It takes a unique kind of passion to surround yourself every work day with serpents, tarantulas, lizards, hissing cockroaches as big as your thumb – and rats. Not to mention breeding some of the critters at your own home.
“It’s been a lifelong passion,” said John Emberton, who with Cliff Moeser, Owen Maercks and a band of fearless employees, runs the East Bay Vivarium at 1827 Fifth St., the country’s oldest and largest reptile retail store.
“Snakes are great pets,” Emberton said.
“They’re quiet, hypoallergenic, they don’t need much space or any emotional support and they only eat once a week. It’s a great animal for the casual apartment dweller.”
Business is booming, Emberton said. The 30-year-old enterprise that began in Oakland has as many as 3,000 animals – not counting the rats, mice, hamsters, rabbits and chickens they breed for the reptiles’ lunch – in the store at any given time.
Emberton also said he and a few others breed several species at their homes because space at the cold-blooded copa cabana is limited.
There are no venomous snakes or crocodiles at the store. It’s “against the law,” he said. “We have animals ranging from three bucks to $10,000,” he said. “It has nothing to do with size or beauty, it’s the difficulty of acquisition.”
The rarest animal at the store is an albino Brazilian rainbow boa. Only four or five people in the world own them, Emberton said. However, in terms of rarity, he said that they have had some snakes, such as the Madagascar tree boa, that is losing its habitat at an exponential rate and could be wiped in a matter of years.
The Vivarium doesn’t participate in a raise-and-release program, he said. For one, because “like the California Condor, they don’t exactly work,” and because many of the animals they get come from distant spots on the globe.
What they do, however, is act as a reptile shelter. They take in wayward reptiles that owners are unable to take care of.
It’s obvious he loves the little monsters and is enthusiastic about caring for them.
Busy packing for a reptile show in San Mateo, Emberton took a few minutes to give the Daily Planet a tour.
He said the Vivarium often takes its show on the road. They travel all over the country and show and sell reptiles.
“This is the busiest time of the year,” said the former plumber, explaining that he turned a hobby into a job. “There are 30 to 70 animals hatching per day.”
When you walk into the Vivarium, you see a quasi-tropical showroom, with wooden reptile terrariums stacked on each other forming makeshift walls. Some of the reptile homes are filled with knotty logs for the creatures to climb on, and tropical plants.
“This is only a small part of what we do,” he said.
The tour began in the “rat room,” where the food for the product is bred.
Hundreds of rats, mice, and hamsters, and a few rabbits and chickens for the big boys, spend a their days in wait for eminent doom.
“We keep a lot of them,” he said as he reached into a 6-inch-deep tub and pulled out a mother rat with several young. “She’ll probably stay with us forever, she’s a breeder.”
Next on the tour was one of the reptile breeding rooms.
“We don’t sell many big snakes, but we sell a lot of babies,” he said.
Many of the snakes, like their warm-blooded prey in the adjacent room, stay around as breeders and never make it to the showroom floor, he said.
Then it’s off to the incubators, where Emberton pulled out a new-born King snake and in the same motion dumped a rat into the cage of a salivating Indigo snake. Business as usual.
“They’re the largest non-venomous snake in North America,” he said as the Indigo snake began exercising its jaw to swallow the rat.
The tour winds up to
the office, where Emberton, Moeser and Maercks do paperwork beside cages of
tarantulas and aforementioned giant cockroaches.
Emberton remembered the time when a King snake escaped and ended up in the third story of a print shop on Fourth Street.
“He’d been gone for about a year,” he chuckled.
Escapes are commonplace.
“When a lizards gets loose, everything shuts down and we start looking for him, but with snakes, it’s different,” he said. He said that snakes are by nature low-metabolism creatures and are fine under a rock or in a hole. “Sometimes they’ll stay hidden for months. But most of the time we find them within days.”
Finally, it’s back to the showroom where Emberton lets loose “Spot,” a Cocker-Spaniel sized Asian water monitor. Emberton said that Spot is “one of the few animals in the store that has a name. And he’s not for sale.”
Maercks, the co-owner, and Spot are a birthday party attraction. Spot also goes along with Maercks to educational lectures for kids at the San Francisco Exploratorium.
“He’s as tame as a puppy,” Emberton said, with a motherly gesture, wiping dust from his star-attraction’s face.