• 45°

PROFILE: Man’s best friend can come in all shapes, sizes and species

Jeremiah Crum accepts the fact that people are going to stare when he takes his four-legged buddies, Bert and Bella, out for a walk.

For one thing, they’re not on a leash or in a harness, not even hanging out of a pet-sized baby buggy.

“They just walk on my shoulders,” the Chesapeake Middle School student said. “I will put them on my shoulders and go for a walk.”

That’s because Bert and Bella are, plain and simply, rats. Well, maybe not Bella. She is proudly called a “Dumbo” rat, because of, naturally, her ears.

But to the world at large, the twosome are rats. But they are just as good a pet as any boy could wish for. At least that is how Jeremiah, 13, sees it.

Ending up with a couple of rats wasn’t a conscious decision on the teen’s part when he was pet-shopping. His hamster had died and Jeremiah went to the pet store to get another.

“The only one I could find at the pet store, it would hiss at you,” he said.

Then Jeremiah saw the rats in a cage and the storeowner said they might be a better choice.

“He told me they might be a little more calm,” he said. “They were quite a bit calmer than a hamster. Most people think I am weird. It doesn’t really bother me. I try to explain but usually it doesn’t work.”

Reed Barlow of Ashland, Ky., can look upon Jeremiah as a kinman. He too has gotten some odd comments about his pet rat, Smeddy. But they have never come from his mother, Allison, who let her 13-year-old have the grey-black rat as a reward for getting good grades.

“As a child, I always wanted a rat, but my mother wouldn’t let me,” Allison Barlow said. “It wasn’t a hard choice. We’d had hamsters, gerbils and all the other rodents. I thought it would be nice to have a rat, but my mother drew the line.”

Smeddy, who lives in an aquarium in Reed’s room, when he’s not taking a walk in his special harness, feasts on a mixture of sun flower seeds and banana chips.

“He loves banana chips,” Barlow said. “And I feed him raw pasta to keep his teeth sharp.”

Greta Lewis has a whole room of offbeat pets that to list them sounds like reading from a catalogue for an exotic animal distributor.

There’s a skink, a red belly newt, a firemouth fish and Bonnie and Clyde, a pair of 6-year-old geckos who have made it through only about a fourth of their natural lifespan.

“My geckos don’t drive,” Lewis jokes referring to the Aussie-talking cartoon figure who hawks car insurance by a similar name.

However, Lewis isn’t collecting strange animals to make a statement or to garner companionship. It’s all a part of teaching her eighth grade science classes at Chesapeake Middle School how some animals live.

“These are in habitats that the kids maintain,” she said. “They just learn the different types of habitats.”

And they learn that the weird pet can take even more care than your average Fido.

“There is a certain amount of maintenance. They have to be kept scrupulous clean. They pick up bacterial infections,” Lewis said. “The kids are always willing to work on these things.”

It is that kind of appreciation of the reality that these animals thrive in a world often times alien to our climate and terrain that can give the creatures a long life and safe home.

Dr. Mike Dyer of the Proctorville Animal Clinic has seen too many cases of the opposite where fledgling owners get overwhelmed with the change in their routine an exotic pet requires to survive.

“Most of these species are not indigenous to this area. Our climates, our parasites, our environmental factors are unique to these animals,” Dyer said. “We expose them to things they have never seen before and expect them to do well.”

Dyer has watched sugar gliders, monkeys, even a mountain lion, cross the threshold of his clinic. And just as often he’s watched owners lose their enthusiasm in a great thud.

“It’s the excitement,” Dyer explained on why some seek out the exotic pet. “There will be a wave, like with the llamas or the alpacas. Ostriches were popular a few years back and iguanas were very popular for a season of two. … It’s a conversation piece.”

However these animals require more than opening up a can of Friskies twice a day or keeping a good supply of Milk Bones in the kitchen cupboard.

“It’s the nutrition, the housing,” the vet said. “They get them and then think ‘I have to take care of them.’ Very few of those clients are committed to lifelong care for them. It is sad for the animals.”

That’s not the case with Izzy, an 18-month-old bearded lizard. His abode inside the home of the Klaibers in Ironton comes complete with his own heat lamp.

“He sits on the heat lamp a lot,” Breanna Klaiber, one of Izzy’s owners and Bill Klaiber’s daughter, said. “Everyday we feed him. Crickets, vegetables, fruits, carrots, tomatoes. He eats it like a dog, sticks out his tongue and grabs it.”

Izzy came to his new home when Bill Klaiber, who works at a local juvenile center, watched how the residents there responded when a group came in to give a demonstration with a variety of exotic animals.

“They seemed so fascinated,” Klaiber said. “My plan was to get one and take it down there. I got him as a baby. He was too little (to take to the center) and the kids and I got attached to him. Of all the lizards, the bearded lizards have a little personality. They are kind of neat. They hang on your shoulders.”

Trent, Klaiber’s son, is just as captivated by the new family pet.

“I think it is fun. You can watch him and hold him,” Trent said. “He sits in your hand.”

Keeping Izzy healthy and happy has meant research by Klaiber on the Internet and from books.

“You have to be careful. If you have him outside, you don’t leave him unattended,” Klaiber said. “If he would eat a lightning bug, just one, it would kill him instantly.”

That so much extra care is required for the offbeat pet can separate the genuine owner from the frivolous one. But it still begs the question, why does someone seek a pet that will require so much extra effort.

Jeremiah Crum has a simple answer for why the exotic pet owner does what he does.

“It expresses their actual person,” he said. “It is a part of their character.”