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Slithering through a reptile’s world at the East Bay Vivarium

One of the first things you hear when you enter the East Bay Vivarium is lots of scratching. It's coming from inside a large cage -- its a giant lizard that’s nearly as long as I am tall. “His name is Elmo, he’s a good guy. People love him,” says Owen Maerks, one of the co-owners here at the Vivarium.

Elmo is a giant Black Throat Monitor lizard. He looks nothing like the Sesame Street character with the same name, but apparently their personalities have some things in common. According to Maercks, “People don’t expect that an animal that big and fearsome-looking is actually a big sweetheart, but he is.”

We move on to the next cage. The Vivarium feels a lot like a neighborhood hardware store, but instead of drills or bolts, there are rows of turtles, frogs, lizards, and the occasional aquarium accessory. Down crowded aisles where you might otherwise find toilet snakes, the snakes on display here are real.

“Right now we’re walking down our monitor aisle” says Maerks, “Which is our large lizards and large boas,  pythons and assorted other odds and ends.”

When he says “large,” he means it. The albino Burmese python in the corner cage is over 15 feet long.

“One of the reasons we have the giant snakes in here is that some stores will sell a baby python without ever giving anyone the indication of what to expect. So we like to have examples of: what is this gonna turn into?” says Maercks.

It’s important people know what they’re getting into, because otherwise they end up back at the store, returning pets they can’t take care of. That’s how the Vivarium gets some of its animals. Others are purchased from wholesalers. And others come from the breeding room in the back of the store - that room is filled with incubators and baby animals, and it’s off-limits to customers. So we move down the next aisle.

Maercks takes a small snake out of its cage for a closer look. The black-and-white pattern on the underbelly of the bright orange Corn Snake looks undeniably cool, like piano keys, and feels slippery. I suddenly wonder if I should be wary about touching any of these reptiles.

“We have some mildly venomous snakes, nothing I would consider dangerous. Probably the most dangerous animal we have in the store in terms of venom are Beaded Lizards, and they won’t kill you but they might make you wish you wanted to die,” says Maercks. Turns out the beaded lizard Maercks is talking about is in a cage near my feet. I’m only mildly reassured by its metal lock as I scurry past.

The Vivarium has been open less than an hour and it’s already abuzz, mostly with people picking up pet supplies, workers caring for animals, and some kids and parents wandering the aisles. Then, it’s time for a feeding. Manager Carlos Haslam goes to the backroom and returns with a yellow chick. That’s when my adrenalin really starts pumping.

“This is called a scrub python. They’re one of the largest arboreal snakes on the planet,” says Haslam.

Haslam tosses the chick into the python’s cage. The snake wraps his body around the chick till it passes out, and then takes it whole, down the hatch. I can’t believe I’m watching this, but Haslam tells me he thinks most people are fascinated by feedings.

“Kind-of mechanically efficient, don’t you think?” asks Haslam.

The mood finally lightens as we shift our attention to some reptile mating rituals just across the aisle. Haslam pulls a male bearded dragon out of his cage. The lizard immediately notices a female in the cage above him. He stares at her and waves his legs like he’s swimming in place. “If he could have access I’m sure he’d be all over her like white on rice.”

Haslam tells me that reptiles and amphibians aren’t the only ones doing a mating dance at the Vivarium. “It’s pretty typical, if the woman brings her boyfriend down and the woman pretends to be afraid, then she’s looking for the comforts of that man. If that man does it, he might be looking to show his softer side to the woman.”

Lovers, and lovers of reptiles. This makes me wonder about the type of people who take this on as a hobby.  “The face of the hobby is kind-of eclectic. We have soccer moms from Danville, we have gangsters from Oakland, we have kids from Marin, ” Haslam explains.

Owen Maercks has his own theory about what makes reptile owners tick: “More traditional pets, like dogs and cats and the big birds, are substitute babies. The thing with reptiles and arachnids is that it’s not you making them into little humans. It’s them letting you into their world. And that is as wonderful an experience as you can have. Not being yourself for a little while? That’s incredible. That’s great.”

Possibly even greater than that are these moments of affinity you may end up sharing with an animal so completely different than you. Before I head out, I stop by Rudy the Tortoise’s cage. He opens his mouth wide and yawns, and I can’t help but smile. Who would’ve thought a tortoise could make my heart melt? Just a little.

This story originally aired in December of 2013.