When animal advocate Nico Novelli moved to Colorado in 1992, he brought his entire menagerie – four iguanas, eight snakes, two turtles, and five lizards – with him in the back of his van. Today his personal zoo has grown to some 54 animals, mostly reptiles, many of them rescued from people who had no idea what they were getting into when they bought them.
‘I do my best to talk people out of owning exotic pets,’ he says, ‘or at least to alert them to the realities. Sixty to eighty percent of pet reptiles die in their first year because people don’t know how to care for them properly.’
Novelli started rescuing animals at the age of nine, when he nursed an injured bird back to health with an eyedropper. As an adult he worked for such Hollywood outfits as ‘Animal Actors’ and ‘Reptile Rentals,’ wrangling spiders in Arachnophobia, and snakes in Indiana Jones.
He also worked as an animal control officer for the LA County Animal Shelter, a job which put him at odds with official policy regarding euthanasia. ‘Generally, animal shelters won’t hold strays for longer than a week,’ he says. ‘In LA, they were putting them down at the rate of 300 a day. I refused to euthanize them unless they were half dead or it was court ordered.’
Instead, he started taking animals home with him and trying to find people to adopt them.
It was a friend of his landlady in Boulder who suggested that he bring his iguana to a local elementary school and talk to the kids about it. The kids, of course, ate it up.
For Novelli, however, the experience was a turning point. By bringing his animals into the schools, he realized, he could finance his rescue operations. And by educating young people about the nuts and bolts of pet ownership, he could quite possibly reduce the number of mistreated or abandoned pets.
He started his company, Canyon Critters LLC, and began doing live animal shows at libraries, schools, summer camps, and birthday parties. Today he averages twenty shows a month, at $185 a pop.
But even at twenty shows, Novelli barely breaks even. Most of what he earns goes towards basic maintenance. ‘I’ll buy five to six thousand crickets, eight hundred frozen rodents, and between one and two thousand worms a month,’ he says. ‘Then there are the beef ribs for my dog Patch and the two hybrid wolves, Harper and Lupa. Pet shop owners want you to think you can get away with feeding an iguana nothing but crickets, but iguanas need veggies too. Tons of them.’
If you’re thinking of buying an exotic animal, here are some things Nico Novelli would like you to ponder.
- Are you prepared to care for your pet long term? Reptiles live longer than dogs and cats. A lizard can live up to twenty years. A snapping turtle might survive to two hundred. Long after you leave for college, your Bearded Dragon, ‘Spike,’ will still be there.
- Can you afford it? Novelli says an iguana will cost you three times what you initially paid for it just to feed it for one month. They grow quickly, which means bigger and bigger enclosures to house them. Then there are the vet bills which can cost a pant load; that is, if you can even find one in your area who specializes in exotics.
- Are you prepared to work your ass off? Unlike dogs and cats, caged reptiles can’t fend for themselves. Enclosures need to be cleaned twice daily. Water for drinking and bathing gets changed several times a day. Novelli spends his first hour every morning making salads for his reptilian room mates.
- Ready to forego those vacations? While it might be easy to find somebody to feed and walk the Chihuahua while you waltz off to St. Thomas, good luck finding a neighbor willing to cuddle Sidney, your 300 lb. albino Burmese python.
For all the work and expense, Nico Novelli still feels the pros outweigh the cons. ‘Animals provide companionship, happiness, and fulfillment,’ he says. ‘I get a lot of satisfaction from the relationship I have with my pets. There’s no such thing as a disposable animal.’
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