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VALLEY WEEKEND : Perfect Present for a Python : Some Pets Aren't Easy to Shop for; Even Reptiles Have Special Tastes

December 21, 1995|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What do reptiles want?

Normally, this is not a question that troubles me. Can the former Yugoslavia attain lasting peace? Does nature or nurture account for more? What can Michael Jackson be thinking? These are questions that trouble me.

But I have been pondering the question of what reptiles want for several weeks now, ever since I encountered a provocative survey in a recent issue of Pet Product News.

You probably don't read Pet Product News, a publication sent to the owners of pet stores, and I rarely do either. But a recent issue astonished me when it revealed that 4% of reptile owners give their pets Christmas gifts.

I know that vast numbers of dog owners have presents for Fido under their trees. I have received their Christmas cards, which inevitably feature photos of the beloved family mutt in those felt reindeer antlers that only dog owners find hilarious. (I'm sure there are dogs out there that consider euthanizing themselves each year when their owners come at them with the fake antlers).

But Pet Product News told me just how pervasive the phenomenon is. According to a 1994 survey of pet owners by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn., 62% of dog owners add Rover's name to their shopping lists.

Many cat owners also make sure that Puff doesn't feel left out when the egg is being nogged and the gifts are being opened. Forty-five percent plunk down their hard-earned cash for catnip mice and other feline gifts.

Pets' birthdays are also gift-giving occasions for 21% of dog owners and 14% of cat owners.

You are no doubt asking yourself what other pets have friends at the North Pole. The third most indulged group of captive animals is birds. I frankly can't imagine why anyone would want to Christmas shop for his or her Macaw--to thank it for not snapping your finger off at the knuckle? But what do I know? A whopping 37% of bird owners think Tweety was nice, not naughty, this year and deserves something more celebratory than just another cuttlebone.

*

Even fish owners get caught up in the spirit of holiday giving. Eight percent of them go out and get something special for the neon tetra in their lives, although I can't imagine what a neon tetra could possibly want after it got one of those ceramic mermaids or a swim-through castle.

Which brings us to Kevin. Kevin is my African rock python. I can't really say that Kevin has been good this year. He hasn't been much of anything this year, but a familiar presence that has gone an entire year without escaping from his terrarium and has shed his skin with satisfying regularity. It never occurred to me that a gift was customary, and frankly I'm at a loss.

Dogs are easy. There is a Bone-of-the-Month Club, and you can even get a cameo carved to order with Lassie's pretty face on it. There are monogrammed canine nightshirts and bottled water, called Thirsty Dog, with that irresistible beefy taste. Some people, I'm told, even bring Spot into the pet shop with them and let him point at the rawhide chew of his choice.

But what do reptiles want?

I thumbed through all the herpetology magazines on the newsstand and found nary a clue. Actually, I wandered off task while I read a riveting article in the current issue of The Vivarium, the journal of the American Federation of Herpetoculturists, called "Big Snake Bites, Part II."

I missed "Big Snake Bites, Part I," I'm sorry to say, but the sequel included information no owner of a large or growing snake should be without: "Once a python weighs more than half the weight of his keeper, the potential of dangerous constriction becomes very real; snakes of this size should not be handled alone," the piece counseled. "Once a python outweighs his keeper, fatal constriction is at the discretion of the python."

*

These are not animals you want to pique with your lack of generosity, clearly, so I headed off to the Aquarium Center in Sherman Oaks, which has a better than average selection of pets that slither and slink.

"What's a good gift for a snake?" I asked. Heat lamps are always appropriate, clerk Katherine Fell advised. Perhaps something in a nice tree branch that would allow Kevin to tone whatever pythons have instead of abs. How about a full-color photographic mural for the back wall of his terrarium, perhaps a desert scene shot from the point of view of a snake inside a cave?

Too bad Kevin isn't an iguana, Fell said. She had something no iguana should be without--a lizard-size black leather biker jacket and leash that is a top seller at $24.99.

The gift of companionship is always welcome, Fell suggested. A few days before a man had come in seeking a yuletide mate for his snake. "People are weird," she noted.

Owner Phil Moinsester came over to add his expertise. "For their turtles, I've seen people get live worms and things like that --specialty foods," he said.

Bingo.

Don't let Kevin know, but that bulge in his Christmas stocking is the best climbing branch money can buy.

And he's getting one other thing that I know he likes.

It squeaks.

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