OLDSMAR — Bob and Andrew Potts turned a hobby into a business when they opened Herp Hobby Shop Reptile Breeding Center in 1991.
The shop on 700 St. Petersburg Drive W, sells lizards, snakes, turtles and even tarantulas, including one known as the Goliath birdeater. The shop also offers boarding services for your pet reptiles and arachnids, and can also determine their sex.
They got their start when three Potts brothers moved from Texas to Florida in 1975. It was Bob and late brother Robby Potts who first started attending herpetological society meetings, then Andrew started going.
“When we started selling reptiles we had a fold-out card table and four 10-gallon tanks in our garage,” said Bob Potts, 54. “And we would run ads in the St. Pete Times in classified – baby boas, $25. That’s how it started.’’
He and older brother Andrew, 61, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about reptiles and their popularity as pets.
What are the most popular reptiles?
Bob Potts: Your big three are your bearded dragon, leopard gecko and then your veiled chameleon. And in snakes, its hands down the ball python because of all the different colors, and it’s the ultimate snake: It’s friendly, it never bites, it reaches a total length of 3 to 4 feet. They’re very hardy. They hardly ever get sick. They’re the perfect snake, they really are.
What is the most someone could spend on a single reptile?
BP: Last year or two they found a couple of leucistic king cobras (a venomous snake colored white because it’s missing pigments) over in India, and these animals out of the wild are fetching $50,000 to $100,000.
Here at the Herp Hobby Shop we have (animals) from $20 up to $2,000. We have them in every price range.
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What do people like about reptiles? They don’t seem cuddly.
Andrew Potts: They can be. For instance, the bearded dragon. I’ve got kids, they go to the mall, go to the beach, they watch movies and the bearded dragon sits on their laps or sits on their shoulders, never moves, sits there for hours at a time. And they do get to recognize you and a lot of these animals, the more generations that they’re bred in captivity … they start becoming domesticated. So they start picking up certain things. They start to see you.
BP: I like to compare them to a parrot or a macaw. They really are. They are birds without feathers. As birds can be very affectionate, many lizards are affectionate the exact same way.
(The) bearded dragon, we call them the lap dog of the lizard world.
Why are they called bearded?
BP: Well, when they get excited they puff out their (throat) and it’s black. It looks like they’ve got a black beard.
What’s your reaction to reports of pet owners releasing pythons in the Everglades?
BP: It’s way overblown. … The data doesn’t prove it.
AP: Most reptile (owners) I’ve known over the last 35 years would rather let their children go hungry than let their animals go. Do animals get out? Yes, but, again, it’s the rare exception.
If they’re escaping, we’re talking about one every now and then, and for it to meet another one that somehow escaped and breed and they happen to be in the same area is pretty – like I say, most people are very, very responsible.
The idea of releasing them, I found it fascinating: Everybody releasing them, they were driving down to the Everglades to release them. That’s insane. We all know why these reptiles are here from a major catastrophe called Hurricane Andrew. Before that, the (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), which is the governing body, did not make you have a hurricane evacuation plan. After Andrew, they said you’ve got to have a hurricane evacuation plan. You know why?
Because of Hurricane Andrew, I think every major importer in South Florida was destroyed. Thousands upon thousands of animals were released simultaneously. U.S Fish and Wildlife (Service) as (standard operating procedure) takes DNA samples. They’ve traced all these loose Burmese (pythons) that are being caught back to those that got loose in Andrew. It’s a complete fiction.
In a recent report, someone broke into a Southwest Florida reptile breeder’s business and stole 18 turtles worth $30,000. Are turtles worth that much?
BP: Oh yeah. It’s more lucrative to smuggle exotic animals than it is drugs. Usually, the fines or penalties are far less severe because they’re just reptiles and not dangerous narcotics, and they’re easy. They don’t check for them in the same way.
It’s big business, and that’s why commercial breeding is such a big business. The popularity of these exotics has just exploded. And that’s just what drives everything else.
How do you determine the sex of reptiles?
BP. Probing. It’s a scientific term used for a lot of animals. You stick a metal probe inside the rectum area and depending on how far it goes in determines if it’s boy or girl.
How did you two get into this business?
BP: I went over to a buddy’s house who had a shed in his backyard, and he was just breeding a few common king snakes, but he had the babies and the eggs. (I thought) ‘oh, wow,’ you can actually keep snakes in small areas and breed them. The process was very fascinating. I just fell in love with it from the beginning.
AP: It was my brother. I was married at the time. I mean, we’ve always been reptile guys. We moved down here (from Texas in 1975), we were catching everything. They met this guy, joined the herp society or attended (meetings, and Andrew Potts started going.) And then they showed me (an albino Burmese python), and I said, hey, that’s cool. From there it was just a hobby, and then actually one day they — not me – spent a lot of money on what they call investment type animals. And from there that was it.
BP: We did it on the back porch, then we went to a warehouse.
AP: Everything happens for a reason. We got evicted from there because one of our little king snakes got loose and a neighbor called the HOA. They threatened to throw us in jail forever. It was a little king snake, but it was nonnative, it was (from) California. But the neighbor had a conniption. So we had to go and get a warehouse so that’s when we took our hobby and went professional.
How many reptiles do you have?
BP: It fluctuates, but at any given time easily 2,000 or 3,000.