Herp Hobby Poised for Growth
While the category is strong and new hobbyists are buying reptiles, challenges with livestock supply and legislative changes loom on the horizon.
Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education director for Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager for Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass.
Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md.
Aaron Ingalls, owner of DNA Slithers & Critters in Englewood, Colo.
Pet Product News: What’s the overall health of the herp category? Are you seeing growth in business and the hobby?
Ashley Rademacher: The herp category is growing strong. Reptiles, amphibians and even invertebrates are becoming more mainstream and accepted as household pets. People are finding out just how personable and enjoyable they can be and are enjoying the unique benefits they offer—being hypoallergenic, living in beautiful habitats and demonstrating fascinating behaviors. Invertebrates are quickly increasing in popularity.
Steve Sotelo: As a category, the growth pattern has been pretty steady for the last three or four years. The overall health of the industry is pretty solid. I think we’re going to continue to see a little bit of growth in this coming year and potentially the two years after.
Mike Hresko: It seems to be picking up a little bit in our area. We have big reptile shows monthly, with a very large one every three months. We still carry some reptiles. Years ago, we used to have a larger reptile room, but people are still getting into bearded dragons and species that are easier to take care of, that don’t get too big. The shows tend to help business. It works hand-in-hand. They probably are taking some sales from us, but we’re gaining back sales of food and supplies.
Aaron Ingalls: I would say it is growing. Every year, there are people out there breeding animals. When you look at that aspect, every year there are more reptiles to care for. Reptiles get the bad end of the stick sometimes, because people get detached. Due to that aspect, I’ve served as a rescue myself. I’ve seen all sorts of stuff. For the most part, our community has picked it up. All in all, everything is going well.
PPN: What’s trending in terms of food choices and feeding?
Rademacher: All-natural ingredients are proving important in herp foods, today. As we strive to provide the best care possible for our animals, pet keepers want to know that their foods are natural and providing the essential nutrients their animals need. Our nutritionist, with a master’s degree in comparative animal nutrition, works diligently to provide pet keepers with what they and their animals need and want.
Sotelo: There are a ton of them, but they’re all micro-trends. I can’t pinpoint one thing and say this is going to happen in the next two years. When you look at breeding, cricket sales are growing with the industry. As the industry grows at a steady clip, obviously your cricket sales are going to follow along because there are more people and more animals that are captive-bred. When we look at the trends in general, we look at things [like] trying to make it easier [and] trying to add a little more to the nutrition side of things.
Hresko: It’s changing a little bit. We’re trying to move people to some of the frozen diets—with snake diets, for example. Some of the animals don’t eat frozen foods, and for some people it’s a little more work. We’re seeing that a little bit more. Herp keepers are doing more research on what they need [for proper nutrition], with different vitamin supplements, calcium and stuff like that. Customers are a little more educated on all of that.
Ingalls: In the last decade or so, I honestly haven’t seen a lot of change. However, I have seen new product lines come out, such as Reptilinks, where they do prepackaged meat that’s blended with different ingredients.
We’re actually getting ready to launch our own food, as well. I plan on doing a carnivore diet for any animal that eats meat. I may do some variations as we build. It’s going to contain organs, bones and meat essentially. We are brick-and-mortar right now, but I’m trying to expand more online.
PPN: How are husbandry practices changing? What’s trending in equipment and supplies?
Sotelo: There’s not a back channel for large-scale breeders coming up in the foreseeable future. We have a handful of larger breeders who supply a good percentage of the captive-bred stock to the U.S. established now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a new crop coming in the next 10 years when people start to retire.
I see [equipment development] as a whole as a little stagnant. That is actually one of my biggest concerns with the category as a whole.
Hresko: There’s a trend toward smaller terrariums now. Customers are trying to keep smaller enclosures for appropriate species. It’s not trending, yet, but people are trying it, you could say. The smaller tanks are popular for tarantulas and scorpions, for example. In Europe, insects are pretty big. But a lot of insects you can’t get over here. It’s kind of a limited market, because it’s regulated and controlled.
Ingalls: People are getting into custom cages. I think it definitely is picking up. I’m seeing people buy aquariums and [customize] them for sale. As any industry grows, people are trying to look for that edge that nobody else is providing.
PPN: What legislative challenges are facing the industry? How has the industry stepped up to preempt issues with regulation, and what can industry participants do?
Rademacher: Today, it seems there is always the threat of legislation that aims to remove the rights of pet keepers. That is why Zoo Med is a huge supporter of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers. Our goal is to facilitate cooperation between government agencies, the scientific community and the private sector in order to produce policy proposals that will effectively address important husbandry and conservation issues. The health of these animals, public safety and maintaining ecological integrity are our primary concerns.
The new Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) Small Animal Care Standards are an essential part of protecting our rights as pet keepers. With rights comes responsibility, and in order to ensure that we are taking responsibility for the proper care of our animals, we must have standards. With their mission to promote responsible pet ownership and animal welfare, foster environmental stewardship and ensure the availability of pets, there is no one better to establish these standards than PIJAC.
Sotelo: Just like any other pet category, legislation’s always going to be creeping around the corner. It’s unfortunate, but we have to deal with that and compensate for the eventuality that something damaging to the industry does end up happening. We’ve got an even bigger problem in local legislation, which can start a downhill effect. And then we’re fighting one thousand different fronts instead of one front.
On the PIJAC [Small Animal Care Standards], it’s something that I have been asking for for 10 years. And that’s great. That’s not a bad thing that I’m saying I’ve been asking for this long, but I think it’s been a much-needed segment when you look at self-policing and self-regulating. I think that is the way to go as opposed to fighting an uphill battle.
As long as it’s done in a realistic and progressive manner, I think that what PIJAC is doing—and a small part of that is what the United States Association of Reptile Keepers is doing on the reptile side—is really towing the line. That’s really the way to go, instead of what we have right now, such as the large constrictor issue in the Everglades.