Raving About Reptiles
Tallahassee residents opt for scales over feathers and fur
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Zoe Allaire is a playground for her three bearded dragons. She also owns a seven-foot boa constrictor named Rocky Balboa and a blue iguana named Beans. She likes fur as well, as the owner of a dog and a cat, but has a special affinity for scales.
Three-year-old Selva Damelio was nonchalant as her pet, Persephone, wrapped itself around her arm like a colorful piece of jewelry. Named for the Greek goddess of vegetation and the underworld, Persephone is a small, harmless corn snake that will eventually grow to four or five feet in length. “She’s smooth,” Selva said.
Her brother, Quin, 7, was equally as confident as he held Iris, his Brazilian rainbow boa. “Her forked tongue is really cool,” he said.
“For kids, snakes are a perfect pet,” said Selva and Quin’s dad, Mickey Damelio. “They don’t smell, and they have no fur. Persephone is fine if she’s held, and if she was never held again, it wouldn’t bother her.”
The Damelios are among the growing number of families raving about reptiles.
“The interest in reptiles is incredible,” said Vanessa Lane, who owns geckos and snakes and is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management at the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga.
Snakes, in particular, have many fans. But that wasn’t always the case. The maligned animals have faced an image problem since time immemorial. For starters, there was that sneaky serpent that tempted Eve with an apple in the Garden of Eden. Modern culture hasn’t always been kind, either: How can we forget the horrific basilisk in the second Harry Potter novel or Samuel L. Jackson with all those scary “Snakes on a Plane”?
Yet snakes are just one type of cold-blooded creature that is getting a warmer welcome. Tortoises and lizards — particularly bearded dragons and geckos — are also in demand.
In 1996, an estimated 2.5 million U.S. households owned one or more reptiles, according to The American Pet Products Association, a not-for-profit trade group for a multibillion-dollar industry. Ten years later, in 2016, the group reported that an estimated 4.7 million households had a reptile in it.
Quin Damelio, like his sister Selva, is no stranger to snakes. He proudly showcases Iris, his Brazilian Rainbow boa.
So what’s the appeal?
Reptile enthusiast Paul Hale, who is an information technology analyst at the state Department of Agriculture, has one answer: “They awaken your imagination,” he said. “As kids, we read fairy tales about dragons and things of that nature. So when you’re a five-year-old and you see a ‘dragon,’ you’re amazed.”
Hale owns several reptiles and amphibians, including various snakes, lizards, a blue-tongued skink and an axolotl salamander. He’s also one of more than 800 reptile lovers who have become members of a Facebook group that Damielo started four years ago, called Tallahassee Herps and Exotics.
In this group, “You’ll find people who have everything from cute little geckos all the way to cobras and big monitor lizards,” said Damelio.
“It’s a little reptile community,” said Zoe Allaire, another enthusiast. “People are able to sell or give away reptile supplies (and) help rehome animals.”
Members also share photos revealing creatures with intricate patterns, vibrant hues and distinctive features. There are chameleons changing color, snakes shedding skin and even a turtle pursuing a bright blue ball. Bearded dragons — especially the babies — also get lots of exposure.
“The market is flooded with dragons,” said Allaire, who has three of them and works for a bearded dragon breeder. “They’re just cool animals.”
They are, literally, cool. Reptiles react to the temperature of their surroundings. When they get too warm, they go into the water or shade to cool off. When they’re too cold, they’ll hang out in the sun. And Allaire likes to hang out with them. “The sunlight is good for them, and I enjoy it.”
The dragons will “crawl right up to you,” added Allaire, who also owns a dog and a cat, plus a seven-foot-long boa constrictor named Rocky Balboa. “They nuzzle and do their body wiggle.”
With so much interest in the community, Damelio and other enthusiasts from the Facebook group have recently formed the Tallahassee Herpetological Society, which focuses on education, conservation and “the enjoyment of reptiles and amphibians.”
Three-year-old Selva Damelio with Persephone, a small, harmless corn snake. Selva has grown up with snakes by her side.
In many ways, the reptile world has opened up to novices, thanks to the Internet and everyday reptile enthusiasts who are willing to share their tips. At one meeting at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Leon County Extension Office, Damelio led a discussion on the “Basics of Bio-Active Keeping,” in which he spoke about some techniques for creating “living” enclosures for the animals using isopods (crustaceans), other insects, plants and soils.
“Personally, I like animals that are in functioning mini-ecosystems,” said Damelio. “For me, the animal is just one piece of the whole environment.”
Damelio keeps dart frogs and geckos in landscaped tanks at his office at Florida State University, where he is a faculty member in visual disabilities in the College of Education. The snakes stay at home. The Damelios also have dogs Irie and Lucy, a kitty named Aslan and an African grey parrot named Condi.
“As a kid, I grew up on five acres with dairy cows, steers, rabbits and pigs,” said Damelio. “We’d catch snakes in the yard. I was never afraid of them.”
Abbee Diaz, a junior studying biology at Valdosta State University who is also a member of the Facebook group, said he learned to like reptiles growing up in the wooded areas of Northeast Tallahassee. “I would see snakes, and the way they moved really fascinated me. I wanted to study more about them,” he said. “When I moved to college, I decided to get my first snake” — a rat snake that he received from a soldier being deployed to Afghanistan.
Diaz also has two box turtles that he rescued in South Carolina. “The turtles follow me around the apartment,” he said. “People think reptiles are dumb animals, but they’re not.”
Other members of the Facebook group also expressed that their pets are frequently underrated, misunderstood or worse — which is unfortunate when you consider that the Florida Panhandle is, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission website, “blessed or cursed with a rich diversity of snakes.”