Ask exotic-pet owners why they opted for pythons or tarantulas and you get ... well, pretty much the same responses you'd expect from folks with more traditional pets.
Roy and Beverly Carlson were empty-nesters whose five children had grown up, and they were seeking humanlike companionship; enter Michael the pigtail macaque (a "monkid" in pet parlance). Gwen Hovde and Andrew Reddig switched to sugar gliders because they were tired of having hamsters die on them. Kaine Trondson used to be allergic to cats and soon took a liking to reptiles.
Another trait they share with those for whom cats and dogs reign: a disdain for irresponsible pet owners. The problem with exotic pets, they maintain, is not the animals but the people, irresponsible owners and breeders.
"That's the way it is with every species," Hovde said. "Pit bulls are great pets if they're treated right. Same with sugar gliders."
Hovde is glad she lives on the west side of the river. Last December, the St. Paul City Council banned sugar gliders, but they remain legal in Minneapolis and most suburbs.
"That ban was due to ignorance, really," said Trondson, who owns and sells animals at Special-T Pets in North Branch. "They need to go after the [breeding] mills rather than the loving owners of these animals. People go to exotic shows, and [the mills] overcharge for the animals, tell the people to feed 'em cat food or whatever, don't ask any questions or talk about responsible ownership."
Exotic-pet owners aren't the only ones who stress personal responsibility on the pet owner's part. Jamie Turner, who works at the Como Park Animal Hospital and takes in exotic animals for "rescue," has observed the pattern of animals outgrowing their welcome.
"That's what you saw with the Vietnamese potbellied pigs [a 1980s fad]," said Turner. "People got these cute little animals and before long found themselves with 200-pound sows."
At times the government steps in, as with the sugar-glider ban. In 2005, the Minnesota Legislature prohibited ownership of large cats and primates, but allowed those who already owned those pets to be "grandfathered" in if they were registered. But only 80 primates and large cats have been registered, and authorities agree that there are considerably more out there. Local game sanctuaries are getting overcrowded because of owners who could not handle lions and tigers and bears.
"These animals are high-maintenance," said Trondson. "You have to treat them like family."
Big hairy deal
There are no sure cures for arachnophobia. But Jennifer Jones deserves credit for her rather novel attempt.
She got a new pet: Harriett the tarantula.
"She's a great kid. I get up in the morning and come in and talk to her," said Jones, an executive assistant from Minneapolis. "She's my little baby. Sometimes I coo to her."
Sounds like a fairly typical pet owner, except that Jones, 50, is "deathly afraid of spiders. I thought, 'Maybe I'll overcome my fears.' My friends thought I was kinda whacked out."
She got Harriett when a friend was told by his spouse that a Chilean rose tarantula no longer was welcome at their home. In the ensuing four years, Jones has gotten Harriett, now 13, a new cage ("the old one was really grotty; I said, 'Girl, you need some new digs'"), fed her mostly crickets ("she didn't go for grubworms") and tried to summon up the courage to touch a critter with eight legs, eight eyes and two fangs ("hasn't happened yet").
Has Harriett, who's named for her hirsute appearance, helped cure Jones' arachnophobia? Hardly. But Jones has found an innovative approach along those lines.
"Every spider I see in the house, I'll scoop up with a paper towel and put in her cage, and she'll devour it," she said. "And it's not like I have nightmares or anything. I have never dreamt about Harriett. I have bad dreams about work, but not about spiders."
Trondson opened a terrarium, pulled out an egg case and shook a cockroach the size of a matchbook down into his ample paw. The bug hissed. "These things creep most people out," he said, chuckling.
Turns out, though, that Trondson's three dozen or so Madagascar hissing cockroaches are not pets, but are being bred for reptile food ("They're really high in protein; bearded dragons love 'em," he noted).
And these critters are hardly the most intimidating animals in Trondson's collection. That would (probably) be Cookie and Vanilla Ice, the two 10-foot albino Burmese pythons that Trondson is hoping will soon produce 40 or so offspring.
It also turns out that Trondson, 28, despite his frightful pet collection, his intimidating size and a T-shirt that reads "I fart in your general direction," is a gentle giant, affable and earnest.
"This is probably my favorite," the North Branch resident said, pointing toward a Kenyan sand boa, which is strikingly beautiful (as snakes go, anyway) and grows to only about 2 to 2 1/2 feet. But the nearby pythons, housed in long, shallow, glassed-in containers, are getting most of Trondson's attention these days, in the hopes that his first attempt at breeding bears eggs. Lots of 'em.
Trondson, who keeps these animals in a private space behind his Special-T-Pets store, "was just drawn to the large constrictors." And how does he handle these ginormous snakes?
"Very carefully," he said, chuckling.
As with any parent, Hovde loves her babies no matter what they do. And it helps to have that kind of unconditional love when raising ... sugar gliders.
On a recent afternoon, one of the adorable marsupials from Australia scampered underneath her sweatshirt ("Oh, I forgot to trim your toenails," Hovde squealed), parked itself strategically ("they know exactly where you can't reach 'em") and relieved itself early and often ("they poop and pee a lot"). All the while, Hovde maintained a preternaturally sunny disposition toward the little bug-eyed guys, even though one of them had kept her up half the night with its barking.
"Meeko would not quit last night," Hovde, 23, said in the south Minneapolis apartment she shares with Andrew Reddig. "But he's been vocal since he was a wee, wee little one. He's my little baby."
Cooing and ahhing have come naturally to Hovde, a concessions manager at the Metrodome, ever since she got her first pair of sugar gliders last June. Meeko and Willow came on board as babies, soon followed by two more couples: Howie and Gracie and Ivy and Icarus.
The couples hang out together, but don't intermingle. "My boys don't like each other," said Hovde, picking a piece of poop off her shoulder and adding that the males have another unpleasant aspect until they are "fixed." "Howie and Icarus were stinky, stinky guys before they were neutered."
So there are no more little sugar gliders on the way, then?
"Oh, I have one more coming from a friend in May."
"Then," Reddig quickly added, "seven's probably enough."
Roy Carlson chuckled when asked about one pet-owner cliché -- "yes, everybody says we look alike" -- but he's even more convinced of another bond with Michael the pigtail macaque.
"We eat the same things, and that has helped keep us both healthy," said Carlson, his flat-top haircut being gently "groomed" by his monkey at his St. Paul towing-company office. "He eats 28 different fruits and vegetables a day. He hasn't had the common cold in 10 years, and neither have I. I haven't had a sick day during that time."
Indeed, Carlson is trim and vibrant at age 59, and Michael, looking almost dapper in jeans and a colorful striped shirt, is the picture of health, in fighting form at 25 pounds.
"I used to train boxers, and he's stronger than any teenage boxer I ever trained," said Carlson, alternating admonishments, encouragements and smooches with his primate pal. "You do have to let them know who's boss. The first year, he was my wife's [Beverly's] baby, a mama's boy. But then he got into a macho stage, and it's all dad now. "
A decade ago, after their children had grown up, they purchased Michael in Las Vegas. "I was looking for a chimp," he recounted, after covering Michael's ears, "but found out the ones that live up north tend to catch pneumonia and die. Mikey's a tougher breed."
Which is somewhat surprising, since his native habitat is India's rain forests. Carlson waits until the temperature hits the 50s before taking his macaque for a walk, where, he says, Michael is friendly toward "99 percent of the animals he encounters."
"He's so human. He's very, very intelligent," said Carlson. He likes classical music. He knows when he's supposed to get F-O-O-D. He knows what time his favorite TV show is on."
And what would that show be? "'Planet's Funniest Animals' on the Animal Planet cable channel. He really likes TV, but we have to monitor what he watches because of the violence."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643