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Zoo Med: California Born and Bred

Through hard work, vision and innovation, Gary Bagnall has taken Zoo Med from one product and a Southern California garage to a global brand respected the world over by reptile aficionados.


Gary Bagnall, founder of Zoo Med Laboratories Inc., with a blue iguana, developed a passion for reptiles while in his teens.

Early on, Gary Bagnall was sure of two things: he enjoyed being around animals, especially reptiles, and he wanted to make them his life’s work.

In 1977, Bagnall started a reptile import business called In Cold Blood from a garage while still in his teens. Eventually, he moved into a larger facility and renamed it California Zoological Supply Inc., which is still in business, said Shane Bagnall, who works in Zoo Med Laboratories’ research and development division and is Gary’s nephew.

After a few years in the live animal business, Gary transitioned into reptile care products, and the first product he sold was ReptiVite, a vitamin, mineral and amino acid complex formulated for reptiles.

“ReptiVite was developed by a zookeeper (Zoo), it was a medical vitamin created to combat calcium deficiencies (Med) and it was all done in a lab (Labs). Put it together and the rest is history,” Shane said.

The company still makes and sells ReptiVite.

Gary’s genius was marketing it to the small but growing reptile hobbyist community.

In 1991, he moved Zoo Med from Southern California to San Luis Obispo, Calif., where the company now manufactures and distributes nearly 1,000 products out of five separate buildings in San Luis Obispo County as well as a warehouse in Belgium.

The company has more than 100 employees, covering manufacturing, shipping, research and development, sales, marketing, finance, customer service and animal care.

Half of its products are made in the U.S., and the Zoo Med brand is sold in every state and in more than 50 countries.

PPN: What are some ways Zoo Med has changed the reptile industry?

SB: Zoo Med’s crowning achievement is the development and production of the first UVB reptile lamp. This lamp, along with heat and a proper diet, allows reptilekeepers to maintain more delicate species in captivity, plus prevent or reverse metabolic bone disease in all species of lizards, turtles and tortoises.

Zoo Med’s UVB lamp line is the No. 1 choice with zoos, vets and professional reptile breeders. We estimate that our contribution to the development of UVB lighting for reptiles has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of pet reptiles.

PPN: Most in the pet industry go the way of dogs and cats. Why reptiles?

SB: Gary started working at a local pet shop at age 11 and became passionate with the more exotic fish and reptilian pets. He recognized a need for reptile breeding and importing, and as he got involved with that trade at age 19, the company naturally evolved into providing the necessities for keeping those reptiles safe and healthy, which is where we are today.

Some of Zoo Med’s earliest offerings included aquarium products, and Zoo Med’s first logo had a fish instead of an iguana. However, during Zoo Med’s early years, Gary recognized a tremendous need for reptile husbandry supplies for this small but growing segment of the industry. In a sea of dog, cat and aquarium companies, reptile husbandry products were virtually nonexistent, which allowed Zoo Med to grow rapidly in this category.

PPN: Zoo Med was the first to introduce UVB lighting and vitamins for reptiles. Why were these innovations so revolutionary to the reptile hobby?

SB: Prepared kibble diets were common for many pets, but balanced prepared diets didn’t exist for reptiles. Instead, many were given live insects and … fruits and vegetables. ReptiVite provided the vitamins, minerals and amino acids that were lacking in these insectivorous and herbivorous diets.

Just like people, reptiles need vitamin D. We can get it from our diet or by synthesizing it upon exposure to sunlight. When reptiles were moved indoors, they no longer had access to UVB from sunlight. Some species, like snakes, were able to use the vitamin D from their diet of whole vertebrate prey. Complete reptile diets didn’t exist, leaving herbivorous and insectivorous species without dietary vitamin D.

ReptiVite solved the vitamin D dilemma for the species that were able to utilize dietary vitamin D. Other species weren’t so lucky and were not able to adequately use dietary vitamin D. These species relied strictly on UVB to meet their vitamin D needs. Zoo Med teamed up with German engineers and American scientists to develop the world’s first UVB lamp for reptiles, making it possible to finally keep the vast majority of reptiles healthy indoors.

PPN: How does Gary’s love of chelonians come through at Zoo Med as well as outside the company?

Live animals are a fixture at Zoo Med corporate and provide inspiration for new products as well as hands-on experience for employees.

SB: We have more than 367 turtles representing more than 38 species. Gary is always up-to-date with how many turtles we have, our breeding projects, and is always finding new additions to our collection. You can often find Gary roaming the animal room and our Turtle Nirvana greenhouse on a daily basis, providing feedback to our animal caretakers. On the weekends, he’ll regularly come in to check his collection of animals and feed them treats.

Gary directly supports turtle conservation through financial contributions and donations of husbandry supplies. Zoo Med’s involvement with the Turtle Survival Alliance and Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group promotes conservation of both wild turtle populations and also through the establishment of assurance colonies—captive populations of threatened species to ensure their survival when wild populations are at risk.

PPN: What’s the importance of supporting the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK)?

SB: The reptile hobby is still in its infancy and is often misunderstood. Because of this, the reptile nation has been the focus of many proposed state and federal laws that aim to regulate the sale and possession of reptiles. Many of these laws are targeting individual rights to keep pets and are steeped in fear that comes from a lack of understanding or knowledge.

USARK was established to use education to combat these misguided regulations … that attempt to … compromise our individual freedoms to keep reptiles. Zoo Med is a major sponsor of USARK and has established a “dollar for dollar” matching program. This means that each dollar raised by USARK is matched by Zoo Med Labs, upward of $100,000 a year!

PPN: You don’t sell animals, so why breed them?

SB: Zoo Med is committed to conservation, and one way that we contribute is through captive breeding of assurance colonies of different species. It’s also important to surround ourselves with the hobby we promote. Many of us at Zoo Med are reptile hobbyists ourselves.

Having a wide collection of animals at the facility allows us the opportunity for a true hands-on experience and to really understand the needs of the animals we make products for, as well as the keepers that are keeping them. Breeding is part of the cycle of these amazing creatures, and it is important to be just as familiar with the process.

PPN: Is keeping reptiles almost a prerequisite to being hired at Zoo Med?

SB: Being passionate about animals and their care is the prerequisite, but having reptiles is definitely a plus! Many of our employees keep fish, reptiles or both; some employees breed the animals as well. We are truly a group of hobbyists.

PPN: How does Zoo Med retain its competitive edge?

SB: Zoo Med is fortunate to have become a household name in the reptile hobby. We work hard to promote the brand through sponsorship of reptile shows, advertising and by developing innovative products. We are grateful for the love and support our customers have shown us. We get calls and emails from first-time pet owners and seasoned hobbyists daily. Much of our growth is due to innovation and new product releases, even in the face of an economic recession.

Zoo Med employees gather for a Christmas photo outside of Zoo Med's corporate headquarters in San Luis Obispo, CA.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Pet Product News. 

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