoise."
Lizards are the most congenial of the lot. "If you raise an iguana from a baby, he'll follow you around the house and react to you more than a snake will," Estep said.
Everything sold at Reptile Haven is legal to own. But the manner in which you handle and display your acquisition is a little tricky if you want to remain within the bounds of the law. Take the case of a 17-foot python. If a minor takes it out of its cage, it's illegal. If it is in your house, but out of its cage, it's illegal. And, the cage must have a padlock.
"When people have pythons around their necks at the beach--that's illegal," Estep said. "There's a ferocious beast law that covers it."