Reptiles, rats beat out ho-hum cats, dogs at exotic pet shop
TNS Regional News
Jul 28, 2015 at 4:07 PM
Pet store owner Joe Averso has found a niche in downtown Lodi that he believes will set him apart from the big-box pet store competition.
His shop, NJ Exotic Pets, sells creatures you might see on the Discovery Channel, but not necessarily at Petco or PetSmart, the industry’s 800-pound gorillas.
Not all animal lovers want cats, dogs or fish. So Averso has made his 1,200-square-foot shop on Union Street the go-to place for North Jerseyans who want the pricier writhing reptiles, gliding marsupials or hairless rats to be a part of their lives.
“You’ll never find a coatimundi in a Petco,” said Averso, who had three of the long-snouted South American cousins to the raccoon in his shop one day recently, acquired from a Florida breeder and priced at $2,000 each. Petco did not respond to a request for comment.
The largest pet store chain, PetSmart Inc., sells hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, fish, birds and reptiles, but its main business is selling pet food, supplies and grooming services for dogs and cats.
U.S. pet-related spending will top $60 billion this year, up from about $48 billion in 2010, according to the American Pet Products Association. Americans, who own about 54 mil
lion dogs and 43 million cats, also own about 9.3 million reptiles and 12.4 million other small animals, the trade group said.
Averso, 44, who has been in the retail pet business for 15 years, opened NJ Exotic Pets a little more than a year ago. In recent years, he’s noticed that customers, especially younger ones, are more interested in reptiles and other exotic pets, and they are willing to pay higher prices for the more exotic creatures.
His top sellers are so-called pocket pets — sugar gliders and hedgehogs, small enough to fit in a pocket.
Sugar gliders, named for their love of sweet nectars and an ability to glide like flying squirrels, are 5-inch-long marsupials from the South Pacific. Averso recommends that customers buy two — at $400 a pair — because of their need for social contact. African pygmy hedgehogs, priced at $350 each, are spiny mammals. Like sugar gliders, they can be held in the palm of one hand.
Averso also has what he described as a “super rare” striped possum, a larger South Pacific marsupial, about the size of a gray squirrel with black and white stripes, priced at $2,500. These he also he gets from his Florida breeder.
Averso, who declined to disclose sales figures, said he expects “a modest profit” this year.
Earlier this year, he received a hard-to-get license from the state Division of Fish and Wildlife to sell captive-bred skunks, a native North American species. “We’ve already sold 35 of them,” he said. The price ranges from $650 to $950, depending on color and markings.
It is illegal to keep a skunk in New Jersey unless it is acquired from a licensed dealer, and Averso is the only dealer in the state authorized to sell them, said Susan Predl, chief biologist at the Division of Fish and Wildlife. As such, he can issue a temporary permit to skunk buyers, who must then pay $12 a year for a captive-game permit.
NJ Exotic Pets works closely with veterinarian Christopher Stancel of the Dog, Cat & Bird Clinic of Nutley, N.J., an exotic-pets specialist, who de-scents and neuters the baby skunks before they are sold, Averso said.
“Is there high demand for pet skunks? No,” said Joe Ricciuti, owner of 88 Pet World in Brick, N.J., who stopped selling them a number of years ago. “Are there people out there who want them? Yes,” Ricciuti said.
And because they do, store manager Megan Zayatz, 29, has the unenviable task of cleaning the skunk cages.
“People think it’s a cool job because you get to play with animals,” said Zayatz, who started working in pet stores at age 16. “But you don’t have time to play with them, and you touch poop with your hands.”
On a recent Monday morning Zayatz was cleaning a skunk cage, and at the same time was on the phone advising a customer to add some blended banana to the milk the customer was trying to feed to a young coatimundi. Zayatz continued the conversation while signing off on a delivery of live crickets and wax worms.
‘FALLING IN LOVE’
Customer Chelsee Firestone, 18, said she and her friend drove to the store from Pompton Lakes, N.J., just to admire the snakes.
“I first came here looking for ferrets and ended up falling in love with reptiles,” said Firestone, gazing at the leucistic rat snake coiled around her wrist and forearm. When asked if she owned any reptiles, she produced a pencil-thin corn snake from a pocket in her skirt. It eats “frozen pinkies” — hairless, newborn mice.
“This store is fantastic,” said Vicki Stout of Roseland, N.J., who brought her teenage son Matthew to pick up Peaches, his Brazilian short-tailed possum, after boarding it at the shop while away on vacation. Boarding of reptiles and small animals is a “very small” part of the business, Averso said, and is offered as a convenience.
Customer Hevin Shepstone of Lodi is one lizard-owning customer who admits having a mild case of buyer’s remorse. The bearded dragon she bought in October for her 10-year-old son has cost her about $500, all told, since then, after adding the cage, lighting, food and other supplies for the lizard, known also as a pogona.
“And you get to hold these things in your hand,” she said, displaying what would be her latest purchase, a bag of dragon food containing live crickets, which are noisy at night.
By Richard Newman - The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)
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