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An oink, oink here, a hiss, hiss there

The Graziani family sometimes has a little difficulty distinguishing between pets and business assets. That's because Graziani Reptiles in Venus breeds snakes and other reptiles for a living, but there are a few cold-blooded residents that Greg, Jacki and their kids, Lexi and Lane, consider pets. These include Jack, an albino alligator, two alligator hatchlings named Ebony and Ivory, a Galapagos tortoise called Sydney, Goliath the cayman rock iguana, some small lizards and some big snakes. Greg, who starred on the National Geographic TV series, "Python Hunters," said he typically doesn't name the snakes. "Snakes can't hear you. They don't have ears," he explained.
His favorite pets include Jack the albino alligator, who is now in his breeding program along with another favorite - a 20-year-old ball python. Many people enjoy keeping exotic, or non-native, species for pets. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) area spokesperson Gary Morse did not have statistics on non-native pets in the county or state at his fingertips, but noted that many species, such as certain non-venomous reptiles and amphibians, small mammals like sugar gliders and chinchillas, and tropical birds do not require a license. Licenses are required for Class I, II and III animals, with Class I, which includes chimpanzees and tigers, being the most dangerous. These animals have many requirements, including specifics on how they must be caged and maintained. Eleven-year-old Lane's newest favorite pet is a 29-inch-long albino alligator hatchling his dad named Ivory. Lane said he might change the name. "He's nice. He's tame," said Lane, stroking the toothy animal's jaw as it lay docile on his forearm. "This is not a pet I recommend," Greg said quickly. Having been passionate about reptiles since he was a child, Greg has taught Lane how to handle the alligator and desensitize it by touching its mouth. The animal is also well-fed and in a low-stress environment. In a pen just outside sits Goliath, a caymen rock iguana. He likes a good scratch and will lift up to allow his owners to rub him in just the right place under his chin. But that doesn't mean he's showing affection, Greg emphasized. "They do not share human emotion. They live off instinct," he explained. When people try to ascribe human emotion to animals is often what gets people hurt, he warned. Greg acquired Goliath the same time he acquired the family's Galapagos tortoise, Sydney. At 22 years of age, the tortoise is still too young to easily determine the sex, hence the ambiguous name, but Greg mostly refers to it as a "she." Sydney hid out in a burrow of hay as raindrops began to fall and hissed at Greg as he tried to coax her out. He guessed her weight to be about 125 pounds as he gave a few tugs on her shell. Since she is an endangered species, Sydney cannot cross state lines, Greg said. The man who gave Sydney to him had seen Greg on TV. He told Greg he would donate the tortoise to him only if he agreed to keep it. "I was real excited to find out about it," said Greg. He estimates the animal to be from $20,000 to $30,000. Graziani said some people choose reptiles for pets because they tend to be less allergenic. Morse said many people don't realize the caging and maintenance needs of some non-native species. Some can be expensive to feed and provide health care for. When Greg got Sydney, she had a deformed shell due to nutritional deficiencies. Tortoises love fruit, but fruit should only be about 5 percent of their diet, he explained. Like Goliath, Sydney's proper diet is mostly grass. "Just because (an animal) is eating something doesn't mean it's good for him," Greg stated. Morse noted that many non-native animals can live long, so their owners need to be prepared for that. Releasing non-native species into the wild is a problem he has seen firsthand. For that reason some species aren't allowed at all, for example,the flesh-eating pirahna fish. Even with her physical problems, Sydney will live to be about 200 years old. Greg said an animal like this will have to be willed down in the family, so either Lexi or Lane can look forward to having it for a long time. "They get to fight over that," he joked. Thirty miles north in Sebring, Lola and Leya relax hidden under a blanket on the Price family's sofa. These sphynx cats, also called "hairless cats" may look a little odd at first glance, but Karen Price loves them, calling them her "hairless babies." "I was on a waiting list for six years," explained Price, who originally wanted a leopard-spotted sphynx, which go for about $6,000. But when she discovered a local breeder had a pink and grey sphynx kitten, Price chose to take Leya home instead for a cool $1,000 and later got Lola, a black and pink sphynx cat, from the same woman. Sphynx cats originated in Toronto, Canada, in 1966 when a domestic cat gave birth to a hairless kitten. This was discovered to be a normal mutation also found around the world, and the sphynx breed was born. Not all sphynx are completely hairless. Price's cats' skin is covered with a fine, almost imperceptible down. Stroking their warm bellies feels a lot like stroking a newborn baby. They have long legs, large ears, baggy skin and a "rat tail." Her husband Alan said they reminded him of Yoda from Star Wars. These kitties are in a lot of ways like any other cats. They have their personalities (Lola likes human attention while Leya spends more time hissing), they groom themselves, and they enjoy high places. Leya will play with 13-year-old A.J. on the cat's terms. But the sphynx breed has its peculiarities, too. Because they have no fur, there is nothing to absorb the natural oils produced by their skin, so they need to be bathed once a week. "They are high maintenance," confirmed Price, who also needs to clean the oil from around Leya's nails and take extra care of the cats' ears, which don't have any hair in them to keep out dirt. She also has to check their noses to make sure they don't inhale bits from their litter box. Sometimes the oil from Leya's skin stains the bedsheets when she sleeps with Price's 14-year-old daughter, Nala. The cats get cold easily, too. Price pointed to the TV satellite receiver. "They sit on it," she said. They fight over the WiFi box, too, another piece of technology that radiates heat. These cats tend to be less allergenic than typical cats because they don't shed, they are bathed regularly, and their saliva contains lesser amounts of a problem substance that induces allergic reactions. They are also tick- and flea-free and hardy, said Price. With proper care, they can live 20 years, she stated. Wild pigs were something the Sapp family were used to trapping and selling. Who knew they would end up with one for a pet? It happened on New Year's Day. Eddie and his son, 11-year-old Layton, were out trapping hogs as usual and ended up with two pregnant sows. The day before the buyer arrived, one sow had her litter. But when the buyer left with his purchase, one little piggy had been left behind. "I saw something run down the side of the trailer," recalled Layton, who was out playing with his sister. "I saw it, too," said 10-year-old Lindsay. Mom Paula, although she is a Lake Placid 4-H leader, was not too keen on playing mommy to a baby hog, especially since their home was in a residential area not zoned for livestock. But Macie, as they named her, lived inside the house and was bottle-fed on goat's milk until she could eat dog food. "They are cleaner than a dog," said Paula, and easier to train. Now that the family has moved to a new home where they can have animals, Macie has her own stall and gets to roam five acres of property, digging up mudholes to roll around in when the ground is wet. "They like to roll around in the mud because they don't sweat," the Sapps explained. When the Sapp kids walk up to Macie's cage, she runs up to the door, oinking quietly. When they let her out, she makes a beeline to where her food is kept. Macie is kept on a strict diet to keep her from becoming obese. She eats dry dog food, corn, scraps and fruit. Her favorites are apples, bananas and watermelon. She doesn't wander too far, comes when called and listens to commands, said Paula. The people in their old neighborhood were very fond of Macie, recalled Paula. She's a little worried that in their new neighborhood someone might mistake Macie for a wild hog and take a shot at her. The kids like it when she chases them, but always in play and never with aggression. She has her funny little idiosyncrasies, too, like how she enjoys sticking her snout into the pond and blowing bubbles and prefers the green jellybeans to any other color. While Paula was skeptical about having a pet hog at first, Macie now has a place in Paula's heart. "She's a pet until she lives out her life here, just like a dog," Paula vowed. For more information on non-native pets, licensing, and pet amnesty days where people can turn in unwanted animals, visit www.myfwc.com.