In getting up to speed on all of the issues around responsible reptile ownership, I am lucky to have as my teachers leading reptile specialists right here in the PIJAC family. (I am struck again and again by PIJAC’s vast collective body of knowledge across all pet categories.) When it comes to reptiles, one such authority is John Mack, founder and CEO of Reptiles by Mack and one of the world’s leading experts on breeding and keeping reptiles.
To see the reptile industry’s best practices in action, I traveled to visit John in Xenia, a small city in southwestern Ohio about 20 miles southeast of Dayton. The company operates out of two facilities there, with 50 employees keeping things running smoothly. Its headquarters is housed in a modern facility converted from a historic building that in the 1800’s was used as the city’s first hotel and was later home to the Xenia Daily Gazette. The original hotel footprint remains, with one of the former guest rooms now serving as John’s office.
John has always been fascinated with reptiles. He began catching and releasing garter snakes and turtles outside when he was just seven years old. (John’s interest in reptiles made him something of a black sheep in a family with a tradition of horses, dogs and cats.) As he grew up, he became an increasingly devoted, knowledgeable reptile enthusiast. In junior high and high school, as reptiles were just starting to be bred in captivity, John became involved with both the Dayton and Cincinnati Herpetological Societies, where his education included participating in field trips, meeting private breeders and trading animals with other hobbyists.
By 1985, John had made the transition from keeping and breeding reptiles as a hobby to making it a family business. Since then, Reptiles by Mack has expanded from a husband and wife team running the business out of their basement to a full-scale global operation. Having started the business breeding Corn Snakes and King Snakes, today the company’s breeding programs include Bearded Dragons, Leopard Geckos, Milk Snakes, Crested Geckos, Ball Pythons, Boas and many other species. In addition to these captive-bred species, it supplies a wide variety of imported reptiles.
John’s lifetime of experience is evident in every aspect of the operation: the company’s carefully trained staff, high care standards, the quality and health of its animals, its state-of-the-art systems and equipment and intense focus on customer service. Throughout the company’s buildings, light- and temperature-controlled rooms dedicated to accommodating the needs of different species are filled with habitats, cages and tray after tray cradling thousands of eggs, all designed to ensure meticulous care and proper maintenance and cleaning all the way from egg through delivery to customers.
John and his team emphasize keeping happy, healthy animals to produce the best offspring. All offspring are kept and raised in-house long enough after hatching to gain weight, strength and size to ensure the safety and quality of each reptile. Likewise, all imported animals are healthy and well acclimated before they are shipped to customers. Leaving nothing to chance when it comes to humane treatment of animals and business operations, Reptiles by Mack has distinguished itself in the industry for getting its animals to customers safely and on time. Even after delivery, the company remains a resource for advice on proper pet care as needed.
What I have learned is that, in my focus on reptiles as pets, I am in good company. The community of people interested in reptiles is huge – and increasingly mainstream – as more and more people discover their appeal as pets. Hard-pressed to describe a typical reptile owner these days, John cautions that it would be a mistake to generalize. His customers come from all walks of life and all generations, including at least one neurosurgeon and everything from stockbrokers to students to soccer moms. Both genders are well represented, too, as John sees increasing interest in reptiles on the part of women and girls.
Reptiles also make great starter pets for kids. Just as it did for John, having a reptile as a pet helps children develop empathy and respect for all creatures. Because the daily demands of caring for a reptile – making sure that it is fed and watered, feels safe and has a habitat with adequate hiding places and the right temperature – are generally less than what is required with, say, a dog or cat, the responsibility is manageable for most kids. The entire family can enjoy the benefits of pet ownership together. (It is important to note, however, as John pointed out to me, that the CDC advises against keeping reptiles for children under age 5.)
As the pet industry overall continues to boom, reptiles are gaining in popularity. And it is no wonder to me, having now seen for myself the many captivating species that can be kept as pets and the wide range of what is available in terms of variety, size and color. The choices available to prospective pet owners, along with personality and convenience, are perks that make reptiles an excellent choice of pet for many people.
President and CEO of PIJAC
Former CEO of the ASPCA