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Alpha Exotics: Reptiles in Horsham

Luke at Alpha Exotics, Horsham

Published on 4th December 2014

Alpha Exotics is owned by Luke Russell-Smith, a reptile enthusiast who selected Horsham as the location for his first shop in Park Place (behind Piries Place).

Luke said: "Everyone seems to have reptiles of one sort or another in this town but there are no shops to cater for them. There are pet shops, but the reptile community is not sufficiently served by them, so I opened Alpha Exotics to cater for such people.

"I feel for me personally that this is a new chapter. I had grown my collection up at home and started selling online, but nobody knew that I was out there. I was living in Horsham and was selling the same animals you could buy at pet shops, but nobody could find me, so I decided that I would take the business into the town.

"Children especially love coming in and seeing the variety of animals that we have. We have lots of species, with snakes, lizards, and tortoises, including some very striking and unusual species, such as the rhino rat snake and the orange-eyed crocodile skink. This is a lizard that looks a bit like a crocodile!

"We don't sell spiders though. I have had people asking, but other people say 'if you keep spiders here, I'm not coming back!"

"I am learning more about reptiles every day as you learn things from customers and others in the trade. That is the great thing about running a shop - people just coming in and talking, as you are exchanging opinions and information about the animals, which makes it very rewarding."

As well as selling animals and habitats, the shop stocks a good range of food supplies for the pets, and Luke hopes this will keep regular visitors coming in. So far, this approach is working, and the shop has hit the ground running.

Assistant manager Jemma Stewart said: "The feedback has been very good as a lot of people are interested in reptiles here in Horsham. Certainly, children have a big interest in animals because they have been introduced to all kinds of exotic animals through television shows, so now more people are keeping reptiles."

Popularity of Reptiles

Research by the British Federation of Herpetologists suggests that there are as many as eight million reptiles kept as pets in UK, which means they actually outnumber pet dogs!

If this is truly the case, then there should be a market for Alpha Exotics to thrive.

Jemma said: "A few people have said to me that they don't think that we can survive. But we have already seen a lot of people coming in to the shop, old and young, with some amazing animals.

"A couple of people have come in with Bosc monitor lizards, and there are people with reticulated pythons right here in Horsham. There are people in this town with a Dangerous Wild Animals (DWA) licence with cobalt blue tarantulas, black widow and baboon spiders, and even the goliath bird eating spider, so quite jaw dropping stuff!"

Luke believes that the reptile trade is increasing because the creatures offer something more exotic, can often be easier to look after than a cat or a dog, and that people are intrigued by their peculiar movement - like a Ray
Harryhausen stop motion movie!

People are looking at more unusual species as knowledge of breeding, feeding and habitat increases. Alpha
Exotics has one such snake, the strikingly beautiful rhino rat snake of South East Asia. He said: "These are animals that make very good pets. When they are hatched they are a silver colour, and then they turn green. They have a horn on the end of their snout, which I think is stunning but nobody knows for sure why they have it.

"Not a great deal is known about the snake, and the only way you'll find out more is by keeping and observing them. I have bred the snake with other experts, and we believe we may have cracked their feeding pattern, which is very exciting for us.

"I have one adult rhino rat snake in the shop, which is not for sale, and three more at home to make two pairs, and I sell the hatchlings. Not many people know about them but they are easy to keep, as like most rat snakes they are not aggressive and are affordable."

The Staff

Luke's interest in reptiles dates back to when he was 17, studying for a diploma in animal management. They had exotic animals at Merrist Wood College in Guildford, and that sparked his fascination with reptiles.

Originally, he had wanted to be a marine biologist, but it is his research with reptiles which led to Alpha Exotics, his first business venture. He said: "I spent a couple of years driving around the UK collecting the less commonly known species, including the rhino rat snake, which not a lot of people know about and even fewer have seen.

"So part of my goal was to learn how to keep them and now I am in a position to pass on this knowledge and sell them.But it is important to identify whether people are suited to an animal, as it is the welfare of the animal that is important, not just the satisfaction of a new owner.

Jemma has worked at the shop since it opened three months ago. She studied animal care at Brinsbury College before taking a Foundation degree in animal science at Plumpton College. She said: "I've always been interested in reptiles and exotic animals.

"My first snake was a corn snake, which I was given when I was 16. Luke gave me one of his snakes too, a corn snake crossed with a milk snake, and that is five foot long now. I also have three geckos, a western hognose snake and three bearded dragons, one of which is a baby and then I have a fully grown pair. I also bought my first chameleon recently, which was very exciting!"

Safe Pets

You need not enter the shop with fear or trepidation, as there are no species on the Dangerous Wild Animals (DWA) list inside. That hasn't stopped people asking about some of the more exotic and dangerous snakes, which sometimes people want to buy for all of the wrong reasons.

Jemma said: "We are not licensed to sell DWA species, and don't promote it at all. But people have come in and said 'I want a Burmese python.' Some do not understand the responsibility of owning such a snake. They are very cute when they are young, but some people cannot grasp just how big they grow, and if you do not feed them properly, then they will size you up. We are talking about animals which can and have eaten people.

"Somebody came in looking for albino cobra, which is also on the DWA list so we would not sell it. We do have some unique animals that are not on the list, such as a false water cobra. However, if you, for example (I have two young children) came in looking to buy one, we would thoroughly recommend that you don't. There are better animals here for you.

"We would ask anyone a lot of questions before we let you take any type of cobra away.

"Some see these animals as a status symbol; they want it because it's cool, and there have been times when we've had to deny a sale. You need to do your research, and read up on these animals to know what you're getting yourself into. As even bearded dragons have a nasty bite, as my mother will testify!"

Luke agrees that it is vital that an animal has to go to the right home, where it will be kept properly. Incredibly, some types of snake that you would expect to be on the DWA list, however, are not. Luke hopes that the list will soon be expanded.

He said: "The list includes venomous animals and soon we hope it will include large constrictors, which amazingly are not on the list. Personally, I think it's an absolute no-brainer. We have animals here though that people need to know what they are getting in to, including the false water cobra.

"You have to be prepared to one day have an eight-foot snake with venom that will chase you for food!

"I have little interest in selling DWA animals in the future as they are animals you can't really interact with and there is never going to be the market to sell them in the town centre. How many people are going to have paid £400 for a DWA licence?"

For more information call 01403 230301 or visit the website at www.alphaexotics.co.uk

A red-eyed alligator skink at Alpha Exotics, Horsham
Rhino rat snake at Alpha Exotics, Horsham
Lizard at Alpha Exotics, Horsham
Luke at Alpha Exotics, Horsham

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