Starter Herps
by Owen Maercks
October 1, 2013
Sometimes steering customers away from the pet they think they want and toward a more appropriate choice is a retailer’s best sales strategy.

 

 

 

When a first-timer comes into your store, what is the most likely request they will make in terms of a snake, lizard, turtle or a frog? I am guessing the most common answers to those questions are garter snake, green anole, red-eared slider and bullfrog—those are all pretty terrible choices.


Most garter snakes are flighty, tend to musk when handled, and are prone to water blisters. Green anoles have generally short lifespans and are equally flighty and unhandeable. Red-eared sliders are dirty, get larger than most people envision and can deliver a bite that would not soon be forgotten. Bullfrogs, like sliders, are an ecological nightmare and require enormous tanks. They too do not handle well at all.


When it comes to exotics sales, the first hurdle for the pet professional is to steer customers to a better path than the one they are on. When I work with new customers, I find that I almost always have to dispel their notions of what they believe will make a good first pet. Things are better now than they once were; I used to always have to do this. Nowadays, I sometimes breathe a sigh of relief when a family comes into the store and says, “We want a corn snake!” or “We are thinking about leopard geckos!” Good choice!


I find that most folks who come in seeking a garter snake are doing so because they want to avoid having to feed live mice to any pet. That’s an aesthetic choice, and there is nothing much you can do to change people’s aesthetics. However, I find many people who do not want to see a mouse die in front of their eyes can adjust surprisingly easily to the notion of thawing a frozen mouse and placing it in front of a snake. Most snakes, of course, don’t really care.


As for non-rodent-eating serpentine pets, in my experience, very few make for a good pet experience. Fish eaters tend to bite. Insect eaters tend to need more elaborate setups and care than most people want to provide, especially for a first-time pet owner. Bird eaters tend to raise the same objections out of people as rodent eaters. And lizard eaters require a prey item that is at best expensive, and often difficult to provide with regularity.


The other objection many people raise to snakes is their size. Corn snakes and king snakes, which make for fine pets, get four to six feet in length. Many people hear that and equate it to a four- to six-foot human. I remind them that, if they think of a snake as a length of rope, a six-foot piece of rope would coil easily into the palm of one’s hand.


Green anole customers have a different agenda: they see a lizard that costs less than ten dollars, and they like that. I understand this. Who wants to invest enormous amounts of money on what may be a child’s passing fancy? I like to point out that, whether the pet itself costs ten dollars or a hundred dollars, the basic equipment is going to run about the same. If you are investing a hundred or more dollars to house, heat and light an animal, the price of the animal itself becomes less significant.


Anoles are, in fact, not only short-lived and nearly impossible to tame, they actually require more equipment than some other lizards. Leopard geckos, on the other hand are easily tamed, long-lived and easily maintained. The fact that they cost triple what an anole does quickly becomes meaninglessness when the cost is more than offset by the savings in setup. And, it’s a way better pet, which is much more likely to engender a child’s long-term interest and love, thus making the chances much stronger for a positive outcome to the entire transaction.


The red-eared slider is a different kettle of fish, as it were. I believe people are drawn to them just because of their pet store omnipresence. They do look cute swimming around, seeming so peaceful and friendly. We have a little pond of them in front of our store too. Of course, we do have a sign above the tank that reads: “Water Turtles are like freshwater sharks. Dangling fingers are subject to removal.” They can deliver, and in fact want to deliver, a vicious bite.


They are also legitimately a vector for salmonella, and they carry a reputation—largely undeserved—for its spread. The truth is that any and all animals can carry salmonella. However, as it is a water-borne disease, sliders can more easily transmit it. I not only recommend that people wash their hands after working with them, but that, as tempting as it may be, they resist kissing the turtles or drinking their water.


Like the lizards, water turtles are deceptively expensive to outfit properly. For around the same price tag, one can set up a young tortoise. The tortoise is, of course, far more expensive, but the same logic behind substituting the gecko for the anole goes for water turtles versus tortoises. On top of that, I like to point out that, amortized over the years, the investment in a tortoise is actually rather minimal, given its potential to live spanning several human generations. One additional benefit: tortoises are primarily vegetarian, making daily upkeep little more than making a salad every morning.


Now, on to the bullfrog. There are mail-order companies that sell “grow your own tadpole” kits that typically supply bullfrog or leopard frog tadpoles with the kit. Frankly, I wish these companies would just dry up and go away. They do a great disservice to our industry and the environment. Both of these frogs are terrible choices as pets; the bullfrog will eventually require no less than a 50-gallon tank as it not only gets huge, but it is a leaper. The leopard frog does not get as big, but it also has an incredible ability to leap and is one of our more toxic species.


Most of the customers who come in inquiring about these have already been saddled with the tadpole, not realizing the headache they have acquired. When I let them know of the difficulties ahead, they inevitably ask about releasing them. Neither frog is native to my area, and we have strict and very prudent laws about releasing any exotics into the wild. The bullfrog is fast becoming a “native” here as, like the red-eared slider, it has a habit of not only out-competing local equivalent species, it is literally eating them up, as well. My customers are now faced with a dilemma regarding their pet for which there just is no good answer. The best I can offer is painless euthanasia. This, of course, inevitably results in a child wanting a replacement.

 

One mistake a lot of us in the pet industry make in sales is trying to find a close equivalent to a lost pet. Just because someone has lost a pet, even a tadpole, it does not mean the ideal replacement is a tadpole. That empty space can be filled by any number of creatures in a pet shop. I am also fond of suggesting that customers consider their options and perhaps even come back on another day, so as to separate the loss of one pet from the acquisition of another. Inevitably, people appreciate the low-pressure sales approach and will return with a better and clearer attitude.


However, if I were to choose a frog to substitute, I would go with either the taciturn, adorable and somewhat handleable White’s tree frog, an Australian and Indonesian species that is now commonly available as a captive-bred pet. I also find that the common, inexpensive and beautiful fire-bellied frog is a nice choice.


Then there’s always the person who comes in, usually with a child in tow, who wants a pet that doesn’t cost very much, needs no elaborate caging and requires nothing much in the way of upkeep. And that is why we carry reptile statues and toys.


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.