Care and breeding

Snakes, lizards, and poison dart frogs may get a bad rap, but Richard Allen is out to prove that reptiles make great pets, too.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Propped up on two legs, an Ambilobe panther chameleon with vivid stripes of red, blue, and green stretches between two branches and sways ever so slightly — left, right, left, right, inside its glass enclosure. “He’s pretending he’s a branch in the wind,” notes Richard Allen, owner of Reptile Rapture on Monona Drive. “He thinks he’s out in the wild and moves to mimic a branch so a predator doesn’t see him.” If he makes his way into foliage at the top of the cage, he’ll turn completely green.

Reptile Rapture is a fascinating place to learn about the virtues of the fur-less world. Mr. Chameleon is just one of hundreds of fascinating live reptiles on display, including dozens of varieties of frogs, lizards, turtles, and Allen’s personal favorite, snakes. Spiders, not one of his personal favorites, are sold in the store’s Creepy Zone.

An Ambilobe panther chameleon drinks water from humidity in its glass enclosure.

This is a different kind of pet store. In fact, Allen is somewhat critical of commercial pet stores that, in his opinion, often know very little about proper reptile care. ”If you’re going to do it, do it right,” he challenges. “I believe there should be no chain stores for pets. Only the owners can take care of them best.”

Reptiles have been Allen’s passion since childhood thanks to his mother’s allergies to furry animals. “I had some snakes that bred by accident, so I sold the babies and then started breeding more.” Years later, he’d remodel his home to include a reptile breeding facility in the basement.

And what’s more romantic than presenting a girlfriend with a snake at their first meeting? “I had a little black and white kingsnake,” Allen recalls. “I introduced it to my wife, Cheryl, when we first met and asked her if she minded that I had a snake. She was okay with it.” The couple has been together ever since.

They began traveling to weekend reptile shows around the country while holding full-time jobs. “I had no idea that there was such a demand for lizards and snakes,” Allen admits.

In December 2008, he and Cheryl took the full-time plunge into retail, funding Reptile Rapture with personal savings, purchasing used equipment to save money, and handling construction work themselves over the course of several months. “I didn’t want to get a loan,” Allen says. Within six months of opening on Bridge Road, the store had to expand.

Last year, with rumors circulating about new development plans along Monona’s Yahara riverfront, the store relocated to Monona Drive.

All creatures great and small

When we arrive, it’s feeding time. Snakes were fed the night before, but everything else gets to eat breakfast. Cheryl moves from enclosure to enclosure checking on each animal and filling water dishes. “We make sure they have their nutrients and supplements,” she says. “Those that need calcium get a calcium powder and a multivitamin, as well.” Who knew that reptiles needed vitamin supplements?

Richard Allen inserts a probe into a larger snake to determine its sex.

The store has a variety of amphibians, including frogs in all colors and sizes. One enclosure includes 16 different thumbnail frogs, or poison dart frogs, displaying a rainbow of iridescent colors. “They’re not poisonous in captivity,” Allen notes. “They become poisonous in the wild because of the bugs they eat.”

Nothing for sale in this store is poisonous, but everything is fascinating. Who knew, for example, that frogs drink from their rear ends?. “They’ll sit on the edge of a bowl with their backside in the water and they’re actually drinking,” Cheryl shares. They absorb water through their skin, as well, which is why they shouldn’t be handled too much. Oils on human hands can sometimes cause harm.

“Tortoises are really funny, too,” Allen remarks. “We let them roam around at night for exercise. They’ll follow you around and love to sit on your feet.”

Of the shop’s most popular and social creatures, the bearded dragons are considered the puppy dog of the reptile world, while the crested gecko and the ball python are also favorites.

Chili, an Argentine red tegu, is part of the monitor lizard family. About a foot long, he’s just a baby. “These guys are like having a dog,” Allen smiles. A store employee then shares a video of her 3-foot-long tegu in her living room playing with a purple slipper much like a dog would shake a toy. It’s even potty trained to go in the bathroom, the employee notes.

“For people with allergies, reptiles can be the best pets,” Allen insists, “but they crave attention.” Many species require particular care, from feeding regimens to the size of their enclosures, to the temperature inside, to water misting. Store staff screens new customers to make sure they know what to expect and offer care sheets to ensure a good start. Some wannabe reptile owners have been turned away.

Top, six large ball python eggs await hatching. Bottom, “Emoji,” a pied ball python, sports an emoji face on its skin.

Allen has loaned reptiles to the Vilas and Indianapolis Zoos, and for a fee, Reptile Rapture will accept rescue pets. He’s been known to spend hundreds on vet bills to care for a rescued animal — such as amputating a bearded dragon’s broken leg or having a mass removed from the gut of a Nile monitor. “We do it because we care about them,” he says.

“Reptiles are just different,” Allen continues. “They’re easy to care for and great for people with allergies or for people who don’t have time to take a dog out.”

His personal favorites are the monitors and the snakes. Monitors because of their intelligence and snakes because through breeding, he can create color variations, or morphs, the market craves and pays for.

“Emoji,” for example, is a pied ball python that Allen morphed to display an emoji face on its skin. “As soon as I put Emoji on Instagram and Facebook, everybody wanted it,” he says. For the moment, Emoji is not for sale.

In the store’s breeding room, hundreds of snakes reside inside drawers arranged on racks, like snake condos. Snakes do well inside the drawers because in the wild, many live underground and venture out only to feed, Allen explains.

But these animals are not being plucked from the wild. They are being bred and raised in captivity, and there is a multimillion-dollar industry supporting them. While one pair of snakes in the store is priced at $4,000 because of the potential to produce dozens of expensive offspring, most other creatures are moderately priced from $25 and up. Some cost less.

Reptile Rapture ships animals to customers overnight through a license agreement with FedEx. To lessen the chances of getting sick, the animals are not fed for a full day in advance of shipping. Heat or cold packs are added, if necessary. The store does not ship animals internationally, but it does have an international online following for its dry goods, including enclosure dishes and plants.

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The birds and the bees

Breeding snakes or lizards, of course, requires knowing which is male and which is female. While the gender of lizards is determined by ultrasound, there are two ways to determine the sex of a snake.

To demonstrate, Allen holds the tail area of a young ball python and gently applies pressure to the cloaca, or vent opening, on its underside. Instantly, two red hemipenes jut out from the skin like fangs. “This is a male,” he says. “Females don’t have hemipenes.”

In the breeding room, Richard Allen removes a black-headed python from its drawer. The snake’s 10-foot-long father resides in a glass enclosure nearby. Right, a Hog Island boa constrictor is prepared for overnight shipping.

A second sexing method is used on older and larger snakes, such as Wilson, a 3-foot-long pied ball python. Holding Wilson’s tail, Allen inserts a lubed probe into the cloaca. The probe travels further in a male than a female. It takes just a couple of seconds.

Wilson is a he, Allen announces.

In another room, six ball python eggs wait to hatch in a plastic tub. The eggs are surprisingly large — larger than chicken eggs — and softer. The leathery “shell” springs back when pressed. Pythons lay eggs, Allen informs, while boa constrictors produce live births.

Another plastic tub holds four-day-old ball python hatchlings curled into balls — hence their name. Each is about a foot long and an inch thick, and within five days they will shed their skin to display their true coloring.

Allen is well known in the reptile circuit and takes his role as an educator and caretaker very seriously. His ultimate goal is to one day open a larger facility with a conference room and educational center where he can share his enthusiasm and knowledge about reptiles and amphibians with the public.

Snakes, in particular, get a bad rap, he says. “The majority of snakes don’t get very big and won’t strangle you [which always seems to be a fear]. Getting bit by a cat or dog can be a lot more dangerous.”

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