The Little Reptile Store That Could
In an era when selling live animals doesn’t often pay and creates extra headaches, Reptile Finders discovers a way to keep the best scaly critters in front of its customers.
Chuck Dundov, owner of Reptile Finders in Lomita, Calif., offers an increasingly rare commodity: an independent pet store that leads with live animals, with products and reptile-themed birthdays as adjuncts.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “As Friendly as the Family Pet,” the writer discusses how small independent pet stores are thriving.
Contrast this with Barry for Pets, a small independent pet store and a fixture for more than 60 years in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco, which closed its doors in April. The owners, who spoke to a reporter with The New Fillmore, an online and print news platform covering the Fillmore District, cited competition from big chains as one reason for their decision to shutter their business.
The story for many small pet stores, especially those that sell puppies, kittens, rabbits, reptiles, fish and birds, is anything but rosy, as many increasingly are being called out by animal welfare groups that take offense at them for selling any animal not from a rescue.
Neither of the two Los Angeles-area independent pet stores mentioned in the L.A. Times piece sell live animals.
Indeed, live animal pet stores are under assault as more than 60 municipalities have instituted puppy bans to date, said Steve Aaron, a public relations strategist with Allen and Gerritsen, a Philadelphia public relations firm working with the Pet Leadership Council, a new group of pet industry representatives overseen by the American Pet Products Association in Greenwich, Conn.
Reptile stores like Dundov’s aren’t immune either, as big snake bans take root in burg after burg, and many reptiles and amphibians are subject to endangered species or invasive species laws.
“The homeless-dog idea—it’s certainly great to adopt—is not going to meet the demand,” said Edwin J. Sayres, president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in Washington, D.C.
The animal-welfare lobby and other regulatory actions regarding pets are just a couple of the challenges facing small live-animal pet shops—something Dundov knows all too well.
A Different Kind of Pet Store
Dundov’s interest in reptiles began when he was very young, and his passion grew from there as he kept more and more of them as pets.
Chuck Dundov opened Reptile Finders in Lomita, Calif., when he was 17.
Early on, Dundov knew that he wanted to own his own reptile store someday.
He frequented local Southern California reptile shops as a kid, but he wasn’t always treated very well because he didn’t know a lot about the animals, how to care for them and what they ate.
“I was 8 years old, and I was getting put down,” Dundov said.
Later, he decided that if he ever owned his own reptile store, he’d treat his customers differently.
At 17, Dundov borrowed $5,000 from his parents and purchased a reptile store in Lomita, Calif.
By the time Dundov came along, the dilapidated store was on its third owner, animals were suffering—and even dying—from lack of care, and the plug had been pulled on the electricity.
“We took it from there,” Dundov said. “I was trying to finish high school and run a store and fire 35-year-old guys, but I paid back the $5,000 in a month; I’ve been here ever since.”
Fast-forward 12 years, and Dundov still owns the store, which he named Reptile Finders.
The store has a hip, graffiti-style paint job on the outside and lots of live animals inside, including an 18-foot reticulated python, and everyone is welcome, from looky loos—which Dundov admits he gets a lot of—to regulars.
The store’s previous owners or owner groups lasted, on average, three to five years, Dundov said.
Remembering the 8-year-old kid within, Dundov said the way he treats his customers is a big reason why he’s still at it after 12 years.
“I’ve gone to other reptile shops as a customer just to see how they operate,” he said, “and I’ve been let down; it just keeps me going as to the way I approach my customers.”
Reptile Finders’ clientele is made up of about 70 percent regulars and 30 percent new customers.
“It just comes naturally to me—I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable in here,” he said.
The nearest direct competitor is the Petco in Torrance, Calif., but Dundov said his superior customer service and his product (more quality live animals that he hand picks) set him apart.
“What you’re getting here is a handshake and a hello, and you almost feel like family,” he said.
Live Animal Dilemma
Dundov is especially proud of his reputation for offering the healthiest live animals around, so much so that competitors often send him referrals, he said.
Dundov goes in person to his wholesaler and selects only the best, healthiest captive-bred animals for his store. Wild-caught animals are less expensive but riskier due to a greater potential for huge parasite loads that can kill them.
“There are not a lot of owners who … wake up early like I did today and go and handpick the animals—if I wouldn’t buy it for myself, I won’t buy it [for the store],” he said.
Among adjacent strip malls, Reptile Finders sticks out because of its unique exterior as well as the live animals within.
“It’s like a mini zoo for a lot of kids,” he said.
But live animals also are one of Dundov’s biggest challenges.
“He does all of the legwork trying to find the healthiest animals and work with breeders as opposed to buying things that are wild caught, so they’re more expensive to purchase,” said Dundov’s mother, Boska, who helps around the store.
The expense doesn’t stop there; their upkeep is costly, too, said Boska.
“There are some animals in here that we have to use bottled water for because Lomita water is known to be bad, the electricity runs really high, and the animals have to be fed on a daily basis,” she noted.
Caught In the Web
As it is, some customers will come in and pump Dundov for information and then go and buy an animal or other products via the Internet for less.
Due to the impersonal nature of the Internet as well as buying sight unseen, many people come back to Reptile Finders for yet more information on how to care for their new scaly pet.
“We have to pick up what information they were not given,” Dundov said. “You want to say, ‘Call the person you bought it from and ask them what’s wrong with it.’”
Of course, he doesn’t do that.
“We swallow our pride, and we help them,” he said.
Dundov’s own website, reptilefinders.biz, is mainly about the store and lists animals and prices, location, hours and other services such as reptile-themed birthday parties. If someone sees an animal on the website they want, they need to come to the store to buy it.
While he could probably sell more animals for less through a website, Dundov feels he’d lose himself if he started selling animals over the Internet.
“It’s not me,” he said. “Ordering things online … we’ve really never done that because I like the feeling of seeing people; I like people walking into a physical store.”
“I don’t want to be sending stuff here, stuff there and you haven’t seen the animal and you really don’t know if you like it or not, if you can handle it or not,” he added. “I don’t know if I’m selling it to a 12-year-old kid who’s using his mom’s credit card.”
It’s not just the first-time reptile owner who Dundov feels might need an education. A lot of PETA-types, as Dundov calls them, harangue him about his live feeder mice—another aspect of his business that he is proud of and that distinguishes him.
“We’re known to have the best … feeders they can’t find elsewhere. Petco doesn’t want to sell live feeder mice,” he said.
Movement often triggers the feeding response in reptiles, hence their preference for live foods.
Of course, try explaining this to someone praying in front of an animal enclosure (an example Dundov gave of one of the more fanatical visitors to his shop).
“We get people who don’t understand that the animals need a natural environment, so when they go to talk to some type of agency and try to shut people down, they aren’t really educated themselves, and neither are those agencies,” he said.
Drive to Succeed
The past 12 years have not been easy. Dundov makes enough to pay his bills, put gas in his vehicle, buy groceries and so on.
The most difficult thing for him is not being able to take a break in the past decade.
“Even customers tell me to take a break and close for a week or two,” he said, “but I can’t because where are they going to get their animals from? Where are they going to get their feeders from?”
With that kind of genuine concern for his customers—all bets are on Dundov and Reptile Finders being around for at least another 12 years.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Pet Product News.