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

What A Way To Spend The Day

©1994 Melissa Kaplan


Well, it started out being a nice day. The usual morning gray, cold overcast was absent, replaced by clear blue sky and warm sunny air. The perfect day to go for a ride through the rolling hills, orchards and vineyards of northern Sonoma and Mendocino counties. A stop along the way at a farm for fresh lemon cucumbers, blackberries, pesto and grape leaves (for the iguanas) provided an excuse to get out and stretch a bit.

Our destination was Willits, California, a small town in Mendocino county. (Specifically, our destination was a rubber stamp store in Willits, but that is an altogether different story.) After our visit there, we stopped at East Hill Veterinary Clinic and met NBHS member Dr. Frank Grasse (neat clinic, friendly staff, killer view). On our way out of town around 3 p.m., we decided to grab a bite and visit the local pet store. Bad move. Didn't get to eat until 9 p.m.

The store is We Be Pets. Most of the animals that weren't dead were well on their way to dying. We have seen some bad stores in our travels and have worked to get conditions improved in such places. This store wasn't merely bad--it was a charnel house.

Upon walking in, we were first struck by the darkness - there was not a single light on in the store. Next, we were hit by the stench of feces, rotting foods, scummy, murky water (in those enclosures that actually had water). Most of the reptiles looked dead; all were emaciated and dehydrated.

We found that the person in the store was not only not the owner, she wasn't even an employee. The owner, a friend, asked her to "mind" the store while she took off suddenly for "a week or so." The owner left no money for food or supplies for the animals, nor instructions on how to care for the animals. The woman minding the store was able to buy some crickets and a few other things after she sold some supplies to customers.

She also had been pulling out dead animals for the two days she had been there. Dead animals, however, weren't the only problem. The conditions in which the animals were kept was the problem. A brief overview of what we found follows.

No heat nor full-spectrum lighting was provided for any of the reptiles which included several iguanas, water dragons, anoles, savannah monitors, Burmese pythons (including a 12' Burmese in the filthy bathroom on the concrete slab floor) and tokay geckos.

The "Greek turtles" were in fact Greek and Sulcata tortoises. They were being kept in an aquatic tank partially filled with filthy water. One tortoise was dead and had obviously been so for quite a while. There was no heat, no light, no filter, and dead goldfish floating in the water. The owner had previously told her friend that turtles eat only dead fish.

The 4"-5" svl Reeve's and red-eared sliders were kept in another tank with 1.5-2" of water so dirty you could not see through it. The only things you could see were pieces of dead fish and rotting vegetables that were wedged up against the glass. No heat, no light, no filter. Upon later inspection, most of the turtles were found to have shell rot; all have open sores on their "elbows" from rubbing against the glass and one rock in the tank.

The 6" svl iguanas were so dehydrated, emaciated and weak that they didn't flinch or make any other movements to dissuade the dozens of huge house flies walking over their bodies, faces and eyes. All had open sores just above their feces-streaked vents. All had ticks. One had an (admittedly) old healed wound; it had at one point engaged in so much rostral rubbing that its rostrum is gone on one side, resulting in exposed teeth and deformed nostrils. There was no heat, no light, a bowl of filthy water and rotting food which, strewn throughout the filthy enclosure, included a whole apple from the tree in the back of the store.

The water dragons had a small bowl of water so filthy you could not see the bottom. All had exposed teeth from rostral rubbing. No heat, no light.

The tokays were so thin and weak that when one of them bit me, it did not even break my skin. Their tails are so thin they look like skinny rat tails. No heat, no light.

The Knight anole is dead; it just hasn't figured it out yet.

The owner left instructions for her friend to "open the door and burn incense in the morning to get rid of the smell." Trust me, it didn't work.

In all fairness, it was not just the reptiles, fish and tarantulas who were suffering; rabbits, mice and rats were in cages so filthy that they could not even get to their (empty) water bottles). The urine in one area of a large bank of wooden enclosures had saturated the wood front of the tanks and stained the store flooring. The feces were so thickly encrusted on the bottom of one tank that a hammer was required to loosen it. All rodents and rabbits were all being maintained on cedar shavings, as were the reptiles who weren't being kept in filthy dirt and soggy moss or, as with the ticky and fly-bitten iguanas, no substrate at all except the carpet of rotting plant matter.

Resisting the temptation to grab the animals and run, we elected instead to call Animal Control. Having never been confronted with such a situation before, it took them a bit to figure out how to proceed. Senior Animal Control Officer Julie McCullough came out about 5 p.m. Together, we worked to sort out which animals could be stabilized until the following day (which required, among other things, opening up what little store stock there was to get red light bulbs for heat and substrate). A couple of the animals were going to be taken home by the friend and provided heat, water and food there. As we lived out of county, A.C. would not let us take any of the worse off animals.

We also set to work to try to get some of the enclosures cleaned out enough to get by; this was rather difficult as there is no hot water and no cleaning supplies anywhere in the store. The animal control officer had a pair of heavy duty rubber gloves which she used to collect the dead animals. (When she left after completing all the paperwork, we flagged her down as she had left her gloves behind. She said they were so filthy she didn't want them anymore, suggesting that if we wanted to burn them it would be quite all right with her.) I carry small bottles of Nolvasan and Betadine with me in my first aid kit and so we were able to (hopefully) destroy some of the organisms we could practically feel crawling all over our hands and arms.

Oh, while we were waiting for animal control to finally get there, some customers came into the shop and bought a few supplies, never giving a second thought to the filth and stench. There could be no clearer illustration of the public's role in allowing such stores to continue operating as they are.


So, what's the point here?
I am often accused of "slamming" pet stores or of wanting to put them out of business. This is not the case. Since there are pets out there, there is a great need for proper supplies for these animals. Seeing stores like this one, however, brings out the animal rights activist in me, starting me to grumbling about how the pet trade should be abolished, period.

At heart, though, I am a welfarist, feeling obligated to not only assure that my own animals have the best possible care, but to work on helping others come to the same decision and to learn how to do it properly. If a store owner is unable to provide for animals in general, or for specific classes of animals, then they should not carry those animals; there is still a great deal of money to be made selling supplies and equipment, or sticking just to mammals, birds or fish if that is what they do well.

The problem arises with a store that is not as bad as We Be Pets, but is still falling down in their care of some or all of their animals. Too few people will talk to the store owner and fewer still will actually go through the trouble of tracking down the animal regulatory agency with jurisdiction over that store to file a complaint. When such agencies get only a few sporadic complaints they tend to write them off especially when the responding officer doesn't know that much about the particular types of animals and the care they require to begin with. At We Be Pets it was easy: while animal control officer admittedly knew nothing about reptiles, the smell of the filthy water almost knocked her off the stool she was standing on to extract turtles from the overhead tanks, and the bags full of dead animals were good indicators that something was grossly amiss.

For the most part, however, these agencies are reluctant to go as far as they could go without getting a statement from someone with letters after their name, letters such as DVM or even Ph.D. There is a reluctance to put much credence in "mere" citizens. This has a tendency to put citizens off--if no one is going to listen to them, pursue the matter and take appropriate action, there seems to be no point to file a complaint. (Note: The friend I was with is a deputy sheriff who works in another county. Even then she had to pour it on to get someone from A.C. to come out to the store within a reasonable period of time from our phone call.)

The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council is now offering "certification" workshops on reptiles for store owners. The problem, of course, is that the information isn't getting out there fast enough and store owners who are determinedly mediocre or worse aren't going to pay the not-inexpensive costs associated with attending a national trade show to take these not-inexpensive classes. And, having taken the course, I can tell you it doesn't go far enough in stress what should be stressed, anyway.

Wholesalers and dealers don't much care who they sell what to, and there is no other regulatory body to oversee or take action. State wildlife agencies only get involved if protected native species are being kept and sold improperly or illegally; they do not get involved in care issues. The federal agencies have no jurisdiction over protected species once they have cleared customs.

How many animals must die, in the store or within days, weeks or months of being purchased, before the store is considered to be a problem? Why are more voices raised when it is cats, dogs, rabbits and other "cute" critters--even fish--who are being ill cared for than for reptiles, amphibians and arthropods? What is left for us to do?

File a complaint. Get other customers to file complaints. Keep filing complaints until something is done. Be calm, be focused, but do it. Be prepared to quote or provide source material if necessary, especially articles and information published in herpetological and veterinary journals and books.

Some people are reluctant to offend an offensive store owner feeling that that store is the only place around to get supplies. Well, everything from prey to lights to tanks to equipment to furnishings can be bought from mail order companies and delivered right to your door. Boycott these stores, and get others to boycott. Spread the word. A store owner might find it cheaper to barely provide for the animals figuring that once they are sold they are no longer his or her concern, but if no one was buying anything, the economic situation may convince the owner that there are other ways to make money in the pet trade--or to get out of the business altogether.

It is unfortunate that many vets do not want to become involved. There are many reasons for this reluctance, many of them understandable at some level but difficult for many of us to fathom when our primary concern is for the animals' welfare. There are some vets who will take the time off from their practice to go into stores at the request of the local animal regulatory agency to assess the situation in the agency's handling of a complaint. But as many vets know more about the medical aspects of care rather than housing and maintenance, their input may be unhelpful or contradictory to that provided by knowledgeable complainants. When assessing what action to take, the animal agency and District Attorney lean towards the position of the person with the letters after their name, not there "mere" letterless citizens who may have decades of experience backing them up.

The store owner got her surviving animals back the week she returned from her trip, being sentenced to a relatively minor fine. I went back up a month later with another herp friend of mine to check things out. Conditions were only slightly improved. I was not a little shocked to meet an animal control officer leaving the store with a pot bellied piglet under her arm - she had just bought it from the store on a special order.

I was never able to get up there again. It was not until just recently that, while corresponding via email with a woman in Southern California who used to live in the Willits area, I found out what finally happened with the store. It seems that it was finally shut down. Not, however, for anything whatsoever to do with the way they continued to care for their animals (which, as I found out from this woman, never appreciably improved). Turns out they were busted by state and federal authorities on drug possession and dealing charges. Killing hundreds of animals directly, and being responsible for killing hundreds more indirectly, apparently isn't a big deal in Mendocino county.

The California Penal Code is, to my mind, pretty explicit. Section 597(b) states that "every person who...deprives of necessary sustenance, drink or shelter...or causes or procures any animal to be so...deprived of necessary sustenance, drink shelter...and whoever, having the charge or custody of any animal, either as owner or otherwise, subjects any animal to needless suffering, or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal, or in any manner abuses the animal or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or, for every such offense, guilty of a crime punishable as a...misdemeanor or felony..." It never ceases to amaze me that, despite the laws being on the books, they are too rarely enforced when it comes to reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.

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