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Connecticut Pet Owners Embrace the Exotic

Canton, CT - 1/5/2024 - at Harris In Wonderland in Canton, CT

Written and photographed by Stan Godlewski


From an early age, most of us have had strong feelings about creatures that creep, crawl or slither, whether it’s wanting to inspect them up close, or getting as far away from them as possible.

Still, it might be a little surprising to learn that although our social feeds overflow with cat and dog images, the Animal Protection Institute reports that nearly 50% of pets in the United States can be considered exotic, and a good many of those are slimy, hairy and/or scaly.

So, what qualifies as exotic? It is almost all pets that don’t fit under the domesticated dog/cat umbrella.

Exotics have six main categories when it comes to pets: amphibians (such as frogs and salamanders) reptiles (snake and lizards), birds, invertebrates (think tarantulas), fish and small mammals (such as guinea pigs, hedgehogs and sugar gliders). Large mammals like tigers and rhinos are exotics as well, making a sort of TV star sub-category, but it is illegal to own one almost everywhere.

Most pet owners with exotics just happen to like them and are not in it for the “wow factor” and the attention they might get wearing a snake around their neck or having a two-foot lizard on a leash out in public. In fact, one of the most popular exotic pets today is a quietly entertaining creature, the African Pygmy Hedgehog.

Tamara Sevigny, of Old Lyme, was introduced to the hedgehog about 11 years ago by a cousin, and was so taken with their easygoing, gentle nature that she now raises them and sells all things hedgehog online at

She explained that hedgehogs are nocturnal, waking-up when the sun sets and staying active all night. “They love to run on wheels,” she said, noting that they can run several miles each evening. At the moment, she had about 20 hedgehog adults and several babies, each kept in  individual cages.

“They’re very popular among teenagers and college students,” she said while one of her hedgehogs named “Frankln” listened in. “Probably because teenagers and college students are also nocturnal,” she said with a laugh.

They have pointy little raccoon faces, are covered with little porcupine-like spikes, and have little feet that feel like rubber. But they are, nonetheless, snuggly. Still, Sevigny doesn’t recommend keeping more than one hedgehog in the same enclosure. They are solitary, territorial creatures, and won’t get along with a roommate. But they can become affectionate towards their owners.

“They know you through scent and sound,” Sevigny said. “They like to sit in the crook of your arm, hide their little face in there and go to sleep.”

Sevigny sometimes keeps one with her while watching television, or even takes one when she does errands. A hedgehog is about 8-inches long and weigh about a pound, so it easily fits into the pocket of a hooded sweatshirt.


From snuggly to anti-social

Guinea pigs, another exotic, are also snuggly, said veterinarian Alison Bloom of the Kensington Bird and Animal Hospital. Guinea pigs, which are described by the Humane Society as “small, gentle and personable,” are among the best for first time exotic pet owners, she said.

“Out of all the exotic species I see, I think they’re the toughest and most resilient,” Bloom said, adding that nonetheless they need human interaction as they are social creatures. They should not be left in their cages as they need time to get some exercise and run around to explore.

People who might think that an exotic pet takes less maintenance than a cat or dog should think again. While a fish or guinea pig doesn’t need to be walked twice a day, they still need attention. If you are looking for a low-maintenance pet, think more along the lines of a tarantula.

“Been into spiders my whole life; I used to have imaginary friends who were spiders when I was little,” said Kelly Fornez, adding that tarantulas are quiet, clean and don’t take up much space. “That’s why they’re really awesome pets for people who live in the city or small apartments.” He added that you can go away and leave them for a week without worrying because, depending upon the breed, it may only eat once a week or even once a month.

The Manchester resident saw his first tarantula at Petco in 2009 when he was 15. It was a Mexican Flame Knee tarantula. When Forenz went back a few weeks later, he learned that tarantula sales had been banned in Connecticut, which was fine with his parents who were not enthusiastic about sharing their home with a hairy spider the size of a hand, even if it was in a tank.

Most tarantulas are safe for humans to handle (emphasis on most). Forenz said that most U.S. tarantulas, or scorpions for that matter, are not deadly (although some are). They rarely bite and when they do, it’s similar to a bee sting. He said he’s handled hundreds of tarantulas and has never been bitten.

Nonetheless, pet stores in Connecticut still cannot sell tarantulas although they are not illegal to own. But they can be only bought privately. That’s how Fornez got his first tarantula when he was 22, and he’s been keeping them ever since.

“I treat them the way you’d treat fish. Put them in a nice enclosure and I just leave them alone. They like to be left alone. They’re something I look at; I study and I breed them,” Forenz said of the spiders. “They operate solely on instinct…the animal just tolerates people.”

But that’s fine with Fornez, who isn’t into tarantulas for the companionship. At this point, he’s more concerned about conservation and preservation, considering the threat of declining populations and the loss of tarantula habitats to human expansion.


Independent and Solitary,  But Not Anti-Social

An exotic pet is still a pet, a responsibility, and needs to be made part of the family.

“Definitely do your research because there’s a lot of care involved,” said Dr. Bloom. Her home includes two parrots, a red-tailed boa constrictor and two cats.

There is a common misconception that owning an exotic is somehow easier than owning a cat or a dog, Bloom said. Although you’ll never, for example, have to take your snake or hedgehog out for an early morning walk when it’s below freezing, there’s still a lot more involved than some people expect.

“I personally think [exotics] are harder to keep,” Bloom explained, but on the upside they also interact with their owners as most pets do. “Exotics in general require a lot more care than your average cat or dog. You have to get their surroundings set up in a specific way. They have different needs in terms of nutrition, enrichment, and  things that keep them entertained.”

Each species requires very specific temperatures, humidity and light, according to Reptiles Magazine. Bearded dragons need an enclosure with both a basking hot spot of 100-110 degrees, and a cool end in the mid-70s. They also need a humidity level between 30% and 40%.

It’s especially important to meet an exotic’s specific needs as it can be more difficult to gauge their health and wellness, partly because many are prey species.

“A lot of times people don’t realize that their bird or their guinea pig might actually be sick, but they’re hiding it because in the wild if they’re acting sick they would get eaten….so a lot of the signs that they’re not feeling well are subtle,” Dr. Bloom explained, adding that she recommends checkups every half year.

It seems that whether we’re talking about pet-owners and their Golden Doodles or their Burmese Pythons, the relationship is central.

“People definitely interact with their exotic pets the way they interact with cats and dogs,” Dr. Bloom said. “I’ve seen leashes for reptiles…and Pet Smart has a whole line of costumes for guinea pigs and bearded dragons.”

And still, as with all pets, it’s not all fun and dress up.

Although the bearded dragon has specific environmental needs, veterinary technician Erica Hayden owns one and thinks they’re the perfect starter reptilian pet.

“Bearded dragons are super popular right now. They have such a personality,” Hayden said, noting that these lizards are also easier to care for because they don’t have the same humidity requirements—up to 90% humidity—as other reptiles like chameleons, iguanas or pythons. Every other day, Hayden lets hers out to soak in a tub or run around the room. offers information and advice about getting and caring for the up to 2-foot bearded dragon. They first came to the U.S. from Australia in the 1990s, and have been increasing in popularity ever since.


Raising Exotic Pets

Although there are many resources online with advice about care and buying food and habitat equipment, there’s nothing like having an exotic expert.

Adam Harris owns Harris In Wonderland in Canton, Connecticut, a 3,000-square-foot shop filled with fish, snakes, reptiles, and everything you need to establish and care for an exotic pet. He breeds, sells, and gives guidance and encouragement to people who already have or are just interested in an exotic pet. The shop is like a non-petting zoo, where people sometimes bring their children just to look.

“One of the reasons we have lizards and tortoises and things on display is so people know what they’re getting into, particularly people who think they want to buy a Burmese python. They’re very cute when they’re little but it only takes 3 or 4 years before they’re 10- to 15-feet long and you’re buying a gigantic tank and a heat panel and large food,” said Harris, who is speaking from experience.

Cashmere, his 15-foot python, helps out when he does educational programs at local schools, has been on TV shows in New York City, and has even co-starred in a photo shoot with Beyonce. In her down-time, Cashmere will spend some time with Harris outside on a warm day or lay around the store after hours while he’s doing paperwork. Even at 15 feet, Harris thinks a snake like Cashmere is an enjoyable companion to have around as well as the attention-getter. For him, she’s not a lot of work.

Harris had his first brush with reptiles when he was 8, visiting his uncle in Louisiana. “There were lizards and snakes and a whole bunch of stuff just running around his backyard,” Harris recalls, saying he brought home some American chameleons, and then got a box turtle.

“Unfortunately, at that time, there wasn’t a lot of equipment or knowledge for keeping (exotics); it was a lot of trial and error,” said Harris, whose fascination with reptiles led to a biology degree from Hartwick College and a career as the owner of the exotic pet shop that he started with his father Seth, who recently passed away.

Harris’s father had a small business selling tropical fish from his childhood home in the 1940s, then opened a small store while a teenager. After a stint in the service and a 31-year career teaching high biology at Granby High School, he and Adam opened the store in 1999.

So maybe “exotic” pets aren’t so exotic after all. In talking with any pet owner, there’s an affection for and rapport with their pet whether it’s a cat, dog, python or spider. It’s something they connect with, care for and greet when they walk through the door at the end of the day.

And that’s not an alien or exotic concept at all.

Stan Godlewski is a photojournalist based in Connecticut. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Der Spiegel, Hello, People and Seasons, among others.