What's it like having a menagerie of scaled creepy-crawlies in your home? Reptile collector Shane Smith enlightens us with some lovable and laughable anecdotes.
Reptile enthusiasts have a lot of nicknames. Those who keep scaly pets can be dubbed "collectors" or "keepers." Some even get labeled "herpers," the shortened term for herpetologist, a person who studies reptiles (or "herps").
"Herper" and "herp" do look awfully similar to that embarrassing virus that shall not be named, but reptile lovers could care less if you know the difference. They love their animals, and that's all that really matters.
As long-time collector Shane Smith points out, pet reptile keepers moonlight across all walks of life. Even the King of Pop had a soft spot for his boa and phython.
Smith, 31, has been a herper ever since he can remember. Raised in Deltona, Florida, he spent his childhood scouring the ground for hidden or slithering reptiles. He thanks his parents for relenting and buying him the first pet that started his ever-growing reptile collection.
A recent transplant from the Florida Keys to Bay County, Michigan, Smith is a Boatswains Mate 2nd Class in his twelfth year with the U.S. Coast Guard. How does one move a home collection of scaly escape artists across country? With a lot of tubs, pillowcases, and supervision.
Coastie by day, herper by night, Smith has plenty of room in his big heart (or tattooed on his arms) for a reptile family. And maybe for a herper female if the right one comes along. Ladies? (He also loves pit bulls. Swoon.)
How long have you been collecting reptiles for?
"My love for reptiles started at a very young age. As far as I can remember, I was about five. I got my first turtle about 9 years old, and finally (after many years of begging my parents), I got Bubbaette, a female ball python, at age 11."
Have you always been drawn to reptiles? Can you describe an initial experience in which you realized you had a special love for these creatures?
"What stands out the most to me was when I was about five or six, I was out in the backyard at dusk with my best friend Chris. I had made a joke about a snake being outside and my buddy ran out the screen door with no snake to be found."
"About five minutes later, I lifted a gutter drain to find a beautiful six-foot eastern indigo. I had to convince my friend that there was an actual snake this time until he finally came and looked. I was hooked for life at that point."
"As for the snake, my dad relocated it to the woods the next morning on the other side of the street!"
How many and what species do you have?
"I think I'm closing in on close to 30. I have anywhere from green tree pythons and woma pythons to bush vipers and false water cobras. My only scaly friend with legs is a Mexican beaded lizard named Cholula."
Do you require special permits or training for any of your animals?
"When I was in Florida, I apprenticed for over a year and half to get my venomous permit. I worked with king cobras, taipans, bush vipers, gila monsters, monocled cobras, gaboon vipers and pretty much anything venomous under the sun."
What fascinates you most about these cold-blooded creatures?
"How much time do you have? Ha! It took me a while to really pinpoint exactly what they do for me. Their mannerisms are incredible, the beautiful colors and patterns just a living work of art. They are just incredible animals that are highly misunderstood."
Do you have a favorite scaly friend in your reptile menagerie? Or a favorite memory with one?
"I have always been more of a snake guy. However, my personal fav is my little Cholula the Mexican beaded lizard. (I haven't sexed it yet so I had to give it a neutral name!) Cholula has quickly taken over my heart. It has such a cute demeanor and personality--granted, it's a venomous reptile and only handled with extreme caution and care."
"My favorite experience with a snake, though, was the first time I got to handle my mentor's 13-foot king cobra. That was something I had dreamt about as a very small child. I was giddy for a week."
Reptile lovers can sometimes get a bad rap or be labeled as "weird." (I'm included in this breed of humans.) What would you say to someone who describes a "herper" as such?
"I think everyone has a persona of what a reptile keeper is. I think most people see us as weird and anti-social. Not the case. There are so many people who keep herps from all different walks of life--doctors, biologists, super models, police, lawyers, veterinarians, military, etc. etc."
We all just share that common love for the animal, and for a lot of us it started as a kid and we just never grew out of it!
Has raising reptiles taught you anything about handling life in the real world?
"Patience is one. You have to be patient when working with reptiles. From dealing with a problem feeder to breeding and especially working with venomous reptiles. I would also say it gave me a huge love and appreciation of nature, from being a child running around in the woods finding critters to being a 31-year-old man still going out in the woods to see what I can find."
"Makes you really appreciate our natural world and motivates you to want to protect and cherish it for future generations."
What tips can you give to new reptile owners? Is raising a scaly pet easy?
"My best advice? Read. There are tons of publications out there on husbandry and care of reptiles. A lot of people use social media as their first source which can harbor very bad information for a first-time keeper."
"So pick yourself up some books from a credible source, then compare that with what you read online. But that's just my opinion, and when I first started keeping, there were no forums to check out. So I read a lot."
"That, along with actually keeping various species, is what got me to the level of knowledge I possess now--which is nothing more than a grain of sand compared to what is still out there for me to learn!"
Each new addition to Smith's collection is carefully researched, both in the individual being purchased and its specific care instructions. Be sure to acquire reptiles from established breeders to avoid getting a sick animal sent to you. It only takes one to cause a disease outbreak in the rest!
If you're looking to add a reptile to your home, familiarize yourself with its rearing requirements, such as UV and heat lamps, terrarium set-up, and handling.
Even though a reptile brain differs from a mammalian brain, the animals are still capable of forming bonds with their owners, something Smith knows all too well. They make great companions--and add a bit of exotic decor to your living room!
Tell us what you think of this snake lover in the comments below!
All photos via Shane Smith.
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