"The ladies in the bakery two shops along were a little unsure"
Considering how long they have been around – about 300 million years – it's astonishing how popular reptiles have remained, from the huge, hulking giants of the Dinosaur age to the slight but terrifying Racer Snakes of today (who can ever forget their debut on last year's 'Planet Earth II'?).
Deadly, alien and entirely without empathy, reptiles have transfixed our awe and most primal fears since the Garden of Eden. But in Kidlington, attitudes and preconceptions towards these extraordinary creatures are being turned around by...evolution.
Or rather 'Evolution', a shop dedicated to dispelling the myths of aeons-old ignorance by showcasing them instead as intelligent and exquisite creatures, victims quite simply of a bad press.
Jeremy Smith talks to owner Peter Milligan about why a snake or Bearded Dragon might just make the perfect addition to your family.
So how old were you when you first realised you loved reptiles?
I have always had a fascination with them. My mum says she always had to drag me out of the reptile house at the zoo when I was young.
What was your first 'exotic' pet?
A Garter snake, when I was 12 years old.
When you were young, did you prefer snakes or bugs?
I was always more drawn to snakes although in recent years bugs (giant beetles, spiders, moths and butterflies) have taken up more of my interest.
In your teens, did you keep lots of pets?
Yes, I kept a large collection of snakes and lizards and in fact used to breed quite a few species.
What did your early girlfriends think of them?
They were fine with them, although there wasn't really any other choice! I'm now married to a vet but she only specialises in the usual kind of household pet.
Now that you're older and wiser, what is it about these animals – the dangerous, the bizarre, the just plain horrifying – that you love so much?
It's difficult to put a finger on just what it is. I like the way they use their environment to their advantage and often thrive despite the challenges this brings. Plus, I'm fascinated by the simply huge number of varieties which have evolved.
When did you decide you wanted to open a shop selling them?
I had been thinking of doing it since I was at school, since I wasn't really sure what else to do. But finding myself suddenly unemployed and at a loose end, I started up a specialist website selling foods and products for people who kept them as pets.
And why in Kidlington?
I originally set up shop in Wood Farm, Oxford, taking over an existing pet shop, gradually replacing the pet products with reptile versions and then moved out to Kidlington in 2015. The access is much better here and a lot of our customers travel considerable distances to visit us.
How have your neighbours reacted?
The ladies in the bakery two shops along were a little unsure, but have now warmed to the idea, luckily!
So is there a typical customer?
We have a wide range of customers from all walks of life, but the majority are families, often with one of the parents using the children as an excuse to buy one of our beautiful creatures. Interestingly, we now get customers from the more affluent areas of Oxford (we know because they pay with their Coutts bank cards).
Who has been your youngest customer, and your oldest?
Some of the families have very young children. Of course the law is that we cannot sell to people under 16 but I think that is too young, so our rule is 18. Our oldest customer, who lives in Summertown, has just turned 80 and she keeps a tortoise.
And what would be a good starter pet for a child interested in keeping one of these creatures?
I would say a millipede, a Bearded Dragon or a Corn Snake – they're pretty easy going. But definitely not a tortoise. They're far too delicate and sensitive.
Does it cost a lot of money to keep this type of creature?
Some of our invertebrates such as millipedes, snails and spiders can be quite cheap to purchase – starting at around £1.99 – while the more unusual animals like chameleons and tortoises can cost in excess of £500. They all have specific needs for housing, heat, humidity and light, and as such, the equipment for the more complicated species can come in at over £1000.
Can the owners of these sort of creatures enjoy as close a relationship as someone might with a dog or cat?
Interestingly, I'm waiting for the results of a study currently being conducted by journalist and animal behaviourist Celia Haddon on just this topic (from 1996 to 2007, Haddon wrote a weekly column as "pet agony aunt" for The Daily Telegraph). I think the level of emotional involvement is different with reptiles but some of our customers, and especially those who use us to board their pets while they go away on holiday, can be very involved, insisting we send them daily snapshots of their lizard or snake.
What are the 'myths' you would most like to dispel about people who keep exotic animals?
There are lots of myths about reptiles being horrible creatures but it is the myths about the care that they need I would most like to dispel. For instance, tortoises are not an easy animal to care for; just because some survived being brought over from the Mediterranean (as was the practice for more than 40 years) does not mean this was an acceptable way to care for them. Indeed, there are estimates that up to 20 million tortoises were imported during this period, of which 99 per cent went on to die within the first three years (according to the British Chelonia Group and Tortoise Trust). They are sensitive animals with specialist needs.
How many snakes, and other creatures, do you now keep at home?
I just have one snake now, an adult female Woma python, but as I spend more time at work than home, I keep her in the shop. And from time to time I take bugs home for my girls to see: last year we had Atlas and Bullseye silk moths. The moths are amazing but as they have no mouth parts they live very short lives (they do all of their eating as larvae) but my girls Evelyn (five) and Lilah (three) really enjoyed helping me look after them. Otherwise, our only other pet is Otto, our Collie-cross-Red Setter, who's nine years old.
What is your favourite all-time ever reptile?
It has got to be a Tuatara. They look like a lizard but technically aren't. They come from New Zealand and do everything v-e-r-y slowly. They have very long life spans (150 years or more) and are active when most other reptiles are unable to move. In fact, they were bred for the first time last year at Chester Zoo.
If you had unlimited space, which creatures would you most like to keep, and why?
I would love to set up a tropical house with a mix of moths, butterflies and giant beetles (Atlas, Rhino, Hercules, etc). If I could get the environment right, chances are they would thrive and breed. It would be my own little rainforest. A Tuartara would be amazing, but these are simply not available – New Zealand is very protective of them, and rightly so. I’d also love Aldabra giant tortoises. These guys are just huge: up to 1.20m long and weighing 250kg. Also Florida Indigo snakes – I worked with these a few years ago and we managed to breed them. They are big, six or seven feet, and are proper snake lover's snakes. If I’m being greedy, I’d also have Regal Jumping spiders, a Goliath Bird Eating Tarantula, a Gila monster (it's actually pronounced "hee-lah"), Yellow rat snakes, and another Plains Garter snake – they are very rarely available these days, but they are very active little things and grow to around 30cm long.
What is the one animal you are most afraid of?
I am not really afraid of anything. I have a respect for animals and wouldn't put myself in danger. Giant Centipedes, however, are creepy and we do have one in the shop. They are fast and venomous and impossible to handle, but there is a strange beauty to them.
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