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Smitten with Scales: The Growing Reptile Segment

Alexandra Wepner//January 3, 2018//

Smitten with Scales: The Growing Reptile Segment

Alexandra Wepner //January 3, 2018//

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Whether they are lizards, snakes, testudines (turtles, tortoises and terrapins) or even the amphibians and invertebrates that are often merchandized as part of this category, “reptile” is one of the widest ranging pet segments in the industry. In fact, it’s one of the most diverse animal groups in the world. According to Sathya Achia Abraham and Eric Peters, writing for Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014, “more than 10,000 reptile species have been recorded in the Reptile Database, a web-based catalogue of living reptile species and classification, making the reptile species among the most diverse vertebrate groups in the world, alongside bird and fish species.” The Reptile Database was founded by Peter Uetz, Ph.D., an associate professor of systems biology at the school’s Center for the Study of Biological Complexity.

And that’s not the only way in which the reptile category covers many bases. According to anecdotal evidence and the experience of reptile breeders, the customer base for reptile pets and products is all-encompassing as well. From families to singles, men and women of all ages from various regions of the country are smitten with scales, though there are some clear front runners.

For the Love of Lizards

“I would say consistently throughout the years you can’t beat the bearded dragons,” said Nick Agricoli of Just Lizards, Inc., a captive breeder of pet lizards who has been in business for a little over 15 years. “I like to tell my customers they make the best hands-on pets; [they’re] close to a mammalian type of pet… will sit with you, hang out with you, don’t usually run and hide, tend to almost like to be handled as opposed to just tolerating you.”

Agricoli notes, however, that geckos—specifically leopard and crested breeds—are closing the gap in popularity with the long-running best-seller. He explains that leopard geckos are lower maintenance animals and make great beginner pets because of their hardiness and ease of care. Their relatives, the crested geckos, are also easy to maintain and usually grow to a smaller size.

During his time in the industry, Agricoli says he’s sensed that there now exists even more interest in reptiles than ever before, citing the animals’ unique qualities, the interactive and educational nature of their care, and their compatibility with allergies as just a few of the contributing factors. According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2017-2018 National Pet Owner’s Survey, 2.8 million households owned a reptile in 1994. In 2016, that number was 4.7 million. Of course, the number of pets owned overall in the U.S. has increased within that time period.

“They’re not your average pet, and there’s that interest in the mystery about them,” Agricoli said. “You almost provide an environment for them… you actually get to learn a little bit more about where the species is from. A lot of times these species come from the other side [of the world].”

In addition, the frequent release of new morphs, similar to the phenomenon of ball pythons, drive the growing popularity of lizards like leopard geckos. Agricoli has even seen different morphs of bearded dragons being introduced to the market. And while these reptiles make great beginner pets and are often purchased for youngsters, it’s an added bonus that parents can get in on the fun, too.

“Probably my most common sales are families, and the thing is, it’s for the children but you see it in the faces of the parents—it’s for the parents, too,” Agricoli explained, pointing out that many of these children might be too young to care for the animal completely on their own and so their guardians must be on board with and interested in caring for the pet as well.

“Second to them would be the younger men or women that are just starting out or… they’re buying for breeding purposes,” Agricoli added, saying that it’s also sometimes a little bit of both. He recalls a recent customer who was a father from New York investing in his son’s interest in the hobby as well as his own interest in the breeding business.

And not only do Agricoli’s customers run the gamut when it comes to age and gender, but they are also from all regions of the country, from rural and urban areas. He lists New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia as just a few of the places he’s sold lizards.

“The interest—it doesn’t matter if you’re from the country or the city,” he said.

Not Your Father’s Habitat

According to Bob Smith— founder of Jungle Bob’s Reptile World, a large reptile and aquarium product retailer with locations in Selden and Oakdale, both on Long Island, New York—there’s been a clear change in the way reptile owners care for their pets and what they expect from manufacturers.

“As the years go on it just gets better and better as people are turning to more naturalistic environments,” said Jungle Bob, as Smith is almost exclusively known in the pet industry. “Way back when, [habitats were] a piece of newspaper and a light and nothing around, just four glass walls… And now we’re trying to replicate the environment [the reptiles] are in, and the products have followed through to match.”

To that end, Jungle Bob explained the motivation behind his foray into another side of the industry: manufacturing. Jungle Bob’s now has its own brand of select reptile and even aquatics products. Jungle Bob and his team wanted to create high-end, high quality pieces marketed toward hobbyists.

“We’re shooting for the people who have a showpiece in their living room… so our products are designed for that,” he said. “They’re not the cheapest in the market, but I’d have to say they’re at the top as far as quality.”

In addition to products, Jungle Bob’s Reptile World offers a host of livestock—from snakes and lizards to amphibians, turtles and tortoises. They even offer a selection of live feed rodents, worms, crickets and more. Like many others, he says ball pythons and bearded dragons are among his best sellers. He does, however, make some great points about testudine popularity.

“Turtles and tortoises, particularly when they’re little, are cute and that kind of nails it,” he said. “You don’t see children’s books with an evil frog or an evil turtle— they’re always pretty nice animals and they appeal to all age groups, both genders, every demographic you could possibly imagine…

“They’re animated, they’re fairly safe [and] they’re not going to get too big if you choose the right species,” Jungle Bob added, though he did explain that tortoises typically make for better pets for families with children, who typically want to play with the animal and also tend to put their fingers in their mouths. A turtle, whose tank water is almost perpetually and inevitably foul, might be incompatible with such handling.

Not So Creepy After All

Like many who enter the pet industry, Jeanie Younger had been raising tarantulas on her own for quite some time before she became a professional invertebrate supplier. She was inspired to begin creating her own miniature habitats specially made for baby tarantulas, called “slings,” when she saw a need in the hobby.

“Some of these spiders cost hundreds of dollars. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a creature and keep it in a deli cup?” she asked, referring to the most common way of housing slings when they are very small. Many of Younger’s tarantulas’ prices hover around $100, though some cost as much as $250. “Little tiny tarantulas need little tiny habitats because if you give them a 10-gallon tank, they’re going to crawl in the dirt and hide and… chances are your little spider is going to die and you’re never going to see it again.”

Through her experience at reptile trade shows, she realized that housing actual animals in her habitats while they were on display would drive traffic to her booth. It was an easy transition into the invertebrate supplying business, and she now offers tarantulas, scorpions, praying mantes, beetles and more. She says that the hobby is more popular and has more mass appeal than an outsider might expect.

“Insects seem to be really popular… and some of them, they’re not a short term commitment,” she pointed out, saying the range runs from the praying mantis, which has an average life expectancy of about 18 months, to a Mexican red knee tarantula that can live for more than 30 years. “[Invertebrates are] neat pets; they’re delicate and tough—they’re both. They’re fun, they’re cool and they’re interesting to watch—that’s the best thing about them.”

According to Younger, they’re also easy to care for, with tarantulas only requiring a meal about once a week. Tarantulas are also forgiving, especially as grown creatures. These qualities are likely what appeals to a range of customers, from young children to adult hobbyists and retirees.

“They’re bright [and] they grow quickly,” she said. “The new world species, most of them are handle-able, so you can take them out and put them on your hand and freak all of your friends out!”

Some Slither, Some Hop

Another not-quite-a-reptile that is often grouped together with proper reptilians is the frog. Though they inhabit somewhat of a categorical middle ground, that doesn’t make them any less beloved. “Honestly, it’s everybody,” said Austin Dubois of Bullseye Frog Supply, which offers products for frogs and, within six months from when he spoke to Pet Age, plans to begin breeding and supplying frogs. “My cousin, who is 11, has frogs, a friend of mine who is in her 60s has frogs… They’re very long lived and easy and cheap to keep in most cases. “I think people are drawn to them because of their various colors; they come in all colors of the rainbow,” he added. “They’re in bioactive terrariums, which means they’re seeded with certain insects… that basically do the cleaning jobs within the tank so once you set it up you don’t really have to clean it much.”

Located in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, Dubois offers frog enclosures that he constructs himself. The glass aquarium-style enclosures contain multiple layers, including sponge rock, ABG mixture of soils, sphagnum moss and leaf litter (available in the form of maple leaves, live oak leaves and magnolia leaves). He’s also created a supplement for fruit flies, which make up the frogs’ diet, to gut load the insects before they’re devoured. Bullseye Frog Supply can be found on Facebook.

“I call [the terrariums] a plug and play system,” he said. “You get the system from me and you could put your frogs directly into it—super easy, super convenient.”

According to Dubois, the most popular breed of frog is the tinctorius, more commonly known as the dyeing dart frog. He says they are hardy, easy to keep, and grow a bit larger than other frogs, some of which grow no bigger than a thumbnail. The tinctorius can reach up to three inches in circumference.

Robert Fletcher, a livestock supplier based in Hagerstown, Maryland, reports a similar diversity in his customer base. This seems to be pretty consistent throughout the reptile category: it’s more about what a customer wants out of their interaction with their prospective pets rather than who they are.

“It’s really a variety,” he said. “You have your older generation that used to have snakes when they were younger or would go out and catch snakes, and then you have your newer generations [for which] it’s just a popular thing.”

RTF House of Reptiles offers a range of animals, including corn snakes, ball pythons, boa constrictors and gopher snakes. Of that reptile, the latter two are their best sellers. Fletcher says they’re docile creatures, though he points out that, just like any animal, they can bite. He posits that whether or not a snake is the right fit depends on what the customer is looking for and how they hope to interact with their new pet.

“If they want something that’s going to [relax] while they’re playing video games… it’s going to be a bearded dragon versus a snake,” he explained.

Expert Recommendations

For retailers looking to enter the reptile space or give suggestions to their reptile-owning customers, the breadth of products can be overwhelming. “As far as lighting goes for bearded dragons, the UVA/UVB lights that I like… [are] the Zoo Med 10.0 ReptiSuns and I think, personally, the fluorescent tubes are the better bulb, the longer ones,” Agricoli said.

Both Younger and Jungle Bob mentioned Zoo Med as one of the brands they’ve used or might recommend.

Besides her own custom-made habitats, Younger mentioned the Zoo Med Bugarium, habitats by Exo Terra and the Terra Blue three- and five-gallon breeders because “they’re low and they’re very good for terrestrial tarantulas and scorpions,” though she conceded that they were for grown creatures rather than slings. As for Jungle Bob, his store carries products by Zoo Med, Zilla, Exo Terra, and Fluker’s, among other major brands and the store’s house brand.

“They have my respect and my patronage,” he said of the major brands his stores carry. “We’re never going to say that we can provide all things to people… we’re trying to find our little niche, and I think we’ve found it.”

When it comes to feeding their reptiles, many breeders use live food, though Agricoli mentioned using both Repashy and Pangea crested gecko diets with his lizards in addition to supplements from RepCal, specifically those for extra calcium. Pisces Enterprises offers live and frozen feeders, in addition to terrarium decor and accessories.

Timberline has been in the business of live feed for pet reptiles for between 15 and 18 years, though its company history in other industries spans even further than that. They boast an impressive catalog, including crickets, mealworms, superworms, hornworms, waxworms, flightless fruit flies and their specialty Vita-bugs line, just to name a few. And not only are all of these bugs offered, but they’re also available in various sizes.

“If you look at our logo, it explains it: nature, nurture, nutrition,” said Andy Pettit, sales manager at Timberline. “What we try to do is replicate [the animal’s] natural diet to the greatest extent that we possibly can. So we feel that live food is really important not only nutritionally but also for exercise, experience and activity for the reptile as well… It’s a more natural [way of feeding] because of those reasons.”

In addition to being nutritionally beneficial for pet reptiles, live feed is quite a sound investment for retailers looking for consistent profit.

“Reptile food, live food, is typically the number one SKU for most pet stores that carry live food, no questions about it,” Pettit said. “They sell more crickets than they sell anything else… So for the pet store, getting food traffic every three to five days is incredible, particularly when most reptile owners also own dogs and cats.”

However, Pettit acknowledges the changing demands of customers looking for live feed, and the pressure that places on retailers’ shoulders.

“They’ve got to get it when they need it, when they want it, right now, within 24 hours or else they might have to turn away that customer and that’s a big problem,” he said.

To combat this issue, Timberline runs on a “just-in-time manufacturing system,” meaning retailers can place orders up until 4 p.m. CST and the company will ship them out same day for next day delivery. Almost all locations receive their order by 10:30 a.m. CST the next morning.

Timberline also offers helpful resources like posters and a wealth of knowledge on its website for retailers looking for extra support and educational tools. As for merchandizing, Pettit says the most important advice he gives retailers is to pre-bag their crickets and to merchandize intentionally so that customers can get what they need with minimal interaction required.

“There has to be a location that you’re going to intentionally place the products, that is available to customers without a whole lot of interaction because again, these people are in and out of the store every three to five days, so they’re going to go where they expect [the live food] to be,” he said. “And if it’s not there, they’re going to go to the next retailer.”