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OK Press: Cold comfort

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Posted by: W von Papineäu at Fri Dec 1 19:56:31 2006  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papineäu ]  

THE OKLAHOMAN (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) 28 November 06 Cold comfort - When reptilian pets grow too big to handle, an Oklahoman finds room (David Zizzo)
Johnny Abbott has heard it all.
There was the guy who had to give up his boa constrictor because he joined a charismatic church. Another person said her husband was threatening to kill her iguana after the lizard pounced on the spouse's cat.
They come to Abbott because they know the Oklahoma City man can help them. Abbott, a former golf pro turned real estate agent, finds new homes for reptiles — from turtles to snakes to the occasional iguana.
"Once they get big, nobody wants them," he said of the lizards.
While some people can't stand anything that wriggles, many others are fascinated with little, slitherly, creeping cold-blooded critters. Emphasis on "little." Problem is — with at least a couple of such exotic reptiles — little buggers become big ones.
"Suddenly, they're looking at your cat," Abbott said.
That pencil-thin Burmese python you bought through the mail or online can grow 25 feet or longer, as big around as a soccer ball and weigh several hundred pounds. At that size, with sharp teeth for grabbing and powerful muscles for crushing, they're nothing to mess with. Drug dealers have been known to keep them around to scare people away. Just feeding a specimen of that size can make some people uncomfortable.
"It's one thing to throw a mouse in there," Abbott said. "It's another thing to throw a rabbit in there."
And that 12-inch iguana you got at a pet store or swap meet can essentially become a 6-foot-long dragon with 100 teeth. Experienced handlers are wary of iguanas that size, especially males.
"They get an attitude sometimes," Abbott said. "They get very territorial."
Abbott was first charmed by snakes when he was growing up in Colorado, where his father worked as a golf pro. At 14, while playing golf at a course in the foothills one day, the boy noticed a groundskeeper had stopped his mower. "You want to see a snake?" the man asked Abbott.
The worker reached down and plucked a hissing, striking bull snake from the rough.
"I thought that was pretty remarkable," Abbott recalled, although it "scared the stuffing out of me."
The man, who obviously knew his serpents, got the boy to touch the snake, even hold it.
"Once I'd done that, I was hooked," Abbott said.
Abbott became fascinated with reptiles, although he never kept any for a very long. Later, while working as a golf pro himself in New Jersey, Abbot and his wife, Lynn, decided to get a pet. Goldfish, she suggested.
"I came home with a little snake," Abbott said.
He bartered popular turquoise jewelry for more snakes. But when the couple's three daughters came along, Abbott gave his snakes away.
Years later, a man who had taken Abbot's boa constrictor decided he could no longer keep it. When Abbott's daughters saw the snake, they said, "Dad, you've got to bring it to school."
Word got around, and so did Abbott and his snakes. "Next thing I know, I was doing every class," he said. Two decades later, Abbott's still at it, giving presentations about reptiles. And finding homes for the unwanted.
Although most reptiles kept as pets — including turtles, geckos and other lizards, and many snakes — remain small and docile, some of them can bite, Abbott said. A few reptile fans even keep venomous snakes.
These days, some of the most popular snakes are "morphs." They're bred for dazzling patterns — including calico, striped and "shatter" — and colors — including white, lavender and orange. Many are worth thousands of dollars, and some have sold for $20,000 or more.
The kind Abbott rescues are usually common ones people don't want to keep, or can't. Like the iguana that hurt the cat. The owner didn't want to give it up, Abbott said.
"The wife had had the iguana since it was a baby," he said. "She cried."
When Abbott, who keeps mostly corn, king and milk snakes, needs a home for a reptile, he checks with fellow herpetological society members. For tough placements, he calls Jim Burns. The Broken Arrow home builder has 150 snakes, seven iguanas, rare turtles and other creatures including five cocker spaniels on his acreage.
"I've got all kinds of weird animals," he said. "They're my playthings."
When he was 17, Burns' parents gave him a choice between his home and his snakes. He moved out.
Burns has an 800-square-foot building to house his collection through the winter. In warmer times, he keeps his menagerie in a 40-by-60-foot outdoor enclosure.
"Truthfully, my habit's kind of gotten out of control," he said. "My wife's real unhappy with me."
Cold comfort


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