gamut (2006-23)

A three-foot-long savannah monitor lizard is climbing the mesh wall of its cage in the corner of Mike Herrick’s Fins ’n’ Skins pet store, stretched vertically with its pointed snout pressing in vain at the roof of the enclosure. He’s a curious-looking fellow, mottled gray and roughly the size and shape of a junior league softball bat, pushing, straining for daylight with all the frenetic urgency of a… well, of a very big lizard, which is actually neither very frenetic nor particularly urgent in the larger scheme of things. Then, without warning, it slips, slides down the mesh and plops onto the brush-scattered floor of the cage, its tail unceremoniously thwacking a second lizard across the head. This could spell bad news for lizard no. 1, as the offended party is both longer and thicker than its roomie. But despite the bump on the noggin, the second monitor looks unperturbed, in that matter-of-fact, wholly disinterested kind of way that only a lizard can be.

The African savannah is one of the more popular reptiles for sale at Herrick’s shop off Downtown West Boulevard, which specializes in exotic reptiles and fish—with a handful of frogs, scorpions and tarantula spiders thrown in for good measure. “They’re good pets, but they get bigger than most people like,” Herrick says of the monitors. They’re relatively low maintenance, he adds, as reptiles go, subsisting on a diet of mice, canned specialty food and mealworms, which he describes as “those worms you always see on Fear Factor .”

Exotic pets—animals other than the ordinary dogs and cats and goldfish most of us tend to favor—comprise a growth industry in the U.S., and have done so for a number of years. According to various industry statistics, Americans owned around 11 million reptilian pets in 2005, up from 7 million in 1993. And the latter figure was already a substantial increase over what Herrick saw when he opened his fish and reptile specialty shop in 1989.

“There wasn’t much of a market for reptiles in Knoxville back then,” Herrick says. “I sold mostly fish, and put in the reptiles as a sideline, to support my own habit. Within a year and a half, we went from 10 little aquariums to a whole room full of reptiles.

“With all the things coming out on TV, Crocodile Hunter and the Discovery Channel and all that, the market has ballooned. It seems to grow every year.”

And it’s not just about snakes and lizards. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers’ Association, there were 16.6 million pet birds living in the United States in 2005, as well as 9.6 million saltwater and 13.9 million freshwater pet fish. Enthusiasts say Knoxville is unusual for an urban area its size, in that it has a couple of notable specialty shops (including Fins ’n’ Skins) that cater to lovers of unusual pets.

Of course, those statistics on so-called exotic pet ownership still represent plenty of usual suspects—among Herrick’s biggest sellers are corn snakes, king snakes, and the generic “community fish” one might find even at less specialized stores. But other favorites, less expected, include Pakistani leopard geckos, bearded dragons, African ball pythons, boa constrictors, and Oscars—a neotropical fish native to the Amazon river basin.

It’s difficult to pin down the demographics of fish and reptile lovers, Herrick says. He came by his own fascination honestly (he breeds a good portion of the animals at Fins in his own home), under the influence of his grandfather.

“He got me into aquariums and things; he used to drag me around to all kinds of pet stores,” says Herrick. “My first love was fish and aquariums, and then in my teens, I discovered snakes.

“You find all ages, pretty much any type of person coming into the store and buying reptiles,” he continues. “You’ll get the biker type, which you might expect, and the tattooed, pierced people, which you might expect. But then you’ve got the doctors, and the lawyers, and the kids. A lot of parents get their kids a king or a corn snake, because it’s usually not as difficult as caring for a dog. It’s like a starter pet.”

Pet tarantulas are usually most popular among children, he says, although he remembers that, “the first spider I ever sold was a Mexican red-legged tarantula to a woman who was 85 years old. It was her first one. That really flipped me out.”

The price tags in Herrick’s store are as diverse as the clientele. One of the menacing (though relatively harmless) black emperor scorpions he keeps in glass tanks next to the smaller lizards and snakes costs less than $5, while some of the more exotic snakes may run thousands of dollars.

“I’m not one to set a $10,000 snake out on the floor,” he says, noting that theft is a significant problem at pet specialty shops such as his own. “But if that’s what you’re interested in, I can track it down.”

Herrick says reptile owners are usually different from their dog- and cat-owning counterparts in that many of them see their charges more as projects than pets, fascinating distractions rather than companions. “It’s a little harder to relate to a snake the same way you would as a dog,” he says. “It’s just not quite as affectionate. Some people will say different, but the norm is you don’t get quite as attached.”

Which isn’t to say that companionate bonding never occurs between reptile and keeper. Herrick remembers, for instance, a customer who bathed her beloved pet iguana twice a day. “The iguana had the run of her apartment,” he chuckles. “I came over a couple of times to help her give it some injections, and at certain times of day, it would go crawling down the hall into the bathroom and sit in the tub, waiting for her to turn on the water. It takes a lot of time and attention to tame down an iguana, and this one was almost disgustingly tame.”

A scarlet macaw named Rhett Butler lets out a piercing squeal when a new visitor walks into Strictly Feathers, an extensive bird specialty shop off Broadway around Fountain City. Owner and longtime bird enthusiast Gwen Woodard grabs a plastic spray bottle, wheels, and nails Rhett with a stream of water with the deadeye precision of a spaghetti western gunslinger.

“You’re not going to do that,” she says in a voice stern enough to intimidate God. Then she turns her back again to help a customer extract a small green parakeet from the net that just removed it from its cage. The macaw is pushing his luck, though, chirping insinuatively, intimating that he might squawk again.

“Rhett!” Woodard says reproachfully. She admonishes the birds in her care with a firmness that’s undercut with motherly affection; she’s the kindly schoolmarm to an outrageously colorful array of adorably mischievous students.

“Every bird is an individual, and you get to know them as individuals,” Woodward explains. “They know you; they know when you come home; they know what to say at the right time. They’re very unique and endearing creatures.”

A former Great Dane breeder, Woodard made her first feathered friend when her husband Roy was stricken with back problems some 30 years ago. Unable, without help, to do the heavy lifting occasionally required in breeding Danes, she bought a parrot out of a classified ad from a family with a garage full of birds to sell.

“I had to have pets,” Woodard says. “Of course, I knew nothing. My husband thought I was crazy, but I enjoy challenges.”

Woodard sought information from veterinarians, read Birdtalk magazine, and called breeders listed in the publication’s classified ads. Many were unhelpful: “Some told me there was no way I could learn if I didn’t already know,” she says. “So mostly I applied the nutritional and social knowledge I learned from dogs, to birds. And guess what? It worked. I was really surprised.”

One bird led to another, and another—”Birds are an addiction,” she says, “you can’t buy just one”—until Woodard found herself breeding cockatiels and selling them out of her home. The volume of customers, all of them word-of-mouth, became so great that she considered opening a birds-only specialty store, an idea that husband Roy thought was patently insane.

But it worked, too. The Woodards opened Strictly Feathers 16 years ago, and today Gwen is recognized as an expert on bird care, with her own instructional video series. At Strictly Feathers, she offers a handful of pet-shop-standard parakeets and zebra finches as well as a remarkable array of exotic birds—macaws and eclectus parrots and various Amazons and the Strictly Feathers specialty, the African grey.

Woodard is fiercely devoted to her feathered charges; she reserves her utmost contempt for customers who stick rude fingers through the bars of cages, heedless of instructions. “That cage is their home, and you are not invited in,” she says vehemently.

She’s also as rigorous as any foster-home caseworker could ever hope to be. “Just because you have money doesn’t mean I’m going to sell you a bird,” she says. “If you are not willing to listen to my instructions; if I think you are buying just to decorate your home; if you’re buying for a child who’s too young; I won’t sell you a bird. I’ve refused several people over the years.”

The phenomenon she’s talking about isn’t confined to the exotic pet industry, but it’s especially prevalent therein: potential pet owners who pick out an unusual bird or a big snake, without considering the long-term implications of caring for an animal that needs its own climate-controlled bedroom, or whose food doesn’t come pre-packaged in economy-sized bags at the local supermarket.

“People see a baby burmese python and do an impulse buy,” says Brad Moxley, a reptile keeper at Knoxville Zoo who also breeds snakes in his home. “Then it gets 17 feet long. Or they get a slider turtle at a pet shop in Myrtle Beach, and find out it needs a 100-gallon aquarium and lots of expensive lighting.

“Then they either release them into the wild, or they call us. And we’re not able to take them. I’ve gone through weeks where we get two calls a day from people who have boas or iguanas they can no longer take care of.”

Moxley says most zookeepers tend to discourage ownership of exotic pets. To those who still feel compelled to keep snakes or tropical parrots, in spite of his best advice, he stresses that an abundance of education, and dedication, are necessary on the front end of the purchase.

“You have to get to know all the ins and outs of the animal,” he says. “If you plan to breed, you have to know the husbandry. And you have to know how big it’s going to get.”

For her part, Woodard makes it her business to find out whether potential customers have the wherewithal to care for an animal with special needs over the long haul. “When I talk to you, I find out what kind of person you are,” she says. “We talk about things like the bird’s emotional needs. I don’t like impulse buys.”