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Exotic Life: the Hobby of Keeping Marvelous Animals as Pets

There is a beauty to all creatures. It’s in the red of a macaw’s feather, the glint of a dog’s eye, the curve of a cat’s spine. But it’s also present in the asymmetry of a snake’s pattern, the pink of a gecko’s tongue, and the spring of a spider’s leg. The exotic pet enthusiast is one such person who can find beauty in what is conventionally described as frightful, and I must admit I am one of those people. I began this hobby with this sense of wonder.

It all started with a friend of mine who has been collecting exotic animals for years.

About four years ago he started putting up pictures of his so called “Pokemon” collection.  Photos of tarantulas, scorpions and lizards were each commented on with some disgust, but I coveted my neighbour’s creepy crawlies, and when I finally came home to Cebu, he gave me a creature for my birthday: a leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius), originally from Pakistan. It was a three-inch long black and white lizard, looking much like a “tiki” but with a fatter tale and distinctively spotty patternation. It was beautiful, but I didn’t know if it was male or female as these geckos take a few months before they show visual signs of sex, so I refrained from naming it.

I immediately went to White Gold to get an aquarium to work as a terrarium. I also bought a faux-log as I remembered that geckos liked such places to sleep under. The food has been given to me by my friend, live meal worms, and calcium powder. When the worms ran out, I went and bought more in a petshop next to Redemptorist Church, Piper’s Pet World, and introduced myself to Allain, the owner of the shop.

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You would know Allain if you ever visited Piper’s Pet World.

He and his mother normally work at the counter of the shop, a welcome and knowledgeable presence you see as you immediately enter. His family shop has been selling pets since 1996, and Allain himself is an unabashed animal lover. Inheriting his love from his parents, Allain tells his story of how he started with fish, “There were some canals, waterways, where there were still guppies alive. We caught the guppies from the canal and then placed them in a large, plastic container. But one day a jealous neighbour came in and poisoned the pond with soap. My mom decided to bring us to a petstore to buy some fish. That was how it started, from one pond, to multiple ponds to multiple aquariums.”

Now Allain himself specializes in keeping ball pythons (Python regius), an African snake that comes in a beautiful array of patterns and colours. The most interesting thing about ball pythons for Allain are the genetics. One can learn all about genetics through breeding them. “It is exciting to breed new forms.” He said, “Imagine creating a white snake from two, dark-coloured snakes. There some dark morphs (varieties), and some light morphs. Some extremely yellow. Some are piebald, meaning like a white canvas with streaks of black and different patterns. No two snakes have the same pattern.” I could listen to Allain speak for hours about the intricacies of inheritance, about dominant and recessive alleles, co-dominance, and three-gene varieties.

Allain noted that ball pythons make particular good pets for children, as they are slow moving reptiles that do not mind being handled, compared to other faster snakes that are more colorful, like corn snakes. Also, the more kids get into the animals, the more science they can actually learn. An understanding of genetics is a great skill, especially for someone interested in biology or medicine.

Reptiles, though, are on the pricier end of the pet scale. Fish always make for good starter pets. Species like tetras and mollies can be bought for less than a hundred pesos a fish, and they are cheap to feed. A starter aquarium at its most basic costs between P1-2,000, which includes the tank and filter system but little else. Of course, you can spend a lot more money for bigger aquariums. Tank decoration is a hobby of its own, a kind of underwater gardening.

Besides fish, there are many kinds of reptiles, birds, and mammals you can buy, and the diversity has really increased since Piper’s Pet World started. However, one must be careful where one buys animals, as the selling of animals is now licensed in the Philippines. “Piper’s has been a supporter of legal wildlife, so we are always in communication with DENR to keep the exotic wild life industry legal,” Allain commented. Some illegal animals are brought in to Cebu from abroad, and though most will not be from the wild, we do not know the conditions such animals have been kept in. Because illegal animals have not been quarantined, they may offer the risk of disease, as well as being in poorer health and may be more likely to die prematurely.

I head home from the pet shop with a bag of meal worms.

My gecko recognizes me now. Whenever I enter the room he is in, he comes out of his log and has a look at me. I pick him up and handle him often, so he is not afraid of me. He does crawl around my fingers, and I let him run around the room sometimes for a treat. I call him “he” because I know he is male now. He has more than doubled in size, and I can’t wait for him to have a go at breeding.

I love science, I do, and I name him after my favourite scientist: “Wallace”.  After all, like that intrepid thinker, my Wallace (well, his ancestors anyway) have crossed seas to find a home here in South East Asia. His colours grow more radiantly yellow every day, and his black spots against the golden colour and his sinuous movements do remind one of a big cat, but this is one leopard I can hold in the palm of my hand.

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