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updated: 10/4/2013 2:37 PM

'Scary' pets best fit for some families

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  • Henry Gabriel, 10, holds Gabriel, left, and Lenerd, his 1-year-old bearded dragons.

       Henry Gabriel, 10, holds Gabriel, left, and Lenerd, his 1-year-old bearded dragons.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Henry Gabriel, 10, holds Gabriel, left, and Lenerd, his 1 1/2-year-old bearded dragons.

       Henry Gabriel, 10, holds Gabriel, left, and Lenerd, his 1 1/2-year-old bearded dragons.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Henry Gabriel's 1 1/2-year-old bearded dragons Lenerd and Gabriel.

       Henry Gabriel's 1 1/2-year-old bearded dragons Lenerd and Gabriel.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Henry Gabriel's 1 1/2-year-old bearded dragons Lenerd and Gabriel.

       Henry Gabriel's 1 1/2-year-old bearded dragons Lenerd and Gabriel.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

With so many cuddly kittens and affectionate puppies in the world to choose from, why do some families opt for such "scary" pets as snakes, scorpions, lizards and tarantulas?

Those who do generally fall into at least one of two categories, said Mark Janczak, owner of Critters Pet Shop in St. Charles.

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There are people who sincerely have an interest in all kinds of animals, and then there are those with the more practical concern of being allergic to cats or dogs, he said.

But there are also other factors that might make some kinds of exotic pets more appealing to some -- such as their being low-maintenance enough to fit into a busy, working lifestyle, Janczak said.

In this regard, pets like snakes or scorpions that spend most of their time in a contained, aquarium-like environment are somewhat similar to fish in their upkeep. But some pet owners prefer to be more on the edge than simply keeping fish, he said.

That being said, there are some kinds of lizards that are even quite personable, Janczak said. They can provide their owners some feedback a little closer to -- but not quite the same as -- that associated with more traditional pets.

When Janczak and his wife, Caroline, first bought Critters Pet Shop 26 years ago, the green iguana was by far the most popular lizard to own. But because they can grow as long as 6 feet, they often ended up in need of second homes and the public's emphasis on them inevitably dropped off.

Today, the bearded dragon has become the most popular lizard, growing no more than 2 feet in length and often only 18 inches.

"It's really a great lizard to have," Janczak said.

Ten-year-old Henry Gabriel of Palatine agrees with that. He's found his two bearded dragons, Lenerd and Gabriel, to be rewarding replacements for the turtle he was originally aiming for.

And as his family owns a dog as well, Henry knows the difference between caring for traditional and nontraditional pets.

"Comparing them with dogs, they're easier to take care of," he said. "I kind of wanted a pet in my room I could speak to when I was alone."

Bearded dragons eat both vegetation and insects, but such food isn't costly, Henry said.

Both male lizards are about 18 months old and getting past the fighting they sometimes did as juveniles.

Henry said his mother warned him that bearded dragons didn't live as long as dogs. But when he learned they had a life span of about 10 years, he was satisfied to have pets he might be able to keep until his college years.

Another favorite lizard among pet owners is the crested gecko that was once considered to be extinct. The chameleon, though a gentle and familiar lizard, can prove more difficult to keep for someone just starting out, Janczak said.

The tarantulas and scorpions that Critters Pet Shop sells have no venom, and the Emperor scorpions are the least likely of all varieties to sting at all, he said.

Recognizing that most people shopping for pets are parents buying for their children, Janczak recommends the first questions they ask themselves -- for any kind of pet -- is do they have the time to look after it and are they prepared to keep it for its whole life.

While most lizards live several years, female tarantulas can live as long as 15 and turtles as much as 30 or longer.

And while many exotic pets don't need the same constant attention as dogs and cats, prospective buyers should be aware of whatever upfront costs there may be, such as a few hundred dollars in ultraviolet lights.

Janczak also suggested those considering an exotic pet make sure the veterinarian they plan to use is able to treat it. However, Critters Pet Shop itself can recommend some veterinarians, and most have at least one doctor on staff who specialize in exotics, he said.

Depending on one's definition of exotic pets, they make up about 5 to 10 percent of Janczak's inventory. Apart from reptiles and arachnids, Critters Pet Shop also carries such less typical mammals as rabbits and hedgehogs.

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