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CA Press: Animals await safe haven

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Tue May 2 20:26:06 2006  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

PRESS-ENTERPRISE (Riverside, California) 02 May 06 Reptiles Are Us - Animals taken by state await safe haven (Dan Lee)
Robert Leiterman
Owner, Prehistoric Times Reptiles & Fish
AGE: 43
RESIDENCE: Moreno Valley
JOB: Business takes in reptiles confiscated by state Department of Fish & Game
HOBBY: Also restores classic cars
INTERESTING FACT: Formerly bred snakes
Walk into Robert Leiterman's shop in Alessandro Plaza, and you'll see a menagerie: goldfish, rats, rabbits, lizards and turtles, even his pet parrot.
Did we mention he also has the occasional alligator?
For the past two years, Leiterman has taken in reptiles that were confiscated by state Fish and Game officers from owners who illegally kept or sold the animals. They stay in Leiterman's reptile shop, free of charge, until Fish and Game finds a place to release them or puts them in an animal preserve.
"It brings people in," Leiterman said. "To the public, a lot of it is unusual. For me, it's pretty normal."
One of the glass cage signs reads "Feed me for 50 cents," offering customers the chance to see their favorite reptile devour a mouse or some other food offering. The cages holding the confiscated reptiles also say "Not For Sale."
Owning certain kinds of reptiles can be illegal in California, because they pose threats to native wildlife, public health and agriculture. They also require a certain amount of expertise to care for, and the State Department of Fish & Game regulates this area by selectively issuing permits.
Robert Leiterman stands with his 10-foot model dinosaur that he displays in front of Prehistoric Times Reptiles & Fish, which he started about 12 years ago.
State Department of Fish & Game spokesman Pat Foy said his agency has confiscated everything from venomous cobras to 10-feet-long alligators. Sometimes, the owners don't have the necessary permit to keep the animals, while, in other cases, the reptiles pose a safety hazard, he said.
Recently, the agency confiscated four alligators from a Central Valley farm, Foy said.
"(The owner) wanted the alligators to dispose of dead chickens," he recalled by phone. "He had a chicken farm."
Unfortunately, the alligators were too young and couldn't handle eating a whole chicken, he said. Two other gators died, probably because they couldn't handle the chill of California's winter, Foy said.
On this particular day, Leiterman is housing about 20 alligator snapping turtles, two Gila monsters and a small American alligator. The snapping turtles can grow to weigh 200 pounds and bite limbs off, while the Gila monsters are poisonous, he said.
Most of the people who had them knew it was illegal to own them, Leiterman said.
"They just don't care," he said.
Lest anyone get an idea about stealing the beasties, Leiterman said his shop has an alarm system, and it is a crime to steal wildlife.
Leiterman's fascination with reptiles dates back at least 15 years . He and his friends would wander up into the Badlands east of the city during the springtime and watch the lizards and snakes that sunned themselves on the rocks.
Gradually, that fascination grew into full-time business. Leiterman started his shop, Prehistoric Times Reptiles & Fish, about a dozen years ago. The shop sells legal reptiles, such as Ball pythons, and other non-poisonous snakes and lizards.
Reptiles are easier to take care of than more conventional pets such as cats and dogs, he said.
"A lot of kids are allergic to dogs and cats, so they come for the reptiles," Leiterman said.
But Leiterman said his biggest-selling items are crickets and mice -- the reptiles' food. He estimates that he sells about 400,000 crickets and 1,000 mice per month.
The business does have its hazards: Leiterman is looking for a new cash register after a mouse got loose and chewed the wiring to the older register. He had to get nine stitches in a finger after a lizard he was holding decided to take a bite out of him.
"I lost so much blood I almost fainted," he said.
The reptile-keeping business also has had its ups and downs. Business declined after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when imports declined, and is only starting to pick up again.
Leiterman also used to breed king, corn and milk snakes for a while, ultimately collecting 600. To feed the snakes, he also had to breed mice.
But he doesn't keep any reptiles at home anymore. The business has become a lot more competitive with more breeders increasing the supply and lowering prices, he said.
And after a whole day cleaning and feeding reptiles at work, why would he want to come home and do it all over again?
"After a while, it becomes more of a job than a hobby," Leiterman said of running his shop. Still, his fascination and wonder with reptiles shines through whenever he's around them.
"Aren't these the coolest-looking guys?" Leiterman asked, holding up a tiny gator. "That's a baby. Imagine these at 21 feet."
Animals taken by state await safe haven


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