By Cheney Slocum and Jamie Oberg
“There’s something magical about a pet shop.”
Daniel Keeper sits in his office, walls lined with artifacts and oddities like dinosaur eggs, metal antlers, and a plastic monkey head that starts screeching as it senses the wave of his hand. Outside his office door a fluffy black chicken runs around his store, ZooKeeper Exotic Pets, clucking as children laugh. One couple looks adoringly at their Swoop, their five-week old yellow bird, and another girl smiles as her pet chameleon climbs up her arm and attaches itself to her sweater. Most pet stores are magical, but this one is more. It’s exotic.
Daniel Keeper opened ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in 1988, the first exclusively exotic store in the state. The current location, his fourth, is located on the corner of U.S. 183 and Burnet Road in North Austin.
At the store, Keeper and his staff care for and sell many different types of exotic animals including snakes, tropical frogs, scorpions, hedgehogs, bearded-dragon lizards, a bird-eating spider and Sophia, a two-toed sloth who hangs out in an enclosure near the door.
Even though his passion for animals was always present, Keeper didn’t begin his professional life in the pet business at all.
“I grew up and became interested in other things as well and tried to make a vocation of conventional things, so I ended up as a service manager at a rental car company in Austin,” Keeper said. “But after ten years of employment I realized I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing and I started thinking ‘I wonder if I can make a go of my interests.’”
So he looked around Austin and realized there was only one pet store that carried exotics, and only in a small closet in the back of the store, Keeper decided to “make an entire store of that closet” and open his own store for $80 a month in rent.
Originally, Keeper maintained his conventional job from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and operated his store from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., but decided after a few years to go all in.
“My wife was so scared because we had a mortgage and a kid, but I told her it’s kind of like going off the high board for the first time,” he said. “Once you’re up there you just hold your breath and go. You do the best research you can do, you just go and put your head down and start working and don’t look back up until you’re sure it’s safe again. And that’s what I did.”
Keeper describes his store as primarily service oriented and hires only staff members who he thinks will get along with others and contribute to the store’s laid-back, friendly atmosphere.
“The average person that comes in here is happy to be here. They’re excited,” he said. “It’s not like going to the dentist; there are fun things in here. So when someone comes in its easy to strike up a conversation with them, because you have something in common.”
With such unfamiliar animals housed within its walls, ZooKeeper staff attracts a wide variety of customers and seeks to educate them while providing a fun experience, especially the children.
“Sometimes we’ll take them to the back where we are feeding the baby animals or take them to the incubators and show them that,” Keeper said. “If you’re a parent there is nothing better than walking into a place and having somebody treat your kid like they are a little person. I remember being a kid and people didn’t treat me as a human. So I try to get down on their level, and some of them are really smart, it’s just amazing to them.”
While Keeper says he enjoys educating all customers about the creatures in his store, owning an exotic pet can be a tough task.
“I’m good about helping people look into the future and get past just being excited about the animals they’re interested in and trying to show them the high points and the low points,” Keeper said. “We want them to be successful, and we want it to be a good fit for both [the animal and the owner]. We always try to show them the ups and the downs of everything.”
For some animals require exotic diets, nontraditional living quarters, or expensive regimens, Keeper said he has had to intervene in the sale of the animal.
“There’s a fine line in the pet industry about making decisions for people. When I was up and coming consumer in the pet store, I didn’t want somebody telling me I wasn’t fit for an animal. I didn’t want someone making that decision for me,” he said. “Now that I’m on this side of the counter I try to find the right animal for the right person. In a few circumstances I’ll put my foot down and say this is not the right animal for you and I’ll try to make something that’s a better fit.”
As Austin has gained popularity as a host for movies and television shows, Keeper has received callers with strange requests that might not be a good fit for the average consumer.
“We’ll get a call out of the blue saying they need 10,000 roaches or something like that. A lot of the time they’ll also need a wrangler, or someone to manage the animals while on the shoot,” he said.
The store has provided roaches and scorpions to the television show Fear Factor, and had National Geographic photograph their animals for a series on arachnophobia, or “fear of spiders.”
“We just ask that we get some legal promise that our name will get mentioned in the credits,” Keeper said. “Usually that’s what we’d like, some acknowledgement and a little PR for our efforts.”
Last year, ZooKeeper was approached with an offer for its own reality television show highlighting the culture of the store, its customers, and the exotic pet “lifestyle.”
Keeper and his staff met with the prospective producers, who also work with the show Pawn Stars on the History Channel. The staff got a contract from New York and shared tales of store pranks and fun times, but ultimately decided against participating.
“A lot of my staff was freaked out about being on camera, and every customer that came in (about 100-200 daily) would be required to sign a legal agreement to be on film,” Keeper explained. “It seemed like a lot of hassle for not much money.”
Along with just selling animals, the store also has its own breeding program. Keeper began breeding animals before he opened up at his first location. Currently, the store is incubating eggs for a batch of red-bearded dragons and tortoises.
“The breeding just came out of an interest in seeing if I could be successful in it,” Keeper said. “Most of the time when animals feel comfortable enough to breed its because you’ve done a good job making them feel comfortable. If you get something to breed its kind of an assurance that you’ve done something right.”
While most of the pet breeding is just for fun, the store also breeds “food animals,” such as crickets, worms, and mice, to help supplement the store’s income. Breeding these animals in-house allows Keeper to avoid relying on vendors for the mass quantities of these animals sold. On average the store sells 500 to 1,000 mice (many of which are frozen into what employees call “Mice Pops”) and between 20 thousand and 50 thousand crickets weekly.
Whether it’s to buy some of these food animals or to just browse, there are always people poking in and out of ZooKeeper. And they like it that way.
“I think our enthusiasm for what we do is contagious,” Keeper said. “My favorite thing is dealing with kids of all ages–not necessarily just physiological kids– you can just tell when someone has that ‘Wow!’ when you see that whole amazement of having a close-up one on one experience with nature. “