Tag: culture

Poo Poo Platter: Serving Up Austin Drag

Jessica Jones, Fatima Puri, Shannon Smith

At 9:20, the stage manager throws open the dressing room door.

“Ready to go on at 9:30?” he asks.

But everyone shakes their head; Cupcake is running late—they’ll need more time. Seconds later, a frazzled man rushes in with a large suitcase in tow. The dressing room quickly becomes a center of chaos.

He yells that he only needs ten minutes. As Brady rips open the suitcase, one thing is clear: a transformation is about to take place.

Brady puts a hair net over his short, buzzed head and gets to work on his face. Quick brush stokes of foundation, blush, eye shadow. He swiftly applies glue to his fake eye lashes and places them perfectly on his lids. While he finishes up his lipstick, someone straps his heels. He shoves gel implants into his otherwise empty bra, and gives them a shake as he glances in the mirror. Next, he places two different wigs on his head and pins then into place.

Exactly 10 minutes later as promised, he sings, “Cupcake is reaaaady!”

Someone hands him the mic and he steps onto stage.

The dressing room looks like the aftermath of a tornado, but the five remaining queens backstage are too excited to even notice the mess. Tonight is a Poo Poo Platter show—and they’re ready to serve up the most unique of Austin’s drag.

Poo Poo Platter was formed three and a half years ago, after founding member Waldo moved to Austin and saw an opportunity to bring a new type of drag to the area. At the time, Austin drag was focused on female allusion, but Waldo knew others would want to join him in bringing a lighter-hearted, funnier type of drag to the city. With now more than ten members and at least two shows a month you could say it was a success.

Waldo, stage name Bulimianne Rhapsody, the creator of Poo Poo Platter, gets ready before the show. Photo courtesy of Shannon Smith.

Waldo, stage name Bulimianne Rhapsody, the creator of Poo Poo Platter, gets ready before the show.
Photo courtesy of Shannon Smith.

Although they are a troop, every member gets to design their own part of the show, from music and props right down to costumes and makeup.

“We’re very much independent contractors. Everyone does their own thing, they’re responsible for their own acts,” said queen Arcie Cola.

But being a part of the troop certainly has its benefits. It’s easier to book shows when you’re offering more than just one act, and the members understand that. Many of them had solo careers as performers before joining Poo Poo Platter, but enjoy the special relationships that being a part of this group provides.

“You can always be an individual performer, whereas being in a troop it’s a family. So for me it comes down to work and family,” said Zane Zena, who performed as a wrestler previous to joining Poo Poo Platter.

And the closeness of the group is apparent, even to an outsider. Whether they are helping each other in the dressing room, taking a cigarette break or just dancing around together during a rehearsal—it is clear that the group shares a special bond.

A big part of that bond is their agreement that “drag” is something that cannot easily be defined.

“When somebody tells you that you can’t be something—you do it. That’s drag to me,” said Zane Zena.

While Cupcake was more keen on not defining it at all, “I don’t know what is and isn’t drag… It’s not my problem to define the word, I’m not f***** Merriam Webster.”

And while the actual definition of drag may not be important, the troop agreed that there is a definite need to shine a light on drag as a real performing art.

Poo Poo Platter cast. Photo courtesy of Poo Poo Platter.

Poo Poo Platter cast.
Photo courtesy of Poo Poo Platter.

They practice hours a week and spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars, on making their own costumes. Yet, people are still quick to dismiss drag as being a real art. Respect—that is the universal word each queen mentioned. And the Austin International Drag Festival this past weekend was one step in the right direction.

An entire weekend dedicated to promoting and supporting the drag community, Poo Poo Platter was able to host events and mingle with infamous drag queens from around the world. More than anything, the second annual festival acted as a way of spreading the idea that drag is an outlet for artistic expression, not simply men in dresses.

 

cost-of-drag

Latinos: Celebrating While Fighting the Narrative

Cassandra Jaramillo | Jade Magalhaes | Sandy Marin | Jan Ross Piedad

Photo by: Jade Magalhaes

Photo by Jade Magalhaes

They’ve been called criminals, drug dealers and rapists.

Even though some Americans have no reservations when expressing their negative feelings toward Mexican immigrants, they are here to stay.

Hundreds of latinos brought a wave of red, white and green to the Texas Capitol in celebration of Hispanic Heritage month.  In light of the upcoming presidential election, the immigration discourse surrounding the fastest-growing minority is reaching its peak.

In the current political environment where immigrants are heavily scrutinized, a new study broke down narratives and misconceptions. The research, conducted by the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, revealed that immigrant teens are less likely to commit crimes and use drugs than their U.S. native counterparts.

Despite research findings, immigration remains a major topic of debate among 2016 presidential candidates.

“No one knows who the Democratic or Republican nominee is going to be,” said Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly and nationally-syndicated columnist of “Ask a Mexican.” “But if the Republican nominee wants a chance at winning, they need to stop this anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican rhetoric.”

 The research also found that immigrant youths are more likely to report cohesive parental relationships, positive school engagement and disapproving views with respect to adolescent substance use, according to UT News.

Furthermore, a particular discussion that has recently sparked debate is “anchor babies.” The term refers to children born to a noncitizen mother in a country that has birthright citizenship. After Republican candidate Donald Trump criticized the citizenship clause of the 14th amendment, the term caused controversy for those who adopted the language.

“I was born to undocumented parents,” Arellano said. “I come from a family of anchor babies. I know exactly what we contribute to this country. The last time I checked, the American constitution called anchor babies American citizens. So, when you’re calling someone an ‘anchor baby’ you’re demeaning an American citizen, which just goes to show how racist those people are.”

 

Certain students on the UT campus are working to defy the stereotypes that surround the Latin community. 

Infographic by Jan Ross Piedad

Camila Olmedo, from Bolivia, is studying economics and nonprofits in social entrepreneurship. She moved to Texas three years ago to follow some of her brother’s footsteps.

Although Olmedo and her brother are not American, they knew they wanted to do something beneficial for the community. The siblings, their cousin and other friends brainstormed in their apartment and founded “Starting Americas Together” (START).

“We recognize that we are very lucky [to be able to] study here,” Olmedo said. “It is definitely a sacrifice to us and to our parents to make this move. We definitely want to be on task and involved to get the most out of this opportunity.”

The organization’s goal is to connect students from different countries in North America, Central America and South America. They put together several different philanthropic projects each year to bring awareness to certain issues facing those countries and send members to volunteer abroad.

The group is currently working to raise funds for a new project called “H2O: Water is Golden.” START plans to hire a water truck that will provide clean water to the community of Campo Rancho Cerro Verde in Bolivia on a weekly basis. Through clothing drives, contests and community outreach, Olmedo hopes to complete the project before she graduates.

Although the organization has accomplished many goals, Camilla believes there is still a lot of room for improvement for the mostly Latin group.

“Something we have a lot of struggle with is trying to get more American students involved, because we also want to connect North Americans, not just Latin students,” Olmedo said. “We are trying to get more on their side.”

With a new START chapter being established at Texas A&M, this group of immigrant students hopes to expand and make a difference.  

 

 

Austin Yogis Unite at the Wanderlust Yoga Festival

By Silvana Di Ravenna, Emma Ledford and Andrew Masi

If you’re looking to unwind after a long and stressful week, going to a 4-day-long festival in the heart of downtown Austin probably isn’t at the top on your list – but you might rethink that after hearing about Wanderlust.

From Nov. 6-9, the Wanderlust Yoga Festival brought Austin yogis to 4th Street and Brazos for four days of diverse yoga classes, music, art and community. Beginner, intermediate and expert yogis alike found classes that fostered physical, mental and spiritual growth and relaxation in a healthy and welcoming environment.

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A group of attendees at the Wanderlust Yoga Festival take part in a class. Festival activities were spread out over four days. Photo by Andrew Masi.

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Zoe Mantarakis shows off one of her favorite yoga positions. Mantarakis led several different classes at the festival. Photo by Andrew Masi.

Zoe Mantarakis has been teaching yoga in Austin for 14 years. She led five very different classes at Wanderlust Austin this year, embodying the wide spectrum of yoga the festival offered.

She started with a self-empowerment class on Friday morning called “Nectar Within” and a meditative class called “Om Shanti Bliss-out.” Later that evening, she switched gears and led “Boom Boom Pow Black Light,” a collaboration with musician DJ Manny that she called a “party on your yoga mat.” She also taught a class on Saturday on her style of yoga rooted in ancient Sanskrit philosophy, “Yoga Illumined,” and a class on Sunday about self-discipline called “Tapas: Fire Within.”

Though her classes were very different from each other, they were “all on the same spectrum,” Mantarakis said, because they focused on creating community.

“Yoga is about bringing a community together and creating a tribe. So there’s many ways to accomplish that, and all of those ways are yoga,” she said. “So if it’s just sitting still and meditating, that’s yoga. If it’s having a party where we’re conscious and we’re all coming together, that’s yoga.”

Newcomers and expert yogis alike found Wanderlust classes that suited their needs. Festivalgoer Stephan Mazerand has been practicing yoga for about three months. His first love is running, and he discovered yoga as a way to help him stretch better.

Though he’s still a beginner, he was able to find classes at the festival that worked for him and helped him grow.

“The problem is I’m a runner, so I can’t straighten out properly,” Mazerand said. “There’s a bunch of poses. I’m not very good at them, and so the instructor was helping me out a little bit, you know.”

In an effort to get festivalgoers out of their comfort zone, Austin yoga teacher Dani Whitehead hosted an open-to-everyone acroyoga “jam” session. She hoped to get people to try acroyoga for the first time, but also provide an opportunity for advanced yogis to “come out and show off.”

“Acroyoga is kind of like dancing. There’s ballroom, there’s hip-hop, there’s contemporary, there’s ballet,” she said. “It can be for fun, it can be for performance, it can be as a workout, it can be to make friends. You can do anything you want.”

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Dani Whitehead demonstrates her strength in a partnered acroyoga session. Whitehead teaches acrobatic partner yoga in Austin, and feats like this draw students to her classes. Photo by Andrew Masi.

Whitehead has been practicing acroyoga for about three years. Though it is more vigorous than traditional yoga, she hopes to get more people into it and grow the community.

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Everyone was invited to participate in the acroyoga play session, as long as they did so safely. Photo by Andrew Masi.

“It is such an amazing practice to do with your friend, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your children – and I am all about supporting that coming together and bringing people in, but also staying safe and taking care of each other,” Whitehead said.

Austin yogi Elizabeth Davis led hiking classes at Wanderlust to help people to “take their Austin outside,” expand their consciousness and find the magic in every moment. She urged her hikers to do self-inquiry work and have “authentic conversations” about their negative or shameful thoughts so that they could move past them and appreciate the present.

“Every moment is truly a gift. It’s a gift that we’re even together as human beings,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of this amazing experience and community. It just reaffirms why I’m in the yoga community and why I do what I do. And I just couldn’t be more happy.”

Austin’s festival is just one of the many annual Wanderlust Yoga Festivals held across the U.S. and around the globe, including Canada and Australia. The festivals help grow and connect the many yoga communities across the world, Mantarakis said.

“To me Wanderlust Festival is all about tribe. And that’s essentially what it is. It’s a traveling group of yogis that grows at each spot and cultivates community within a certain location but then also across boundaries,” she said. “Once we’re connected, we’re a tribe. Across state lines, across country lines.”

Wanderlust Yoga Festivals Across the World (map created by Emma Ledford)
Wanderlust Yoga Festivals are held in multiple locations across the U.S. (including Hawaii), Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Click here for the schedule.

Art studio hosts gala to inspire artists with disabilities

 

Stephen S. proudly displays his bedazzled masterpiece, "Sparkle Chicken" at the Arc of the Arts studio in Austin, Texas. One of Stephen's jeweled sculptures was sold instantly at the Building Bridges silent auction on Oct. 22.

Stephen R. proudly displays his bedazzled masterpiece, “Sparkle Chicken” at the Arc of the Arts studio in Austin, Texas. One of Stephen’s jeweled sculptures was sold instantly at the Building Bridges silent auction on Oct. 22. (Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna)

By Silvana Di Ravenna, Joe McMahon and Alice Kozdemba

In celebration of creativity and talent, the Arc of the Arts Studio and Gallery  hosted its 15th annual Building Bridges art gala and auction at the Hyatt Regency on Barton Springs Rd. on Oct. 22. The gala is one of several annual events that the organization hosts to showcase the work of the studio’s 65 artists.  Arc of the Arts  is part of the Arc of the Capital Area, a nonprofit organization that provides support to intellectually or developmentally challenged teens and adults.

The night featured dozens of art displays, from jewelry and paintings, to drawings and sculptures. Dressed in cocktail attire, artists, donors and volunteers gathered around the displays to marvel at the vibrant colors and creations that were being proudly showcased by the artists of the Arc. Guests were served dinner, and had the chance to participate in art auctions and raffles. Building Bridges is a chance for Arc students to display their best pieces, and all proceeds made at the gala go back into the program.

Ann Wieding, Arc program manager, said students work on skills all year and instructors go through a critique process with each artist to determine which pieces will be displayed at Building Bridges.

“We take pictures and we talk about it, and the really nice pieces start to float to the top,” Wieding said. “Bridges is where everybody puts in 110 percent, and picks out their best piece.”

Tala S. a fifth year student with the program, was dressed to her best for the gala in a leopard printed dress , black jeweled necklace and a matching hat. She stood by her canvas painting of the Austin skyline and smiled for pictures and visitors. Tala has spent her time at the Arc mastering landscape and architecture painting styles.

“I find inspiration in Austin. I’m a big people person and I enjoy this place,” Tala said.

 

Students like Tala attend daily art classes at the Arc of the Arts Studio on Grover Ave. The classes are offered to students 14 and up, and most of the artists have common developmental disabilities, like autism, down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Classes take place Tuesday-Saturday and cost $25 a day per student.

Tala met her best friend Stephen at the Arc, who has been with the program since 2011. Stephen specializes in animal sculptures and jewelry. He has recently created several rooter sculptures that are intricately bedazzled with exuberant jewels. One of his roosters was showcased at the gala, and was sold almost immediately in the silent auction.

“My mind picks the colors. My mind tells me what to do,” he said.

 Arc classes provide students with basic art instruction from teachers who come from art education backgrounds. They work with students to develop individual skills and interests, as well as providing them with practical skills to help professionalize their artistic careers.

"Sparkly Cupcake" is one of three Arc of the Arts Studio paintings currently being displayed at Hey Cupcake. Ali H., the artists of the paintings helped set up the display, and makes a 20 percent commission on any of the pieces sold. (Photo by Alice Kozdemba)

“Sparkly Cupcake” is one of three Arc of the Arts Studio paintings currently being displayed at Hey Cupcake. Ali H., the artist of the paintings, helped set up the display, and makes a 20 percent commission on any of the pieces sold. (Photo by Alice Kozdemba)

 “Every week they learn a new skill, and when they start focusing on what they want to do as artists, we start taking them through the steps to become a professional artist,” Wieding said.

 In addition to classes and showcases hosted by the Arc, the student artwork has been displayed at local businesses in Austin, such as Hey Cupcake, Quacks Bakery and Kerbey Lane. Ali. H, a current art student , did the series of paintings that are currently displayed at the Hey Cupcake on Burnet Road. Wieding said part of the organization’s mission is to teach the students how to market themselves as working artists.

 “Ali went there and helped hang the show, and she was interviewed by  Community Impact,”Wieding said. “They pretty much follow the procedures that any artist would follow. They have to make the contacts, and do the PR, even if they’re not going to be the world’s most recognized artists.”

 The Arc of the Capital Area was founded in 1949, and was originally called The Association of Retarded Children. Organizers changed the name to Arc, and the arts program was added in 2010. Susan Eason, executive director of the Arc initially came to the organization as a client with her daughter , who was born with a developmental disability. Eason enjoyed the program so much that she began volunteering, and eventually became the director.

A teacher at the Arc of the Arts studio discusses a painting with artist and student Jared S. Teachers collaborate with the artists to develop create and professional skill sets. (Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna)

A teacher at the Arc of the Arts studio discusses a painting with artist and student Jared S. Teachers collaborate with the artists to develop create and professional skill sets. (Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna)

 “It’s really hard when you have a child with disabilities to find child care,” said Eason. “I wanted to meet other families and I was so impressed with the help they gave me that I became a volunteer.”

 Eason has been the Arc director for 23 years, and she said the program is currently waitlisted. Their youngest students are 14-years-old and the oldest is 60-years-old.

 “We serve people from the minute they’re diagnosed until the end of their life. Most students learn how to socialize here. Before this they had no peers or friends. “

In addition to classes, the Arc helps families deal with caring for developmentally challenged loved ones, especially as they approach adulthood. Amiee Chonoski, Arc marketing and volunteer coordinator,  said that the most rewarding part of the job is knowing that they are helping students and their families connect and learn from each other.

“I love working with the Arc because we have an amazing staff, and they love what they do and that’s a beautiful thing to be around every day,” Chonoski said.  “The artists are incredible, they are heroes.”

Oktoberfest Season: A Spotlight on German-Texan culture

By Breanna Luna, Larisa Manescu and Jared Wynne

Song after song, Bill Holden exercises his polka and waltz skills with a new partner. He’s been dancing for 47 years, and here on the dance floor he’s in his element. Holden wears a name tag identifying him as a Wurstfest Grosse Opa, a honorary title that the Wurstfest Association gave him last year for his loyalty, dedication and willingness to participate.

Clad in a green Bavarian hat dotted with pins, a red vest and lederhosen, Holden may seem hard to miss. But his appearance is far from unique in the beer garden.

 

Dancers crowd the floor as live polka music fills the beer garden. Wurstfest member and Senior Opa Bill Holden, has been dancing for 46 years. Holden said he first began dancing in seventh grade, when his parents sent him to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio located in Austin, Texas. Photo by Larisa Manescu.

Dancers crowd the floor as live polka music fills the beer garden at the Oktoberfest Festival on Oct. 4 in Fredericksburg, Texas. Wurstfest Association member Bill Holden first began dancing in the seventh grade, when his parents sent him to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio located in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Larisa Manescu.

 

On October 3-5, the weekend of the Oktoberfest festival in Fredericksburg, Texas, over 20,000 people showed up for the 34th celebration of German-Texan heritage and culture. People of all ages donned traditional dirndls and lederhosen, and there was no shortage of beer waiting for them. But the annual festival represents more than an opportunity for excessive drinking.

In addition to dancing to a variety of live bands at one of the three beer gardens, activities at Oktoberfest include stilt walking, indulging in traditional German dishes like bratwurst, potato pancakes and schnitzel, and participating in a stein-holding competition. There’s also a carnival area for the children, and various local artisans and food vendors put their products on display in tents.

Photo by Breanna Luna.

Eins, zwei, drei, g’suffa! (One, two, three, drink up!)
Photo by Breanna Luna.

 

While some attendees may be curious first-time visitors to the festival, many have significant ties to the German heritage community in Texas.

Festival attendee Gene Hackemack has been playing German and Czech music since the late 1970s. His business card is labeled “Gene Hackemack’s Oompah Musik” and states, “Have Squeezebox [Accordion] – Will Travel.” While plays at a variety of German and Czech festivals like Oktoberfest, and he has the right background for it. His great-great grandfather arrived in Galveston, Texas from Germany on June 4, 1854, and his family spoke Texas German, a dying dialect, until the 1960s.

Hackemack also claims membership to a variety of German cultural groups, such as the Winedale German Singers, the Texas German Society and Hermann Sons, a fraternal insurance organization that was exclusively for the early German settlers in Texas but is now open to anyone who wants to join.

It is not uncommon to walk up to an Oktoberfest attendee and discover that he or she is heavily involved in a German band, organization or another Oktoberfest festival occurring in Texas. For example, several committee members involved with the planning of Wurstfest, a 10-day celebration of German culture in New Braunfels, Texas in November, frequent Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg in their outfits.

The planning that goes into the festival is extensive and the local community is heavily involved. Oktoberfest festival manager Debbie Farquhar and her group of chairs have meetings with all City departments, such as the police and fire department, who she said are always fully aware of the plans and eager to help.

Although no official study has been done to quantify how much money the festival generates for the town, Farquhar said that the economic impact is evident.

“Lodging was fully booked, retailers love it, restaurants had waiting lists, gas stations had their share and my list could go on,” Farquhar said.

As soon as the festival is over, debriefings among the Oktoberfest Advisory committee occur and ideas for next year’s festival are already being generated.

Oktoberfest Season in Texas from Breanna on Vimeo.

Other similar festivals have sprung up around Central Texas, with each looking to take advantage of the season and contribute to the maintaining of German culture in the region. One such festival in Austin goes by the name of AustOberfest. After a successful debut in 2013, the second annual event was held on Sep. 27 of this year.

Austin Saengerrunde, a traditional German choral singing society and the oldest ethnic organization in Austin, hosts the newly established festival. Brian Michalk, the organization’s president, said that the event had more than doubled in size in terms of visitors since it was first held one year ago.

“We’re very happy with the growth,” Michalk said.

Preparations for a large festival in the heart of Austin require planning far in advance. AustOberfest staff begin work for the event six months in advance, making contact with potential sponsors and vendors and advising city officials of potential traffic disruptions. AustOberfest organizers would one day like to be able to close down additional streets around their location at 1607 San Jacinto Blvd.

Miletus Callahan-Barile, Saengerrunde’s facilities director, emphasized the positive effect that such a festival can have on the regional vendors who participate.

“We support local Austin businesses and local hill country business,” Callahan-Barile said. “It’s not just music, beer, and good times; it’s also the food, and the food is very important.”

Even so, Callahan-Barile did acknowledge the importance of offering strong entertainment value to visitors at a festival. And Michalk was sure to point out that arranging all of the assorted entertainments on offer isn’t cheap.

“Budgeting is always difficult for something like this,” Michalk said.

While the available budget does grow for a festival as the event becomes larger, the desire for bigger and better fare and fun isn’t easily sated. And so it is that AustOberfest organizers have already begun to consider how to go about funding a 2015 event that will outdo this year’s.

But for all of the planning that must go into these festivals and others like them in Central Texas, the mission remains the same: bringing German culture to local residents and showing them a good time.

A few of the season's main festivals in Central Texas.

A few of the season’s main festivals in Central Texas.

 

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.”

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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?