In the old days, when Junior whined for a pet, the family drove the wagon to the pound and came home with a dog or cat. These days, it would seem, dogs and cats are for wusses.
"Reptiles are just more me ," explains Justin Van Leeuwen, a Woodland Hills teen-ager who owns five lizards, four snakes, four tortoises and two turtles, not to mention a tarantula, a scorpion and a frog.
Jason Saperstein, manager of the cavern-like reptile department at Reseda Pet Stop, calls these types of crawly critters the pets of the future, acknowledging their growing popularity. "We're selling a lot more snakes and lizards than we used to," he says.
But why would sane humans blow big money on something others would run away from on a camping trip? Where's the thrill in owning a rat-gobbling monster that might scarf your cat if you had one?
"They're very low-maintenance, they're easy to care for and they live a very long time in the proper environment," Saperstein says.
This doesn't half explain the raptures of aficionados for reptiles and other creepers.
"I used to be afraid of snakes; now I'm fascinated with them," says Josh Licano, a West Valley resident and employee of WM Adventures, a Chatsworth company that specializes in captive-bred reptiles and custom terrariums. "I'm fascinated by their coloring, the way they move--and their affection. They'll coil up and sleep in your hand. It's hard to explain unless you've experienced it."
Lately, more people are experiencing it, according to Eric Akaba, a Santa Monica animal control officer and member of the 40-year-old Southwestern Herpetologists Society. "The movie 'Jurassic Park' created a big interest in cold-blooded animals," he says.
Ralph Breyman of Newhall, the exhibit committee chair for the herpetologists society, says that although he doesn't know of any statistics, one measure of the growth of reptiles' popularity is the proliferation of reptile shows, where breeders come to sell and the public comes to buy. During the past five years, he has seen these shows in Southern California go from two a year to nearly one a month. And although they used to involve imported, wild-caught reptiles, they now focus on captive-bred creatures. He thinks the increase in shows is related to the fact that there are now many more breeders and much more knowledge about how to care for these animals.
He also noted that attendance at the shows used to be male-oriented but the events now attract more families, with lots of women and kids participating.
The trend toward keeping exotic pets has grown so big that Dawn Airen and her partner Andrew Lambros were encouraged to open an exotic pet shop called WM Adventures in November in The Promenade shopping mall. Several months ago, Airen says, "We suddenly had so many people wanting pet reptiles that we decided to look for a store."
Though their shop did well and attracted a lot of attention, they moved last month to a showroom in Fred Segal's Ecology Information Center in Santa Monica. They made the move, says Lambros, to take advantage of "the more high-end environmentally conscious crowd" that shops there.
Both by mail order and through the Fred Segal showroom, WM sells mice-eating pythons and boa constrictors; iguanas, monitor lizards and water dragons; tropical turtles, frogs and geckos. The company also markets hairier, leggier creatures--zebra and rose-hair tarantulas, whip tail and black emperor scorpions--as well as giant millipedes.
The atmosphere of WM's world is gentle: New Age music plays and animals are presented in spacious, plant-filled settings, some with misting systems that mock rain-forest conditions, many with special lights, heating elements, pools and rocks.
Although many pet shops emphasize responsible pet ownership, many in the field of animal control and protection are disturbed by novelty pet trends. Dennis Kroeplin, a West Valley animal control and wildlife officer, decries the "macho guy who wraps a 12-foot python around his shoulders." He believes, "Pets are for giving and receiving affection, not for showing off."
In the same vein, Dr. James Isaacs, a veterinarian who treats exotic pets in his Encino practice, shakes his head over "people who are into monstro bugs, like giant hissing cockroaches. You bother them, they hiss--it's like having a giant squeaky toy!"
Of greater concern to Isaacs, though, is that exotic pets often sicken and die because their owners don't understand their needs--for certain foods and environments, for heat, moisture and even special handling. "Consumers do endless research before they buy a car," he observes. "They should do the same when they buy an animal."