By Joseph Tulip, Wednesday, 13 August 2014
The archetypal English family home wouldn’t be complete without a four-legged friend, a bird in a cage to converse with or perhaps a fluffy cuddly companion.
But if we look closely into the alcoves of Tynedale’s front rooms, we might find exotic creatures more commonly associated with the wild.
For in recent years, more people have been taking in reptiles and amphibians as pets, and research has shown they are now starting to outnumber old favourites, such as dogs and cats, in the household.
Residents in Haltwhistle voiced their concerns last week after Joe Reed and Jan Mitchinson moved into a house at the town’s west end with their three boa constrictor snakes and a smaller, speckled king snake, and began walking the streets with them wrapped around their necks and arms.
Fears for the safety of children and small dogs have surfaced in a rural community more familiar with the sights and sounds of sheep and cattle.
Now the couple have been joined by other reptile enthusiasts in allaying fears over the non-venomous species, which is fast becoming domesticated.
Sonya Miller, manager at Hexham’s Rainbow Pets on Battle Hill, who keeps a boa constrictor at home, says reptile sales are nothing new, although snakes and lizards were perhaps more popular in urban areas until recently.
She said: “My husband, Mark, opened a reptile shop in Sunderland 20 years ago. It has maybe taken a while to filter out into more rural areas. There is certainly a market for this type of pet now.
“I think there are definitely trends. Pogona, which is commonly known as a bearded dragon, is popular at the moment, and there has been a craze over the past couple of years for pygmy hedgehogs.”
Rainbow Pets stocks gecko lizards, as well as tortoises and more traditional offerings, such as budgies, canaries and finches.
Assistant Celia Sanderson said: “Everyone is different, so there is a demand for many different types of pet. People have to remember you must be willing to be responsible for it for 20 years or so”.
Jessica and Richard Wilson, of Stonehaugh, have a corn/rat snake cross which Richard obtained when he was a teenager.
Now aged 18, and at just over 3ft long, the reptile is very much part of a family which also looks after two dogs and a cat.
Jessica said: “Snakes are something a bit different and I think that is a factor in the rise in their popularity.
“They are fascinating for children and teenagers and perhaps that is what encourages a lot of parents to buy them.
“Also, snakes are relatively cheap to keep and fairly low maintenance, which means they are a good fit for busy working people.”
Unlike dogs, snakes don’t require daily walks along the riverside, and they can sometimes go weeks, or even months, without eating.
But there some cons, for the owner must be prepared to buy frozen rats and mice to feed their pet snakes, store the rodents and defrost them to provide meals when required.
Reptiles have been big business for Pets At Home since the national retailer opened the doors of its new Hexham store in April.
Deputy manager Laura Findlay said the store offers the likes of royal pythons and other snakes of varying sizes, with its staff trained to ensure customers know exactly what they are taking on board.
She explained: “You might not think it, but they are fairly simple to keep as pets and they do fit in with a busy lifestyle.
“Snakes only eat once a week and go to the toilet once a week. Their cages don’t need to be cleaned out every day, and if they are handled often, they are not time consuming because they get used to human contact.
“However, there are some key issues which people need to be aware of because owning a snake or a lizard is a big responsibility.
“You must be able to offer them the right environment where the temperature is warm.
“You must be prepared for their eating needs – feeding them vermin – and also for the size they can grow to.”
Laura admits that safety can be an issue if owners are not aware of the potential dangers.
She added: “Of course, a snake is capable of causing injury when it constricts. We never let a reptile go without the customer being made aware of their responsibilities in terms of their own welfare and that of other people and the reptile itself.
“We advise people who are new to this type of pet to educate themselves and once they have done that, they should enjoy years of happiness with them.”
Laura said reptiles have taken over from the likes of hamsters in the popularity stakes, possibly because the rodents are nocturnal and not always active when children want to spend time with them.
Domestic rats, gerbils, and tropical fish are also popular choices at Pets At Home. Joe Reed, of Haltwhistle, who featured in last week’s Courant, said he became intrigued by snakes about 25 years ago when he saw a man on the promenade at Blackpool with a boa constrictor, allowing people to have their photos taken with it.
“I was fascinated, and since then I have kept snakes,” said Joe. “They are friendly and placid creatures. I think people have been shocked at me walking about with them in public, but I believe it’s good to get them some fresh air.”
It has been suggested that Tyndedale’s famous black cat – which many people claim to have spotted around the district over the past two decades – may be an exotic form of species discarded by its owner because of licensing issues.
Many snakes and other reptiles don’t require a licence, but the RSPCA does have concerns about whether the needs of such animals can be met in a home environment, and offers advice at www.rspca.org.uk.
Statistics published by the British Federation of Herpetologists in 2008 revealed there were eight million reptiles and amphibians being kept as pets in the UK, compared to an estimated dog population of 6.5 million.