Creatures that go bump in the night have been saddled with a bad rap, more often associated with horror movies and cheesy spook houses than beloved pets or vital commodities to the ecosystem. Rather than shriek at the slightest peep, hiss or croak of nature's creepier critters, there are several ways to learn to love these misunderstood animals.
Take snakes, reptiles or all manner of invertebrates. Some might shiver at the mere sight of them, but Bryan Swinney, owner of Alligator Alley, said that reptiles, amphibians and tarantulas are coming into their own as a perfect pet for those looking for minimal upkeep.
"A lot of people buy reptiles for what they don't do: They don't require a lot of space, don't require a lot of your time, they don't chew on the carpet, they don't mess up the floor, they don't have to be taken for walks," Swinney said.
Alligator Alley celebrated its 20th year this month. Located at 4363 N.W. 10th, the store began back when it was legal to sell alligators. Although it no longer sells them, there are still six alligators lurking around " two adults and four of their offspring. Two of the young alligators can be seen inside aquariums in the store, with gumball machines full of alligator chow ready to dispense a food pellet for a quarter.
"It's been really popular, customers like to drop a coin in there and watch the alligator eat, which she does almost all the time," Swinney said. "Alligators don't move much, so we'd get the question, 'Is it alive? Is it real?' Now, you can actually watch it move without banging on the cage, giving it a reward rather than a punishment."
FIRST COLD SNAP
The adult alligators are fed outside during the warmer months, but they must be brought in after the first cold snap because it becomes too hard for the cold-blooded creatures to digest their food. Three live feedings are scheduled during the week, and it is suggested to contact the store to find out if they are still ongoing.
Times have changed, according to Swinney, and the prospect of owning a reptile is more widely accepted now then when the store first opened.
"Things are quite different than they were in the Eighties; we have made some changes depending on the market and the kinds of people who are buying reptiles," he said. "Twenty years ago, it used to only be guys from their late teens up to 30 that were reptile hobbyists. Now you see more families buying them. Those teenagers grew up, had children and are much more likely to say 'sure' to their 10-year-old who wants a snake."
Larger snakes such as pythons are not generally seen at Alligator Alley, unless they are adoptions of rescued snakes. Swinney said the store draws lots of families and novice collectors who may not be well enough informed to understand the long-term implications of buying a baby python.
For serious buyers who understand the needs of such a large animal, collectors should go through a dealer and, as it turns out, a metro-based python breeder claims he's the most prolific dealer in the world.
Rows and rows of pythons lounged on blood-splattered newspapers scattered in their cages. It was feeding day for Bob Clark's vast collection of pythons " from infants still poking their heads out of their doughy white eggs, to massive adults with their 300 pounds coiled lazily in their cages.
Clark stopped at a cage where a rabbit carcass sat uneaten next to an uninterested black and green python.
"This one just seems to eat rats. She'll kill the rabbit, but never eats it," Clark said, while sliding open the see-through plastic door just enough so he could quickly jerk out the rabbit's body. "But we don't waste anything here."
Carrying the dead rabbit through his massive warehouse of snakes, Clark said he is the most prolific dealer of pythons in the world and specializes in rare colors and patterns. He is known for amelanistic pythons, or those with no black pigment, leaving the snake with an orange and yellow pattern. If you've ever seen a yellow python, such as the one draped over Britney Spears during her 2001 MTV Video Music Awards performance, it was bred in Clark's building.
Other pattern mutations exist such as all-white with black eyes or traditional black and green, but with patches of white as if the snake had been dipped in paint. In the wild, these mutations are detrimental to the snake's survival, but in captivity those same mutations equal dollar signs.
"If you are born in the wild and you are bright yellow and purple, you will probably get eaten by some animal the same afternoon, but if one of those mutations does happen, it should be found," Clark said. "That's probably why it did get found, because it looked like that."
The majority of his business comes from private collectors, but he also caters to universities, zoos and any other organization in need of a really large or rare python. Spears borrowed her snake from Siegfried & Roy, who had bought the snake from Clark. Michael Jackson's people had contacted Clark in the past about acquiring an animal, and even famed zookeeper Jack Hanna came to Clark to purchase a snake for the Columbus Zoo.
"He said he was looking for a big python for their Asian exhibit. I asked, 'Do you want a big one or a really big one?'" Clark said. "I had the biggest python in captivity at the time: a reticulated python that was over 300 pounds " a real monster " and got to later see it on the Letterman show."
MORE WAREHOUSE THAN PET SHOP
Clark's business is more warehouse than pet shop since it is not open to the public. It occupies 7,000 square feet, requires five additional staff people to run and connects several storefronts in a strip mall. The pythons feed, breed and are hatched all on the premises. Clark said he sells thousands every year, fetching $50 on the low end and thousands on the high end.
"I'm a farmer, so I have a crop of pythons every year and am tied into the natural cycle of breeding, growing and selling," he said. "They aren't very demanding captives; they have their requirements. They are not very active; they are not very smart. So as long as they get plenty to eat and an opportunity to breed, they are perfectly happy in a small cage."
Clark carried the rabbit carcass to another large cage containing a 14-foot yellow python. The snake had been poking its head around, looking for more food even after gulping down another rabbit earlier in the day.
Clark inched the door open and slid the rabbit in. The python ignored it until Clark began shaking it up and down. With a lighting-quick lurch, the massive python wrapped around the rabbit, and Clark jerked his hand out of the cage, quickly closing the door.
"Yeah," he chuckled. "It won't eat the rabbit unless it thinks it's alive."
Pythons need to be fed once a week. Their cages also need to be cleaned only once a week. If the owner wants to breed, that is done once a year. Aside from that, pythons are simple creatures to own, Clark said.
But if owning a creature that not only outweighs you, but is also an emotionless predator isn't your cup of tea, then perhaps a trip to the zoo might be a good way to feed your creature needs.
More than 300 bats fluttered back and forth in a cloud scattering across the rickety barn. An owl watched serenely from its perch next to a kerosene lantern as rats, snakes and tarantulas scurried around in search of food. No, it's not a scene from a horror movie, but the Oklahoma City Zoo's nocturnal barn, a re-creation of the state's nightlife within the Oklahoma Trails exhibit. By dimming the light and reversing the animal's sleep cycles, humans can now get the unique chance to safely observe how bats, ring-tailed cats, possums and other nocturnal animals behave when the sun goes down.
The nocturnal barn opened in March 2007 and was modeled after an actual barn in northwest Oklahoma that was built in 1909.
"The bats are by far the most popular," said Brian Aucone, the zoo's director of animal management. "There is certainly the aspect of creepiness that the average visitor associates with bats. You get the wonderful experience of getting nose-to-nose with a bat without feeling you are trapped in the same space with it."
Oklahoma's bat population is valuable to farmers, he said, because the creatures feed off of the insects that could destroy crops if left unchecked. All the animals, down to the eeriest arachnids, have their role in the state's ecosystem, according to Aucone, and giving patrons a chance to observe the night-dwellers helps demystify them.
"You have the curiosity to get a really good look at these things, but your fear might override that in the wild, so you can come here and see that," he said. "The ability to observe them helps quell some of those negative notions people have about them." "Charles Martin