Boynton handles a Mexican Red-Knee tarantula which has a bite that is not very poisonous. Pictures: Gcina Ndwalane
Boynton handles a Mexican Red-Knee tarantula which has a bite that is not very poisonous. Pictures: Gcina Ndwalane
DURBAN: 110412
Pet shops

How much is that python in the window, the one with the slithering tail?

Exotic pets are in demand, according to Durban pet shop owners and it’s not just colourful birds and fish but creatures ranging from boa constrictors, Burmese pythons and blue tongued skinks, to tarantulas, hedgehogs, sugar gliders and chinchillas that are flying off the shelves.

And it’s not just little boys and girls who are fascinated by the little and large creatures.

A reptile expert and owner of Hillcrest pet shop Creatures and Critters, Richard Boynton, says mothers – who, at first, did not want to set foot in his pet shop – have been captivated by the beauty of the reptiles on display.

Not least are the boa constrictors, pythons, corn snakes and Huachuca and chihuahuan mountain king snakes, which range in price from R250 to R950.

“People want different pets today because they don’t have space for cats and dogs,” Boynton said.

“There is usually a lot of resistance at first and then the moms get most involved and end up buying the snakes and handling them,” Boynton said.

In the hope of protecting the many harmless grass snakes and African bush snakes that are often killed in the province because they are mistaken for mambas, he has two green mambas on display, for educational purposes.

But Boynton’s pride and joy is clearly “BB” which stands for “Baby’s Baby” a Burmese python, descended from a snake he had as a teenager.

“I had her great, great grandmother,” Boynton said with affection as he helped the 10-year-old, 5m-long “BB” from her glass enclosure.

“She is lovely natured,” Boynton said. “They are known to be the most gentle natured of snakes.”

“Reptiles are masters of energy conservation, they only move when they need to eat or breed or thermoregulate,” Boynton said.

Apart from snakes, reptiles like the blue-tongued skink from Australia can be picked up for R950. Boynton fondly describes them as “like little limousines with their short legs and long bodies and alien type of head”.

A dinosaur-like green basilisk can be picked up for R1 500 and a hairy baby Mexican red-knee tarantula for R450. Other tarantulas range from R40 to R100 in price.

If scaly reptiles aren’t cute enough, hedgehogs and other small mammals like chinchillas from the Andes and Australasian sugar gliders are also popular pets. Boynton has the pygmy hedgehog, a hybrid of the African white bellied hedgehog and the Eurasian hedgehog, which is popular with adults and children.

“Hedgehogs have been bred in captivity for the past 2 000 years for the food market. In Morroco and the Middle East it’s a delicacy,” Boynton said.

But isn’t it cruel and even dangerous to keep exotic pets?

“Everything we sell we breed ourselves. We don’t trade in wild animals. As long as we create stimulus in the cage and provide a proper diet and fulfill their behavioural requirements there is no reason they can’t live an even better life than in the wild. The cage is not the whole holding space because they are often taken out,” Boynton said.

And as for the dangers, he has survived two jobs at crocodile farms – at one farm his former boss was killed last year when he fell among the crocodiles.

He has also been bitten by a puff adder, but believes his passion is no more risky than the thrill men get from fast cars, motorbikes and jet skis, which claim far more lives.

Veloshni Govender of Mr Pet at the Pavilion in Westville stocks pygmy hedgehogs, turtles and tarantulas which she said are in huge demand.

Chris Harrison of Northlands Pets said his store is to fish what Boynton’s is to reptiles. He also stocks birds and tarantulas and designs John Dory’s Finding Nemo-themed fish tanks around town.

“Everyone is still going for the Finding Nemo theme, asking for Dory (regal tang) and Nemo (common clown).

“Hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits are just sitting at the moment,” Harrison said. - Independent on Saturday