Tag: animals

Austin Gets Exotic with Local Pet Store

Photo by Cheney Slocum.

A chameleon hangs from a stick in its tank at ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in North Austin.

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.’”

Photo by Cheney Slocum.

ZooKeeper owner Daniel Keeper in in his office.

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.”


Spiders like this one are bred in the store. Some spiders will hatch up to 1,500 eggs at one time, each needing its own separate food and habitat.

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. “

What exotic pet would you want to own?

Coyotes Out to Survive in the Neighborhood

Contributed by: Chris Caraveo, Cheyenne Matthews-Hoffman, Cheney Slocum

They’re out there. In the area. And hungry.

Multiple coyote sightings in the Austin and Round Rock areas this year have put residents on alert as they go about their daily routines. In the month of January Austin citizens have reported 86 coyote complaints, an increase from 74 at this same time last year.

Haley Hudnall of Austin Wildlife Rescue said that the gradual increase in coyotes, along with bobcats, in the area have become more common because of Austin expansion.

“There’s nowhere else for them to go,” Hudnall said. “So they’re learning to live in the city at least a little bit. They’re eating mice and rats and whatever is available to them.”

It all comes down to survival.

“They’re just running out of places to go so they have to learn how to live in the city like opossums and raccoons or else they don’t live,” she said.

A more serious concern deals with lingering coyotes near elementary and middle schools.

On Friday, January 24, Great Oaks Elementary School sent out a letter to parents  warning that coyotes had been seen in the Brushy Creek Greenbelt and that  students would be supervised when they were outside.

On Friday, January 24, Great Oaks Elementary School sent out a letter to parents
warning that coyotes had been seen in the Brushy Creek Greenbelt and that
students would be supervised when they were outside.

Up in Round Rock, schools like Great Oaks Elementary have seen the fox-like animal in the vicinity. School staff and parents have both worried over the safety of students who have to walk to and from school.

“Our elementary and middle schools don’t have buses because we all live in the area,” Great Oaks preschool teacher Lisa Baumann said.

Lisa Baumann talks coyotes

The school administration sent out a notice to alert parents about the coyote problem near the school and informed them about how to address the issue to their children.

In the letter it states that while coyote attacks on humans are rare children should walk in groups to provide a numbers advantage. It also urges students to never approach a wild animal, yell at an approaching coyote and to get away from the area if it doesn’t flee.

The overall aim with dealing with these coyotes is to prevent harmful incidences while also respecting their nature. Like most un-domesticated wildlife coyotes developed aggressive predator skills in order to survive.

“They have killed a small dog on a home that backed up against the Greenbelt,” Baumann said. “So they are hungry, they are out there and they’re moving around.”

As coyotes try to survive within city there comes a great risk of them getting harmed themselves.

Via social media Round Rock resident David Squires said a freshly killed coyote was spotted on a service road less than a mile from two Murchison and Highland Park Elementary Schools.

In a report last August by Austin’s KTBC Fox, Texas Wildlife Services euthanized two coyotes because they had chased someone from Blunn Creek Nature Preserve.

In the event that a coyote is not killed but sustains any injuries, there are not many places within Austin that can treat them.

Wildlife rehabilitation organizations are a good place to start if you find an injured coyote or a wild animal that has been injured by a coyote. The health department had previously kept Austin Wildlife Rescure from taking in coyotes or foxes. This year should be different.

Wildlife rehabilitation organizations are a good place to start if you find an injured coyote or a wild animal that has been injured by a coyote. The health department had previously kept Austin Wildlife Rescure from taking in coyotes or foxes. This year should be different.

Austin Wildlife Rescue, located on Martin Luther King Blvd., currently does not have state certification to care for the animal. But there are hopes that it will become authorized to do so.

“As of last year we were not allowed to,” Hudnall said. “But laws are starting to change and this year we’re supposed to do that. We don’t have the official word yet.”

As more coyote dens become uninhabitable these displaced animals have to move somewhere else and eat something other than what they’ve been accustomed to.

They just might have to do that around the city.

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