EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 22, 2008

Demand for exotic pets growing

By James A. Kimble

It used to be all about iguanas. These days, all people want are bearded dragons.

"They are a staple now," said Kevin McCurley, owner of Zoo Creatures in Plaistow. "They're low maintenance and very interactive."

McCurley said more customers have been coming into his Route 125 store asking for the lizards because they provide all of the pleasure of a cat or dog, with relatively low maintenance.

The popular lizards hail from Australia but have been domesticated and are bred worldwide.

As an adult, they get to about 18 inches. They often start at four or five inches long. Some enthusiasts are even breeding them from eggs once they have their own tank of lizards.

The technology and techniques for keeping exotic pets have improved drastically over the past decade, according to McCurley, who owns a 14,000-square-foot store and pet breeding and education facility. Such innovations have also led to a growing interest in saltwater reef-life, saltwater fish and invertebrates.

Michael Ralbovsky, a reptile specialist who has put on educational programs around the country, said the cottage industry of food supplies and equipment for these exotic pets is a multimillion-dollar business in the U.S. alone.

With improved educational programs for pet owners, people are finding they don't have to simply think of a dog or cat when considering a pet, he said.

"If you're in an apartment in the city, you can't have a huge dog or a cat," Ralbovsky said. "There is a load of animals out there now that are perfect for people who have allergies who could not enjoy pets before."

A benefit for some animals is that their domestication just might save their species in some cases.

"The Argentine boa is virtually wiped out in its own country because the rain forest is being wiped out," Ralbovsky said. In the United States, that same snake has a healthy and growing population, he said.

McCurley said for people starting out, it's important to seek some kind of education about caring for the pets. He said he tries to advise people to get pets that are going to be feasible for someone's lifestyle.

Some national pet companies such as PetCo are already taking those cues, Ralbovsky said, tailoring their regional stores toward the types of exotic animals that would do well in a certain geographic area.

Investment in proper equipment is important, whether you're buying one for a new lizard or some exotic fish, he said. "If people just buy a kit, they're not going to achieve what an owner wants."