At the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, six-year-old Dominic Faso gazed down at a tank full of bearded dragons. The lizards, dull khaki in color and each roughly the size of his arm, clawed excitedly at the glass. His father, Ed, was less enthused, preferring to keep a safe distance. The family wasn't there to pick out a new pet, he said — at least, on that day.
The vivarium is located on Fifth Street, tucked behind the swanky Fourth Street shopping district. It would be best described as half-pet store, half-zoo. Co-owner Owen Maercks offers classroom demonstrations with the store's scaly animal "ambassadors," and shopkeepers produce boxes of snakes and lizards from a library-like shelf on the wall, allowing curious customers the chance to hold them. Flies buzz overhead and crickets chirp underfoot — though lead store manager Carlos Haslam said these are usually taken care of by a population of free-roaming geckos that live inside the building.
The shop stocks dozens of species, from giant cockroaches to guinea pigs. With rents rising and apartment sizes shrinking, an unconventional pet might be just the thing for East Bay residents in need of some cross-species companionship.
For instance, bearded dragons tend to fly off the shelves around the holiday season, Haslam said, owing to their reputation as an approachable "gateway" reptile.
"We want an animal that responds to us," he said, explaining that the lizards' harem-like social structure in the wild makes them naturally reactive to other animals, like humans. "A lot of moms and dads come in around Christmas looking for (them)."
Crested geckos are less well-known but no less expressive. They are nocturnal creatures, and at night they make sounds Haslam likened to the grumblings of "grumpy old men in the park playing chess." They're also omnivores with a fondness for fruit. The old, brown-spotted banana you might throw away, Haslam said, would make a great food supplement for one. Amongst experienced lizard aficionados, he said, the next hot item looks to be the New Caledonian Giant gecko, which he affectionately called "a chunk of a lizard."
As far as serpents go, ball pythons and king snakes are both common choices, he said. The former come in an array of patterns and colors, with some unusual hues going for several times the price of a "standard" ball python.
For those with tolerant roommates, invertebrates can also be a good option. Haslam suggested rose-haired tarantulas, which tend to "hunker down" when startled (rather than biting their owners), as well as giant millipedes. He especially recommends flat rock scorpions.
"They're good for freaking people out," he said. "(It's) this terrifying-looking arachnid but (they're) placid ... my 3-year-old daughter loves them."
If you'd prefer something snugglier, Haslam recommends a rat, which he said are also often overlooked as pets. Though the store stocks rodents of all sizes as snake food, it also offers specifically-bred pet rats that are socialized from birth to be people-friendly. With their short, two-year lifespan, rats also don't require the kind of long-term commitment that cats and dogs usually do.
But not all unconventional pets are so practical. Spurred tortoises, with their endearing, 'smiling' faces, are one of the store's most popular offerings, Haslam said — but for apartment-dwellers, they're also one of the worst choices. Though the babies are about the size of a lemon, adults can weigh 200lbs. He instead suggested Russian tortoises, as they remain much smaller and are beloved for their "gregarious," doglike personality. Haslam also cautioned against water-dwelling turtles, as their environments require more care, and iguanas, which can become violently protective over their owners' living environments.
In the end, pets are often unwise gifts. Giving someone an animal that can live for decades is like giving someone a child, he said. A better idea would be to give an owner-to-be something like cage equipment or a gift card, thus giving them the chance to pick out a creepy-crawly themselves.
Owners looking to buy their cold-blooded friend something cute for the holidays might be disappointed — there are no lizard-sized rhinestone collars to be found here. Instead, Haslam said, the store aims to stock products designed to recreate exotic animals' natural environments, like bamboo sheaves and driftwood logs for climbing.
But there are always a few enthusiasts, he said, who want to go the extra mile: A Turducken for the humans, a Christmas hamster for the snake.