Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Report on a Sebastopol, CA Pet Store

Sebastopol Pet Center, Sebastopol CA

Melissa Kaplan, 1996


Update January 2003
I received an email this month from a customer who took exception to my original article (see below). She reported that conditions were significantly different now than what I had personally observed and had reported to me through the years. I agreed to temporarily take down the article until I had a chance to visit the store and see if, indeed, there was a change.

(Note: Experience through the years had shown herp welfarists that people who do not keep herps and don't particularly care for herps are often unable to adequately assess what is acceptable or not for herps in a pet store setting, as witnessed by the customers of this store and other stores through the years, customers who keep patronizing them despite the horrendous conditions the herps are in. A classic example of this was the now closed store in Willits, CA, where customers kept coming and in buying supplies while the three of us, including a uniformed animal control officer, were bagging and hauling out dead and decomposing bodies from the tanks in the store.)

As a result of the recent email, a friend and I visited Sebastopol Pet Center store in early February 2003, in the mid/late afternoon. My friend is a herp keeper and rodent breeder. She and I have visited other stores together through the years, including the one in Willits, and a decade ago we co-founded the local herp society.

We found the birds, fish, mammals and herps all very well cared for. The animals looked healthy, were housed in clean enclosures, had clean water for drinking (or soaking/swimming for semi-aquatic and aquatic species), and had clean food appropriate for the species in the enclosures. Enclosures were not overcrowded, with many individuals housed alone. In the few herp enclosures where there was more than one species, the species were at least cohabitable in terms of having similar environmental requirements, with potential predators not housed with potential prey. The enclosures were small, overall, but unlike most stores, weren't crammed with inhabitants. Substrates were generally appropriate for the species being housed on them. The only two green iguanas were ~5-7 inches SVL, housed in the largest, vertically-oriented enclosure, with suitable lighting/heating; the iguanas looked well-fleshed, alert, and generally healthy. The employee who hovered around the herp tanks appeared to be reasonably knowledgeable about the requirements of the species they sold.

In short, a very different situation from what had been reported to me over the years and what I observed myself during my visit in 1996.

I decided to leave the original article up and available for reading because the difference between the way the store was run under the previous managing partner is so strongly different from the way it is now, that it clearly illustrates that bad pet stores are made, they don't just happen, and that a bad pet store can become a good one, if the owner decides to make it so.

Diane Lloyd of Sebastopol Pet Center clearly illustrates that if a store owner wants to do a good job selecting and keeping live animals to sell, how they do so is completely within their control. They can either do a good job of it, or not. For those store owners who complain how difficult it is, or expensive it is, or how hard it is to find employees who will do what they are told, Sebastopol Pet Center illustrates that positive change can be made if the owner commits to it. If the owner can't or won't, then they shouldn't be selling live animals. Period.

So, kudos to current management in their decision and commitment to doing things right.


Original 1996 Report on Sebastopol Pet Center
I received a call from a woman on June 29, 1996 who had been to the pet store the day before to pick up some bird supplies. She is not a herper, knew nothing about reptiles and amphibians, but had enough common sense and knew enough about basic animal care to see that the herps were not being cared for properly. She also was acquainted with the store owners and knew that they were rude and officious whenever anyone in the past had tried to talk to them about the care of their animals. (She was hesitant to speak with them but did manage to gently point out to them there there was a dead and desiccated toad in one of their amphibian enclosures. Their response intimidated her to such an extent that she couldn't attempt any more, and left the store fighting tears.) This was consistent with what I had been hearing since I moved to the area.

I told her that the Sebastopol Police Department has animal control/regulation jurisdiction in Sebastopol, not the Humane Society of Sonoma County. She did call them and try to get them to inspect the store. When I called SPD to follow up, I was told that an officer had been dispatched and that he found nothing out of order. I pushed a bit and asked if that meant, in the less than an hour that had transpired since the woman left the store, that the filthy feces encrusted tanks had been thoroughly cleaned, water bowls cleaned and disinfected, and sick animals removed from the exhibit? She put me on hold long enough for me to think that it was a tactic to try to get rid of me. When she returned, she stated that she obtained permission from the police chief to contact the Humane Society and have a state humane officer sent to inspect the store, a service for which the SPD/City of Sebastopol must pay. I thanked them and said that I would be meeting the complainant at the store to see it for myself.

I met the caller and we toured the store. It was just as filthy as she had described. There had been no changes whatsoever since she had been in there two hours before.

We went to the police department to tell them that there had been no change. After a considerable wait, we found out that:

  • The officer they sent is terrified of reptiles - he would not even walk through the door into the waiting room of the police station when he saw my iguana under a table at the extreme far end of the room across from him.
  • They did not send the one officer whom I know knows reptiles as I helped the Humane Society interview him when he wanted to adopt a python from them. He was on duty at the time as when he saw me, he came into the waiting room to chat a moment about his snake.
  • The state humane officer had also called to report that he too had visited the store and "found no significant violation" of the penal code.

After very nicely controlling myself and not throwing the reception room furniture through the presumably bulletproof barrier protecting the receptionist from the good citizens of Sebastopol, the complainant and I left, I to return home to call the humane officer who visited the store and write the following letter.

June 29, 1995

Don Malone
State Humane Officer
Humane Society of Sonoma County
POB 1284
Santa Rosa CA 95402

Re: Sebastopol Pet Center
618 Gravenstein Hwy North
Sebastopol CA 95472

Dear Don,

Picture if you will, a bank of enclosures in a pet store, each filled with several dogs or cats or rabbits. The store is cold, at least 30-40 degrees below the minimum optimum temperature for these animals, and no supplemental heat is provided for the animals. Many of these creatures are showing varying degrees of emaciation and dehydration. Several of the dogs have bloody paws and noses from trying to dig their way out of the enclosure. Most of the animals lay there in their own feces, unmoving, making the fact that there is no clean place to lay moot. The few enclosures which have bowls with water in them contain water fouled by feces and urine. The cats mewl as you walk by, the puppies whimper. What will you do?

Now, instead of cats and dogs and rabbits, fill the same enclosures with reptiles.

As you know, I visited Sebastopol Pet Center today after having received yet another complaint about the conditions in which the reptiles and amphibians are kept in the store. This was after a complaint was earlier today called into the Sebastopol Police Department, the agency responsible for animal control within the city limits of Sebastopol. When I called, I was told that an officer had been sent out and that he found "the enclosures and water bowls clean." Upon meeting that officer, it is quite obvious that he is repelled and possibly frightened by reptiles; clearly he knows nothing about their proper care or requirements. Even so, it is appalling to see that he considered acceptable.

In the past two years I have received complaints which centered primarily on two aspects of the store: filthy enclosures and sick animals. What I saw proved that the complaints were not unfounded.

Enclosure walls are filthy, smeared with feces and urates.

Enclosure floors are filthy with clearly old, dried feces. The bark substrate is polka-dotted with small white balls; it took me a short time to figure out that they are dried urates deposited by current and former insectivorous occupants. The reason I say former is that in at least one enclosure, the current occupants are herbivores who deposit urates of a much different consistency and size.

One enclosure houses emaciated iguanas and a water dragon, who, like the water dragon in another enclosure, has a snout which has been rubbed away back to his jaw, exposing his gums and what teeth have not been knocked out. They have a filthy water bowl clearly filled with feces. The bowl obviously has not been cleaned in several days; more likely, it has been a week or more: the lines of evaporation are clearly delineated by rings of dried feces. The possibility that the water has not been changed in more than a week exists as the tank is not being heated to the temperatures required by these tropical lizards, thus there is too little heat to evaporate the water within just a few days . In fact, while there is a heat light fixture above the tank, the light is not on. There is also no light providing the necessary ultraviolet B wavelengths iguanids require for calcium metabolism. This bowl of water is the only water available to the three lizards in this enclosure. Of the two tanks with water dragons in them, there is no water for the water dragons to soak in other than the small feces-filled and scummy bowls of water provided for drinking.

The prehensile-tailed skinks, also a neotropical species, are not provided with any heat. In addition, these nocturnal lizards are not provided with any hiding place, instead left laying in the glare of the overhead lights. One of the two lizards is particularly emaciated.

The ball pythons are laying in an enclosure which contained old shed skin and several piles of dried feces. This enclosure's walls are particularly smeared with fecal material.

All of the anoles are highly stressed as evidenced by their overall brown color. In one cage, at least one lizard is down and totally depressed; no signs of breathing were detected and his eyes are slightly sunken. The anole enclosures are also heavily littered with old feces and urates. The anoles are provided with small dishes of scummy water, water they can not drink as anoles can only lap up water droplets sprayed on leaves or walls. The splotches on the walls of the tank consist of fecal matter and what appears to be dried blood, not water stains.

Many of the terrestrial (land dwelling) box turtles are submerged in the scummy water in the plastic dish pan provided for the aquatic turtles. This will (or may already have) lead to skin infections and shell rot, and to systemic bacterial infections from ingesting the water.

The aquatic turtles are not provided with enough room to eat. These turtles must be able to swim for their food, with the water being at least as deep as they are long. Most of the water area is taken up with slabs of rock and box turtles. While there is one heat light suspended over the enclosure, it is not over the water, thus all of the turtles, and the water available to them, is too cold.

The side neck turtle is housed in its own too small aquarium filled with scummy water. It, too, is not provided with any heat.

The collared lizards appeared to be be relatively new as they are brightly colored. One, however, is clearly emaciated. Their tank was clearly not cleaned after being vacated by the last occupants as it is just as filthy with smeared fecal material as all the others.

The Nile and Savannah monitors are not being provided with the necessary heat. In addition, the Savannah is in a tank much too small for it.

The only enclosure which looked halfway decent was the frog/toad enclosure. Surely it can't be a coincidence that the person who called me today with the complaint pointed out to the store owners yesterday when she was there that the tank was filthy and the dead toad inside the tank had clearly been dead for days (eyes completely sunken in, skin dried out).

I could not evaluate the diet being offered to this varied collection of herbivores, omnivores, carnivores and insectivores as there was no food seen in any of the enclosures. Given the amount of fecal material in the enclosures, some animals have likely fed at some time in the past; just when is difficult to ascertain from looking at the feces as they are all dried out. Given the fact that none of the enclosures are provided with the proper heat, this would indicate that any feedings were not in the past several days. (Kept at proper temperatures, herbivores and insectivores void daily; omnivores and carnivorous lizards 1-2 times a week, while snakes may void once every 1-2 weeks.

Given the conditions seen in the store, it is not surprising the number of calls that I and others have received complain not only about the conditions of the animals in the store but the fact that many of the animals purchased turned out to be ill, especially the turtles.

Sebastopol Pet Center is clearly in violation of Penal Code § 597l, Pet shop owner duties, paragraphs 1 (maintain facilities in a sanitary condition), 2 (provide proper heating and ventilation), 3 (provide proper nutrition for, and humane care all animals under the store's care and control), 4 (take reasonable care to release for sale only those pets which are free of disease or injury), and 5 (provide adequate space for the size, weight and species).

Reptiles are clearly defined as being pet animals as stipulated in paragraph 5(b)(1). Sebastopol Pet Center clearly meets the definition of pet shop as defined in paragraph 5(b)(2) of the code. Based on the fact that this is not the first complaint that either the Sebastopol Police Department or the Humane Society of Sonoma County has received on this store, the store management must be considered in violation of paragraph 5(c) of the Penal Code.

If dehydrated, emaciated, depressed animals, animals with part of their faces rubbed off from being kept in enclosures which are too small, animals kept in enclosures lined with feces, with water bowls filled more with scum and fecal matter than with water, is not significantly in violation of the penal code, please know that reptiles can linger a long time before finally succumbing to their environment. Must we hold reptiles to the same survival standards as mammals, penalizing them for not dying sooner? Or will the owners of this store be brought to task for their clear, and clearly long-term, disregard for the welfare of the animals within their care and control?

Very truly yours,
Melissa Kaplan
President, North Bay Herpetological Society
cc: Chief of Police, Sebastopol Police Department

In my last conversation with Don on this matter, I finally asked him straight out whether every reptile and amphibian in the store has to be dead before he will consider it to be a "significant violation" of the penal code. After a very long pause, he answered: "Yes."

Needless to say, since in the estimation of the humane officer who visited the store, there was no violation, nothing was done and the store continues to operate in the same way today. I received no response either from the Humane Society nor from the Sebastopol Police Department.


Related Articles:

Report on Sal's Pets,Santa Rosa, CA

Article on We Be Pets, Willits, CA

California Penal Code Animal Welfare Provisions

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