Greenwood pet store stocked with exotic critters

April 5, 2013

A 3-foot-long American alligator scurried across the floor of Pandemonium Exotics.

Fleeing from the cold air as the door to the pet shop opened, the animal paused, allowing owner Brian Conlin to scoop it up. He placed the alligator back in its lengthy aquarium and watched with admiration as it paddled through the shallow water.

"It's the fantasy every little boy has to own a dragon or a dinosaur. Reptiles are the closest thing we can get," he told the Daily Journal.

For lovers of exotic animals, Conlin and co-owner Mandie Flescher have the connections to find the wild and weird. From tarantulas to emperor scorpions and monitor lizards, their shop, Pandemonium Exotics, caters to enthusiasts looking for pets beyond a dog or cat.

They've filled the Greenwood store with as many unusual species as they can find. As the only exotic-specific store in the Johnson County, the couple hope to fill a niche for other people with similar interests who would prefer to buy their pets in person, not on the Internet.

"It can be very rewarding. You go buy a dog, it can last you seven or 10 years. If you get one that's really old, it might live to be 15 years," Conlin said. "These guys, you're looking at pets that live 25, 30 years. Some of the tortoises you'd have to will to your children."

Along the store's back wall, Conlin's handmade display case shows off a variety of slithering, slinking and striking creatures.

Blood pythons curled in tight balls under heat lamps. A red foot tortoise stoically watched from the center of its case. Black-tip spitting thick tail scorpions, the third-most venomous scorpion in the world, hidden in small containers.

Conlin pulled an Amazon tree boa out of its case, carefully handling the uncoiling snake and draping it over his neck.

"He's one of our oddities. They're usually very, very defensive, but this is one of the easiest snakes to handle that you'll find," Conlin said. "That's totally out of character for this species."

An exotic pet store had been a dream of Conlin and Flescher for years. While they have no formal training with exotic pets, they've been dealing with the animals for a lifetime.

They both have kept snakes, reptiles and arachnids throughout their lives. Flescher's first pet was a tarantula that she caught in her backyard in Arizona.

They had attended pet shows and nationwide expos dedicated to exotic pets. But there was nowhere locally that they could get the more unique animals they wanted.

A growing market exists for exotic pets. More than 3 million people reported owning snakes, lizards, alligators or other reptiles in 2012, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medicine Association. That was up from about 2.5 million people in 2007.

Since opening in mid-February, people have placed special orders with Pandemonium Exotics for animals such as pink-bellied sideneck turtles, Arizona mountain king snakes and albino Burmese pythons.

Opening an exotic pet store required Conlin and Flescher to apply for a permit from the state, but otherwise didn't need any special licensing. They used their distributors and contacts as hobbyists to start with a small stock of animals.

Besides the reptiles and insects, Pandemonium Exotics also features a cage of tropical birds. Cages of hedgehogs and rabbits comprise the cuter and relatively more cuddly animals in the store.

Conlin orders his animals from distributors in Indiana and also from out of state. For really rare ones, he circulates through local hobbyists to find the right contacts.

They also wanted to provide education on exotic pets. The state of Indiana requires permits for all crocodilians — the group that includes alligators, caimans and crocodiles — longer than five feet.

But just because someone can buy an alligator doesn't mean that a person should, Conlin said.

The animals can reach 9 feet in captivity and require a bedroom, basement or garage converted for a habitat. Otherwise, the reptile would need a separate building outside that is heated, Flescher said.

Creating the required habitat can average about $10,000, then up to $40 a week to feed the animal. Heating bills and other costs can add up.

Plus, while interesting, alligators are still wild animals that can do harm.

"There's no taming them. They can be calm and docile, but it's an alligator," Flescher said. "They're a pet for very specific people. People walk in and say, 'That's really cute.' Well, it's not going to be cute and little forever."

Conlin and Flescher ultimately want to avoid people abandoning the animals. So customers are thoroughly vetted to make sure they're ready. They're questioned about the proposed living space and shown estimates of the cost.

"If we don't think you'll hold on to the animal, we'll try to get you to buy something else," Flescher said.

Their own American alligator was rescued from a previous owner. The animal had been underfed, wasn't exercised properly and abused. Conlin and Flescher bought the reptile and have been working to restore its health.

"There are a lot of people out there looking at these with no idea how to care for one, what to do with one and what the commitment is," Conlin said.


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