PETS ISSUE: SF's most unusual pet owners share their parenting tips
PETS You can't keep a hedgehog, ferret, or sugar glider as a pet — legally — in California. But don't worry, there are still plenty of options when it comes to unusual creatures to keep your pad rad. Read on for exotic animals you can enjoy right here in the city.
In addition to what he claims is the largest exotic bug store in the country, Ken the Bug Guy (www.kenthebugguy.com ) is the proud parent of tail-less whip scorpions that he's raised from babies. At two and a half years old, they're only half-grown, but Ken is eagerly monitoring their progression from weanling to adult.
"We don't usually get to see the whole process," he says, explaining that most of his scorpions — which hail from the order amblypygi, meaning "blunt rump" — are imported from breeders abroad. A mama amblypygid lays a sac of eggs and carries it under her belly until the eggs hatch. In the wild, she would then pile the babies on her back, protecting and feeding them. In captivity (where food is plentiful and predators scarce), the babies are separated from their mother to sell to a distributor like Ken.
The benefits of a blunt rump to call your own? They're "crazy-looking, like an alien," according to Ken. They also live seven to 10 years, don't sting or bite, and have interesting, complex social structures like wolves.
"They're completely harmless," Ken emphasizes. "Little kids can hold them and play with them, and they only need to be fed once a week and have their cage misted a bit."
Get it straight: dancer Jim Berenholtz's red tail boas, African ball pythons, and Central American boas aren't his pets — they're flatmates.
"They're other beings that share my living space, but I don't own them, and they don't own me. We're all equal partners," he tells us. They're also costars.
Berenholtz has been performing with his snakes since 1989, when he debuted his act on his birthday, the eve of the Chinese Year of the Snake. A "powerful dream" prompted him to try snake dancing and in 2003, he started Serpentium, a troupe that dances for corporate events and for celebrities in the Bay Area and beyond. Over the years, Berenholtz has performed with some 16 to 20 different animals, sometimes with as many as seven at a time.
"I respond to their movements, and they respond to mine," he says. "You may have seen belly dancers performing with snakes as props. But for me they're not props. They're living beings that I interact with as if they were a human partner."
At home, his menagerie has grown organically — some of his animals have bred and produced offspring, others he adopted when previous owners could no longer care for them.
Though nearly all reptiles need to stay under heat lamps in this chilly city — East Bay Vivarium (www.eastbayvivarium.com ) has space heaters for your scaly ones — Berenholtz will occasionally take his snake friends out of their aquariums and allow them to wrap their bodies around his while he's lounging to "give them time outside of their tanks and to enjoy their presence."
Love the kitties, but not their dander? You may have heard that hairless cats can provide your feline fix sans sneezes. But if the alarmingly naked critters give you the cold willies over the warm fuzzies, there's another way.
Patty Royall owns Sugar, a Cornish Rex with extremely fine, soft, curly hair. The breed, along with the related Devon Rex, is defined by a lack of all fur except a thin undercoat of down, which is said to be hypoallergenic. The breed's characteristics are the result of a genetic mutation preserved from a litter born in 1950s Cornwall in the United Kingdom.
Like most Rexes, Sugar is often cold. The cats are known to hang out around light bulbs and computer monitors, but Sugar takes a more straightforward approach: she'll simply jump under the bed covers and stay curled up all day, Royall says. Luckily, if you're considering a Rex of your own, Royall has found a convenient solution for the chills. She uses a microwaveable heating pad that stays hot for about nine hours. Try a SnuggleSafe heat pad (www.snugglesafe.co.uk/ ), available at Pawtrero pet supply store (www.pawtrero.com ).
What about baking in the summer sun? Royall has heard that some people use sunscreen on their Cornish Rexes, but — given how cats groom themselves by licking — she doesn't think that's the best idea.
Elizabeth Young is the founding director of Mickacoo Pigeon and Dove Rescue (www.mickacoo.org , a division of SF-based Mickaboo Companion Bird Rescue), but if you're thinking about the greasy green-and-gray birds you plow through every day on the sidewalk, think again. The birds Young rescues are primarily king pigeons, a pure white domestic breed that — unlike San Fran's feral flocks — can't survive outdoors on their own.
"They're good-natured, easygoing, adaptable pets," Young says. "They're experts at the leisure arts — lounging, flirting, snacking, napping." She adds that because of their mellow nature, they're not demanding companions and do very well indoors or in an outdoor aviary.
Young says her seven pigeons have distinct personalities and form monogamous pairs — a characteristic that leads her to personify her birds' love lives as though they were soap-opera biddies, describing, for example, how once-shy Frances eventually won the heart of widowed Country.
The birds are affectionate toward people, too. The aforementioned Frances comes hurtling down the hall when Young calls him, screeching by and then turning on a dime to locate Young. Because the birds are quiet, don't chew, and don't bite, they are ideal for homes where dogs are not an option.
The only problem with pigeons is that, unlike dogs, they can't be housebroken. Luckily, the fine people at BirdWearOnline.com (www.birdwearonline.com ) have invented pigeon pants — stylish suits that Young heartily endorses.