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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
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Coldblooded Thrillers

May 13, 2000|DENNIS ARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Taking long "walks" in the equatorial jungle. Teaching new tricks such as rolling over or molting or squeezing the life out of prey. Being awakened in the morning by a few flicks from a forked tongue.

Ah, there's really nothing like the bond between a boy and his reticulated python.

OK, so a 20-foot snake that can swallow small mammals isn't everyone's idea of the ideal house pet. But for some people, connecting with an animal that's the opposite of cuddly is entirely the point. They dare to be different and pine for the exotic.

And if their pursuits are reptilian or amphibian, they will probably feel at home in Fountain Valley, where scaly skin and an appetite for mealworms are not necessarily unattractive traits.

Jungle Fever

"The stigma of reptiles is how I make a living in this business," said Jay Vella, owner of Prehistoric Pets (18822 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, [714] 964-3525).

People like to enjoy an animal other people might find frightening, Vella said. His store has a slogan: "If it hops, crawls, wiggles or gives your mom the chills, we probably have it at Prehistoric Pets."

One look in the window and you can tell this isn't your typical pet store. In one display, more than a dozen iguanas lounge on rocks, across branches and at the top of a waterfall. Another houses a 400-plus-pound Galapagos tortoise, who shares a mock-rock enclosure with a couple of his smaller brethren.

Between the two displays is a 2,000-gallon pond, home to 50-pound catfish, similarly sized South American pacu and a variety of turtles, who periodically climb from the water and rest on the back of a basking monitor lizard.

But that's just the beginning. Explore more deeply and it's like taking a 5,000-square-foot tour of the crawly, wiggly world. There's a Ceylonese python ($399.99, marked down from $499.99), an Argentine boa ($199.99), Vietnamese tree frogs ($24.99) and a Cuban rock iguana named Diesel.

The animals with names aren't for sale, but that still leaves more than 1,000 exotic pets from which to choose. At one end are the fire-bellied toads and green tree frogs ($4.99); at the other are those reticulated pythons. An albino one goes for $10,000.

For those who'd rather rent than own, Prehistoric Pets offers a Jurassic Party service. For $150 an hour, employees will bring 12 to 14 animals to your next get-together, so you can feed a chameleon or pet a tarantula. Vella said his store books five to 10 such parties every weekend.

Also popular: feeding the fish and turtles in the store's pond. For $3, you get 50 worms that will have the giant catfish licking its whiskered chops.

Vella and his wife, Becky, started by opening a conventional pet store in 1988, but they soon established a niche by stocking more and more reptiles. Three years later, they opened a store in Chino that focused exclusively on reptiles, arachnids and amphibians. In 1992, the original Fountain Valley store--Pet Country--became Prehistoric Pets.

The variety of the store's exotic stock has been expanding ever since. Some of the store's animals are imported, but most now come from breeders, Vella said.

Just starting out? Consider the Python Package: For $119.99, you get a ball python, a 20-gallon enclosure, a heat fixture, a heat light thermometer, a water bowl, a branch and bedding. For $30 more, you get a second python.

And you know the old saying: One ball python is never enough.

Prehistoric Pets is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Shell Game

Across town, Walter Allen maintains his reptile collection, but his tastes are a bit more specific. Turtles and tortoises have the run of the place at Casa de Tortuga (10455 Circulo de Zapata, [714] 962-0612).

Allen's collection features more than 800 armored animals, representing about 100 different species. He has so many that he and his wife, Irma, own adjoining lots--one house and yard for themselves (and a few of their pets) and another for the rest of their collection.

Walter Allen's turtle pursuit began 35 years ago, when he met someone who owned box turtles. A few weeks later, he learned that a turtle and tortoise club was holding a show in Pasadena.

"I met lots of nice people, and it grew like most hobbies do--you start out with two, then you have 10, and next thing you know it's 35 years later and you have 800," Allen said.

Allen's collection grows each spring and summer, as he seeks new species, as his reproduce and as people drop off pets they no longer want. The casa never turns away a turtle. It avoids overcrowding by maintaining an adoption program. It took in about 1,200 turtles last year and nearly all of them were adopted.

Life is good at the casa. Turtles and tortoises for the most part are separated by species, and those from tropical climates enjoy heated doghouse-style digs, as well as a yard and/or pond in which to swim or romp (OK, some just trudge). Some of the houses cost as much as $5,000.

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