Off the Leash

In the exotic pet universe, it's all about whose is weirder than whose.

The "wow factor" certainly enters into Marco Zeno's equation. To him, weird reptiles are an obsessive hobby, with a diligent search for weirdness and strangeness. Like kids poring through catalogs before Christmas in years past, Zeno muses about his fantasy pet.

"If I could have anything in the whole world?" he repeats. "Wow. That's a good one." He thinks for several moments. "A New Caledonia giant gecko." Among the largest and rarest geckos on the planet, the New Caledonia isn't available for pet adoption in the U.S., much less permitted in the Plantation home Zeno shares with his grandmother.

His small bedroom is already packed with cages and terrariums housing various varieties of boas, anacondas, pythons, and geckos.

Bacchus the hairless cat.
photo: C. Katz
Bacchus the hairless cat.


Editor's note: This article appeared originally in New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

See also: My Pet's Weirder Than Yours
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But Zeno's life — when he's not performing as a clown or working on stage productions — revolves around "Snake," the five-year-old, nine-foot-long male anaconda whose cage takes up nearly one wall of the room.

"I'm a big anaconda connoisseur," says Zeno, who bought Snake at Animal Mania last year. Snake, who coils around his owner on the bed, swirling his rust-yellow-black body against Zeno's arms and legs, is about as thick as a Mason jar. He's exactly the type of snake known for occasionally strangling unwary pet enthusiasts. And he's already shown there are limits to his docility. Zeno feeds Snake giant rats — "rats the size of a small cat," he says — and recently Snake mistook his knee for one.

"Anacondas don't see very well," Zeno says. They aren't poisonous, but they can still inflict a painful bite, though Snake's 400 teeth only landed a glancing blow.

Snake, who once escaped (into Zeno's closet) and does roam around the room with supervision, hasn't tried to constrict the life out of his master, Zeno says.

"When I take him out to feed him," he says, "he tightens his grip on me. If he's excited, if he's in food mode, he'll naturally wrap around my arm." As for the unthinkable, he says only, "I could unwrap him if he decided to constrict me... You just have to be strong, and know which way to unwrap it. Besides, snakes don't eat people."

Zeno can get a taste of that behavior from his Tokay gecko. "He hates me," he laughs. Sliding a wooden panel, Zeno scoops a large speckled lizard from an enclosure near his bed. The gecko gives off a series of sharp, coughing barks, and plunges its teeth into Zeno's intruding arm. He tosses it back down and tries again, and it wards him off with grunting, cackling, spitting, and hissing. After a tug-of-war Zeno's arm is covered in bloody scratches.

"I just love it so much," is all he can say.

In truth there's not much emotion in a reptile relationship, experts say. "There's no affection from a reptile. None," says local zoologist and herpetology authority Jerry Marzec. "End of discussion. You're just a big, warm, moving stump."

Lauren Jeschonek, who runs reptile shows at places like Flamingo Gardens, used to think her iguanas loved her. "They're primitive animals," she realizes now. "We're basically entertained by them, like fish."

On the other hand, the extraordinary Burks say they felt genuine love from Luther. "He was affectionate in his own way," Steve says, "as much as he could be."

Luis Jimenez kisses Yagui, his Arctic Blue Fox.
photo: C. Katz
While mourning his water monitor, Steve Burk started reading up on big felines. He liked what he learned about the Eurasian lynx, a predator native to Siberia. In Europe, the breed was hunted to near extinction, and now is extremely rare.

At six weeks old, Sasha the kitten resembled a full-grown housecat, albeit with a dark, abbreviated tail and tufted cheeks. Next year he'll hit 120 pounds, his full weight.

Tupperware containers in the Burk's refrigerator contain the pulverized remains of rabbits and what-not from some mail-order slaughterhouse. It looks like gray, bloody hamburger. "Here, smell," says Steve thrusting it forward. "Just to have this shipped here costs me $88."

Sasha is surprisingly passive around the rest of the Burks' animals. He walks past their horses and goats, disinterested. "In two seconds, he could kill one," says Steve. Though he exhibits classic stalking behavior during play, he's never caught an animal — yet.

He's cornered Rio, the Burks' strikingly beautiful hyacinth macaw, once or twice, but he hasn't hurt the stressed-out bird. Steve leaves the room and comes back with their regular housecat, Peppy, whom he places on his lap. He wants to demonstrate that Peppy is completely comfortable around his macro-sized playmate. (Apparently he is, though Peppy acts about as happy as any cat picked up and held can be).

Next, Lucky Ducky undergoes the same lap treatment, but the duck seems considerably more agitated when Sasha gets near, and the experiment is called off.

When Sasha gets hungry, his hunting method involves sitting in front the refrigerator and waiting. Curbing his natural instinct might render Sasha less of a threat, but the Burks have discovered that most people find the cat's open-mouthed prowl and icy stare unnerving. After the Burks moved from South Beach earlier this year, at least one of their new neighbors moved away; the couple speculates that those neighbors were uncomfortable with Sasha nearby.

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