Rupert in his enclosure in Chris's room.

Just Another Day at the Office for EBV John 

By Michelle Olson

A mouse scurries around the five-gallon tank it is enclosed in. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t have the company of an orange, brown-spotted snake slithering around, anticipating its weekly meal. The mouse, desperate for an escape, even jumps on the back of the predator. The saying “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” must have been created by a reptile owner.

As I swallow, thankful for not being reincarnated as a feeder mouse, John Emberton, co-owner of the East Bay Vivarium greets me. (According to the dictionary, vivarium means a place where live animals or plants are kept under conditions simulating their natural environment).

EBV John is just one of the “reptile warriors,” I am interviewing for an article about lack of education in the reptile industry.

“It’s feed day here today, so things are a little hectic,” he says. As he shows me around his “not super-organized store,” I realize it is just one of a hundred things going on at the oldest and largest reptile store in the United States.  All the turtles, tortoises, amphibians, chameleons, scorpions and arachnids are locked up for everyone’s safety.

He asks me if I notice the smell in the air. “Reptiles don’t sweat, perspire, or urinate, but there is still this smell,” he says. “The smell is this, litter.”

Chris holds Rupert.

We enter a side room where EBV John pulls out one white, plastic drawer from a row of six. The shelf is higher than I can count. About 30 white, feeder mice, similar to the one in the snake’s tank, huddle together. They run away from the opening of the drawer, as if they can run from their fate. But they will share the same fate as their furry friend.

Maybe this why so many people don’t warm up to cold-blooded creatures, otherwise known as reptiles. In the United States about 73 million homes own a pet, only six percent own a reptile compared to 63 percent who own a dog, according to a survey conducted for 2011 by the American Pet Product Association.  John has a dog too, a German Shepard names Luna who follows him around, and he lovingly calls “his shadow.”

The East Bay Vivarium produces 99 percent of the food needed for its inhabitants. Not only do they breed feeder mice, but also rats and chickens. This is probably why the room is about the size of an average bedroom with an aisle down the middle.

This room also has another facet, the “hibernation room.” We didn’t go in, but during the summer there are even more spectacles to see. As if the too many to count I saw on this afternoon in February weren’t enough.

On my way out I pass the baby chicks on my right. They are enclosed in a metal tub lined with litter. A light source above the tub provides warmth for the babies. One has made it to adolescence.  But it will probably see its death soon, the circle of life stares me in the face for a second time.

The feeder mouse in his box.

When we get to the adjoining room, the “breeding room,” I get a lesson on reptile lovemaking. He opens another drawer, “Here are two breeding,” he says. He points to the two ball pythons connected at the end of their tails, intertwined like two branches that grew around each other on a fence. The bottom of their end tails are locked together, and swollen. This is like the python version of the high school game, “seven minutes in heaven.”

The reptile population is similar, but different, from the dog and cat population issue. Too many furry friends exist,  there are not enough homes. For reptiles, too many forests are being cleared, making way for golf courses and homes, resulting in  lack of space for their population. Many species have become endangered. This is where the vivarium comes in.

“Ninety percent of what we breed here is endangered,” EBV John told me later on.

Next is the “veggie room,” yes some of these creatures need their salad too. John explains to me how the Berkeley Bowl and the Monterey Market set aside their leftovers for the vivarium. “They would just throw this away,” he says as he pulls the outside of romaine lettuce heads to show me. “And this is the most vitamin-packed part of the plant.” A white, rectangular freezer, that opens from the top, pushed to the back of the room, is filled with “back stock,” or dead, frozen mice.

To the right of the “veggie room,” an aisle lined with blue incubators holds reptile eggs. Different incubators are set at different temperatures depending on the breed. John takes out a Tupperware looking container, and peels off the lid. “Not many people know that reptile eggs are soft.”

I touch the white egg. It is about twice the size of a large chicken egg, and nestled in grey, rock sand. The shell is so soft and warm that I feel its imprint on my right index finger pad for the next half an hour. I touched innocence, like rubbing my best friend’s belly when she was pregnant.

Rupert waits to strike.

We go up the stairs behind the wall that the incubators are against.  The office is at the top, and so are more reptiles, centipedes and millipedes.  He shows me a Mexican Beaded Lizard with black and red spots, measuring about a foot and a half in length. “It’s one of only two poisonous lizards in the world,” he says.

Yes, there are only two types of poisonous lizards in the world. So maybe lizards aren’t as dangerous as many think.

For the first time I get to sit down. John offers me the big, black office chair, while he sits on a yellow cat litter box. He sways back and forth, it’s almost hard for him to sit still. But he gives me his full attention despite looking at his iPhone throughout the questions, which he does apologize for, just another indication of how busy he is.

He has been in the reptile industry for 21 years. He used to come to the Vivarium as a customer, then started working part time. Now he is the co owner, a position he took on in 1995.

“Everyday is different. There is a variety of jobs and animals to work with,” he says. “The customer keeps the whole thing going.”

A pure example comes when an employee climbs the stairs and appears with a Tupperware container. The employee peels the tops off and revels the three, baby red-foot turtles. “What will we give him for them?”

“Seventy dollars in a trade,” replies EBV John. Meaning for each baby the customer will get a $70 credit for the store. Not too shabby.

Rupert, the ball python, meets his meal.

 “The Petco Problem”

Continuing on, John discusses the “Petco problem,” as I call it. “It’s a huge problem because they don’t know what they are doing,” he says.  “But they have the biggest face in retail.”

In October 2002, a lawsuit was filed by the City of San Francisco to keep the company from selling live animals in San Francisco. The charges were a result of a lack of action by Petco after the San Francisco Department of Animal & Control Department gave it “numerous warnings and citations… about its inhumane and illegal treatment of small pets at its 1685 Bryant Street and 1591 Sloat Boulevard locations,” said a press release on the website  San Francisco City Attorney, Dennis Herrera.

“Sick and dying animals in freezers,” and “reptiles and fish left dead in display tanks,” were some of the complaints.

About a year and a half later, in May of 2004 the case was settled out of court. Petco was ordered to pay the City of San Francisco $50,000. It also had to follow certain provisions for 18 months including: providing specialized training for employees, getting medical care for all sick or injured animals and getting animals reviewed by an independent veterinarian.

Rupert strikes.

The PETCO Check-In

On a Monday afternoon, I check in on Four Square at Petco, located at 1591 Sloat Blvd, one of the two locations notoriously known for being cited in the lawsuit against the chain pet store. It is in a shopping center, like most of them are. I walk through the automatic doors. My nose adjusts to the dog food smell. I go left, past tubs of dog biscuits. The reptile sign hangs, I see tanks full of goldfish, bright colored fish, but where are the reptiles?  I turn right and run into a turtle tank in the corner.

I imagine the Peta (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) video I watched a couple days ago. A woman, in the reptile black market video, throws turtle shells in a bag like they are aluminum cans, a 5 cent redemption per can.  She shows no regard for the life form inside the shell. Peta doesn’t promote keeping reptiles in captivity. They site the black market of reptiles, and a statistic that 90 percent of wild-caught reptiles are dead within the first year in captivity. At the end of the video an interview with a lizard rescue in Seattle, Nancy Lanning, closes saying, “There is no reason to have a reptile as a pet, period.”

These turtles look happy enough. They are out of their shell, looking around, inside and outside the waterfall pool. I look right, down the long aisle in front of the tank, and a young, dark-haired guy is cleaning the lizard enclosures. He is wearing khaki pants, brown VANS and a black polo with Petco embroidered on the right, and his nametag clipped on the left. His name is Kevin. But I prefer Petco Kev.

Rupert bites down on the feeder rat.

He pushes around one of those carts I see science professors push around, black, two-tiered with wheels. He sprays the glass and wipes it with a towel, then sprays some of the plants, changes water and food as he answers my questions.

“The water is de-chlorinated. I give them fresh water,” he says. “And I make sure each cage has the right humidity.” Some of the lizards are from tropical temperatures, while others are from desert heat. Different environmental control needed, indeed. I’d say the lizards look good, not a dead one in sight, so maybe that lawsuit worked.

Petco Kev says his favorite lizard is a Canadian Crested Gecko. The one he shows me crawls all over him. It’s about a half-foot long, bright orange with a white stripe down its back. The top of him is flat, which makes him special, the white stripe is like a rectangle down his back. Let’s call this orange guy Moe.

So to see if EBV John was right, I ask Petco Kev what would I need to take this crested gecko home. I am directed towards a free (gratis) care pamphlet. The front shows a picture of a creature that looks like Moe, but a drab yellow color. I am asked to check yes or no for five questions/ statements. They go something like this:  1) Do I have an appropriate location? 2) Can I meet temperature and nutrition requirements? 3) Can I commit to caring for Moe? 4) Do I understand the risk of salmonella transmission? 5) A mature person will provide responsible and primary care for this companion animal.

Rupert holds the bite on his prey.

I can only answer yes to two of the questions; I need five yes responses to take Moe home. I guess I’ll be sleeping alone tonight.

The inside of the pamphlet gives me detailed instructions on how to take care of a creature of Moe’s stature. And the back tells me what to look for in a healthy animal versus an unhealthy one.

Besides this, Petco Kev knows what he is talking about. He had to read six books on reptiles and pass a written test with a score of 90 percent to keep his job. He also works underneath a companion animal manager, who checks the animals regularly.

He led me to the starter kit I would need, if I were to take Moe home. It costs about $80. “I would also recommend a plastic tree,” he says. “They love to climb, and I think it’s just mean not to have a tree in there for them.”

Petco Kev also says that all the animals are from local breeders that the store works with. So maybe Peta doesn’t have to worry, either.

Rupert starts the process of getting his dinner down in one bite.

Willam, the Herpetology Student  (Herp Will)

Herp Will talked to me over the phone. He wouldn’t meet up with me after that despite numerous calls and a text message. I think he thought I was the reptile FBI, but I did get a 30-minute interview.

I found his number on Craigslist. He was selling a boa python.  EBV John doesn’t recommend first-time buyers buying from Craigslist. He called it a “crap-shoot,” and said. “There’s not enough information, and it’s hard to follow up on.”

Herp Will was actually using it as a last option for the snake he was rehabilitating. He prefers, a classified and informational website for reptiles.

William was another example of how people in the reptile industry are truly dedicated to their cause. Maybe it’s because there are limited lobbyist groups for reptiles, one being the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK). And well-organized groups such as Peta and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) hold the dominant voice of highlighting the negatives of the reptile industry, according to EBV John.

During my conversation with Herp Will he could not stress enough that all reptiles need a heat source of some kind, ranging between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Not to mention, a proper sized cage. Each reptile has different requirements.  “You can’t forget them for even a day or two,” he says. “You can’t slack.”

Rupert has his meal halfway down.

To his dismay he has seen some very sick reptiles. When he worked at a reptile shop a customer brought in a bearded dragon lizard. This species is known for being very social, and “almost loving,” towards people and other reptiles. The one presented to him looked lethargic and emaciated.

“I looked at it for seven seconds. I knew from that point on there was no saving it. I was shocked it was even alive.” Herp Will was so upset he wanted to cuss the customer out. “But we had to give the reptile back, and send them to the vet,” he said. “I had to be that way as a professional.”

But it is situations like these he is trying to help avoid, by helping to get reptiles adopted. He personally rescues and rehabilitates them.  When the animal is ready to get a home, Herp Will charges an adoption fee, based on the species, and tries to send the creature off with a proper cage and light. “If you want to learn about something you can take it far.”

He is constantly learning, through reading, to get the best education he can. “Read, read, read,” is his advice. He recommends “Reptiles for Dummies.”

 Some Dummy(s) Who Didn’t Read Enough (Is this too harsh? The reptiles don’t think so).

The latest reptile reptile story has made it seem like the boa python population has taken over in Florida. A report insinuates that the snakes are killing the bird population, and are a threat to the human population. An uneducated snake owner probably released the snakes into the wild, which often happens when proper education isn’t passed on, said EBV John.

Rupert is probably wondering why the mouse has such a big ass.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) conducted a study on nine snake species in Florida. Species included: yellow anacondas, Burmese pythons, Northern and Sothern African pythons and boa constrictors. The USGS claims the study is for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  and National Park Service to be “used to assist resource management agencies in developing management actions concerning the snakes when and where these species appear in the wild, “ according to the its website.

The report went on to say the snakes threaten the ecosystems and all species were considered high to medium risk because all grow to a large size, eat a variety of food, are tolerant of urbanization, and can be potential hosts of parasites and diseases, among other factors.

Another implication of the report is whether the pythons will threaten the mainland. EBV John retorts that what hasn’t been said is that the temperature in Florida has been freezing, and it has killed a lot of the boa population

For the same temperature reason, the snakes would not be able to make it cross-country. “99.9 percent of people will tell you that it’s not possible with that temperature,” Herp Will said. The lowest temperature pythons are Burmese, from Indonesia, and they live at 55 degrees at the coldest, he went on.

Just keep swallowing, keep swallowing.

EBV John worries about this kind of bad press because ultimately it leads to bad legislation. “We are an easy target to pick on.” He feels legislation is important because “people will do crazy things.” Some laws that have been passed include: No one can own a snake longer than six feet in San Francisco, and it is illegal to breed and keep venomous animals, as per Section 51 and 52 of San Francisco Health Code.  “But prohibition showed us that people are going to do what they want to do.”


Nick B.’s “Steve Erwin Experience”

Nick goes for bogey with the snake in tote.

And that is just what Nick Bennet did while he was golfing at the Callippe Preserve in Pleasanton on Good Friday. He was walking with his friend Scott, on the 12th hole green, looking for his ball. Low and behold, there was a brown snake next to the white golf ball. Nick B. picked up the four-foot snake, not knowing what kind it was. (Luckily, for everyone’s sake, it was a gopher snake, non-venomous).

Nick B., drunk and snake in hand, bogeyed the hole. “Now whether or not it was the smart thing to do… it definitely wasn’t, but I’d do it again. Maybe I’ll stop when I finally get bit.”

Well, let’s hope that never happens. No one likes to learn the hard way.

 A Real Snake Owner and Handler

Audio C, Christopher Rouge, is a 22-year-old student who studies sound engineering. He’s a little under six feet tall, medium stature with dirty-blonde hair, blue-green eyes and a nice smile.

He was happy to show me his pride and joy, four-foot long, ball python, Rupert. At first I was scared of Rupert, I mean, he eats rats. His tan base has brown branches that slither around in uneven formations on his body, creating a pattern of uneven circles with brown dots.

Rupert, I think you have something in your teeth.

When I held him, I felt a connection. He contracted his muscles around my arm to move up and explore my shoulder, while poking his tongue in and out to smell me. (Snakes smell with their tongues to get air particles, and bring them to the Jacobson’s organ, in the roof of their mouth, to identify scents).

Yes, his skin was cold and hard, but I felt that he liked me. It was the first time I felt a connection with a cold-blooded creature. That’s if you don’t count my last boyfriend, or Edward Cullen from the Twilight series.

Audio C bought Rupert at the East Bay Vivarium, where he still goes to buy Rupert’s weekly meal, a feeder pup rat.

“Everyone you talked to there could tell you something about snakes,” he said. “That place is awesome. Everyone is super friendly.”

We talked in his room among drab colored walls. His full-size bed covered with a black comforter, behind us, the door to the right, his computer desk to the left, and Rupert’s enclosure in front of us. Enough space so two people can stand comfortably, but definitely not three. His terrarium is in Audio C’s closet, between his shirts and toiletries, on top of his wooden dresser.

Yeah, you definitely need a toothpick.

His living environment has logs, hiding spaces, a cold and hot side, water bowl and wood chips. On my second visit Rupert had a pup feeder rat in there, too. Audio C let me tag along on the feeding adventure. I guess this is how reptiles are different from mammals. You don’t go to the store and buy a bag of kibble; you go to the store and buy a live rat.

Audio C said you can buy frozen rats, but then you have to keep them on frozen food forever. “I want to him have some fun. I want him to get some excitement.”

Audio C drove us in his White Suburu WRX. “Are you ready to ride?” he asks me.  He has one of those personalities that’s so relaxed that you get relaxed being around him. He wears jeans, brown worn down VANS with back shoe laces, and a black polo with red and white stripes.

He played Red Hot Chili Peppers as we cruised San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. One guy in front of Actual Café is wearing a crab hat. Audio C laughs in the middle of our conversation, and I’m like, “What is going on?” Oh, the crab hat. Yup, we’re in Berzerkeley.

We arrive at East Bay Vivarium, park in the backed up parking lot. It’s meant for two cars, ours is the fourth vehicle to get in. We walk up the long driveway, other people talk out front. What do you know? It’s “feed day,” again. So about half  the tanks underneath the front counter still have mice in them.

Is that your tongue or a tail? Either way you're being very rude right now.

A dark-haired man with a full beard helps us, wearing a yellow Berkeley shirt.  “Do you want biggish or smallish?” he asks about what size rat we want.

“Mediumish,” replies Audio C. Yellow Shirt Guy goes to a drawer behind the counter. The space behind the counter is the size of an average bathroom, so there is plenty of room for critters of all kinds.

He shows us a baby with its eyes closed, it has a grey patch around the eye. “A little bit bigger,” says Audio C. Yellow Shirt Guy puts the baby back, and heads to the back “feeding room.” I’ve been there before. Gulp.

“How’s this?” asks Yellow Shirt Guy. He is holding a rectangular, cardboard box a little bit bigger than an iPhone. Audio C looks inside. “Good.”

He pays $1.92 for Rupert’s meal, and we are back in the car, on our way to feed the pet, with a pet. I hold the box on the way. I can feel the warmth underneath the thin cardboard. The box closes on the top with a folded flap and a single piece of masking tape holds it shut. The side reads: Ace Item No. 51602, Qty: 10 pcs. Well, now it’s quantity one, one life to give.

Your neck looks so big. Have you been working out?

“I’ve done this so many times it doesn’t even effect me,” says Audio C. “We eat chicken, steaks and lamb. Why is it any different?”

I continue holding the box, trying not to get attached to the rat inside, but I can feel it moving around. I simply name it Rat. The little nails are tapping on the inside. After arriving back where we started, we go inside his house.

When Audio C tries to pull Rat out, he can barely get it. He pulls by the tail, and Rat retaliates to the back of the box.

Audio C is not having it. He grabs the tail and lifts it up to show me the white, furry, feeder rat.  “Glad it didn’t pee. It stinks when they do that.”

He plops Rat down into Rupert’s terrarium. It’s like donkey kong inside that enclosure. I feel the tension. I crouch down to get pictures. It’s like a game of snake and rat, like a fight inside the UFC Octagon. Audio C keeps doing the voice of Rupert. “Why are you watching me bro?” he mimics.

As soon as Rupert senses the heat of the rat he starts making moves, slithering around. Rat goes underneath a log in the middle. Rupert hides behind another log. He slithers over to his prey. Rat moves and before he can take five rat steps a “SQEAK!” is released.

Rupert bites down on his meal. A blood mark shows where Rupert bit.

Once Rat is dead Rupert must figure out how to eat the white furry thing whole. Yes, one bite. (Snakes can separate their jaw and open at 150 degrees, humans can only open to 45 degrees).

He tries a couple different positions. “Don’t eat it ass first, dumb ass,” says Audio C in the background. Rupert fulfills his owner’s wishes and eats his linner (late lunch, early dinner) head first. It takes about five minutes as he gets the four-inch mammal down his throat. The tail and feet stick out of his mouth at the end and you can see the body lump in his throat. His neck turns twice his normal size. (Elasticity of neck skin and muscles make this possible. Their saliva helps break down the prey and get it down the gullet).

“I can’t touch him for fiv days to let him digest,” says Audio C. “Otherwise he can throw it up, and I don’t want to clean that up.”

I thank Audio C for the experience and I go home. Stuck in traffic I feel gross because I was so engrossed in the feeding of Rupert. But I guess we all have to eat.

 Just Because They’re Not Furry

Reptiles obviously aren’t cuddly or soft, but they hold a huge space in the world’s ecosystem. In Flordia some say sankes are ruining the ecosystem in the Everglades. But in China and Africa, they are being removed to be sold in the Black Market, or eaten by natives.

“Any one of the introduced plants could have ruined the ecosystem, but it’s easier to get people up in arms about big snakes,“ says Scott Alexander, the president of the Bay Area Amphibian and Reptile Society (BARRS).

Out of a list of  25+ endangered turtles and tortoises , a report by the Turtle Conservation Coalition, about 50 percent of the 328 species were considered threatened, but ony about 25 percent of mammals under the same category. Six species species are from China, and four are from Madagascar.

“People care about tigers and pandas and snow leopards,  but if it’s creepy and crawly people don’t care that much.”

Kids in China are paid to go out and find turtles and tortoises and then get paid for finding them. Families also eat turtles for food, due to poverty, and the creatures are exploited for their medicinal purpouses. Turtle shell is ground up and drunk for kidney and liver purposes. And in these circumstances you usually want the biggest turtles, Scott says.

But the biggest turtles are the ones who are old enough to breed; it takes about 15 years for turtles and tortoises of China to get to a breeding age.

Scott is specifically working with Burmese Star and Radiated Tortoise , breeding endangered species in an effort to keep the species from extinction.

An obstacle he is coming across in saving the species is trying to get enough turtles to breed. Currently, there are international regulations on shipping reptiles, in an attempt to keep the Black Market trade down. “If a species is going extinct and it’s not being protected. you should be allowed to export it for breeding,” he argues. “The restriction on transporting for breeding is driving extinction.”

In order to have money to fight for his cause he works full-time. But when he didn’t have time to properly clean and take care of his animals he hired a woman off Craigslist to come over and help. That woman is now his wife, and together they have two dogs, 12 cats, and about 50 reptiles.

He is so dedicated to reptiles and helping the cause that two of five rooms in his house are dedicated to them. But he doesn’t call him self a pet owner. “I consider myself a breeder.”

BAARS is working on getting the public educated on these creatures by having “animal educators.” The society visits schools, holds open meetings and workshops. “Maybe one these kids will be our leaders in the future and make a difference.”

So Now What?

Basically, if you want to get a pet of any kind, breed, or species, do some research. Every animal needs special care. If you get a pit bull puppy, you need to plan on how much space, time and food you will need for it when it becomes an adult.

If you decide to get a ball python, then you need to feed it once a week, make sure it has proper lighting and shelter.

Both are years-long commitments, and neither species can speak for themselves. That is why these “reptile warriors” speak for them.