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Her Reptile Love Reaches Slithering Heights

April 14, 1999|MARNELL JAMESON

When you see 19-year-old Coby Steffani surrounded by 1,000 bearded dragons, monitor lizards, geckos, pythons, iguanas and turtles, you gotta ask: What's a nice girl like her doing in a place like this--a place that happens to look like National Geographic come to life?

"It makes me feel good when a customer comes in and looks at a reptile and says, 'Oh, how cute,"' Steffani says of a dream realized--her own reptile store, Reptropolis, in San Clemente. "I'm blessed to have so many animals' health, life and happiness depend on me."

While most little girls were dreaming of ponies and princesses, Steffani was catching snakes, lizards and spiders and putting them together in cages "to see what would happen." Think Wednesday Addams all grown up.

Then Steffani met her match--her boyfriend, a lizard expert who used to work at Petco.

"People would bring their sick lizards and snakes to him to rehabilitate," recalls the currently black-haired Steffani, who is chameleon-like herself with hair colors that change almost daily. A sort of reptile rescue inadvertently developed, and before long the couple had 30 or so creepy crawlers.

Then came a windfall and a brainstorm. When Steffani turned 18, she received a check, a small settlement for an injury she sustained six years earlier. She took one look at the 30 reptiles and knew what she wanted.

"I opened Reptropolis on Independence Day 1997," she recalls proudly. The 750-square-foot store grew to 2,500 square feet in less than one year. For hired help she turned to her skateboard friends.

Today, when you walk in (some prefer to wait in the car), you first encounter a vivarium full of thorny bearded dragons dog-piling to get closest to the heat lamp.

"They have to heat their bodies to 80 degrees or they can't digest their food," she explains. Other vivariums house more prehistoric-looking creatures, each in tropical, desert or woodland environs, depending on their native habitats. Near the back are the reptile condos, large enclosures housing Joker, a 6-foot Iguana, and four you-don't-want-to-know-how-big Burmese pythons.

Eventually, Steffani hopes to let others run her store so she can get on with her next mission: foreign ministry work.

"When I'm done helping reptiles, I want to help humans," she says. "I want to save the world."

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