Not Your Average Pet

Exotic Pets

| 2016 Q1 | story by JULIE DUNLAP | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG
 Bird Sanctuary

Bird Sanctuary

Many kids dream of owning a dog to train or a cat to cuddle, but the reality of owning one is often a different story. Allergies, environmental limitations and family lifestyle may not always be conducive to what a dog or cat needs to thrive.

Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives to traditional pet ownership available, as the Marcellino family knows well.

“Snakes are the perfect pet in many ways,” explains Whitney Marcellino, mother of Larson Bailey, 9, and Thomas, 7, and wife of snake enthusiast, Dr. Tom Marcellino. “They are generally clean, easy to care for, no allergies to worry about,” she assures as their kids expertly showcase their family’s slithering collection.

As a child growing up in the Phoenix area, Tom became fascinated by snakes. He and his grandfather enjoyed spending time hiking the desert mountains, searching for and identifying various indigenous snakes. And some of his most thrilling memories with his firefighter father involved riding along with him on calls to remove and relocate rattlesnakes that had made their way into homes and businesses.

Unlike Indiana Jones, Tom’s experiences with snakes fueled a passion for them, a passion he brought to the University of Kansas, where he majored in organismal biology. His coursework landed him in famed herpetologist Joe Collins’s Kansas Reptiles and Amphibians class, where his affinity for snakes was nurtured, leading to a summer research project with ecologist, naturalist and herpetologist Henry Fitch, at the Fitch Reservation in northeast Lawrence.

He met his future wife, Whitney, while they were both students, introducing her to his budding snake collection from the start of their relationship. Far from squeamish, Whitney delighted in his hobby, quickly embracing it herself.

“I grew up on a farm and spent most of my childhood hunting for creatures outside,” she smiles.

The two snake charmers amassed a significant collection as the years passed, moving as many as 30 snakes from Kansas to Arizona during Tom’s residency then back to Kansas, where he currently practices family medicine.

  • Tom, Thomas and Whitney Marcellino
  • Tom Marcellino withThomas and Larson Bailey
  • Larson Bailey Marcellino
  • Thomas Marcellino
  • Adele Erickson
  • Bird Sanctuary
  • Bird Sanctuary
  • Bird Sanctuary
  • Kail Marie
  • Bird Sanctuary

“We used to have more exotic stuff,” Tom adds, “but since the kids came along, we got rid of anything with venom and anything too big.”

With every move, Tom has been able to pass on his vast knowledge about snakes to others, from fellow Arizona-area residents new to the desert to area students of all ages studying reptiles and herpetology to Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts working on identifying snakes and snake safety.

“If you can teach kids about snakes when they’re younger, you can teach them not to fear,” he says, cautioning, “but you do have to be careful.” He cites Douglas County’s current rattlesnake and copperhead populations—while not dense—as something to be cautious of while outdoors.

Larson Bailey and Thomas are right at home with their footless pets, currently numbering nine and joined by an indoor Gekko and outdoor chickens, rabbits, goats, horses and cats. Larson Bailey has a tendency to name the pets after Disney characters, proudly showing off Cruella De Vil, a California king snake the family adopted from Mono City, Calif., while the yet-to-be-named imported Bolivian boa constrictor wriggles around in a securely fastened pillowcase nearby.

“The reptile industry is very big,” Tom says. Many of their most exotic creatures arrive from reptile shows, online and other special orders, but Tom’s greatest joys still come from searching under rocks and long trails, now with his own kids by his side.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” he smiles. “You can’t just hobby for the sake of the science aspect; it’s a good reason to go hiking and get outdoors.”

Whitney nods, sharing that the hobby has become a part of their family life. Every family vacation involves some sort of educational nature experience, something the kids look forward to, and home life provides opportunities to breed snakes, observe them as they grow over time and even host snake races in their own backyard.

Not every exotic pet makes its way to a home in the hands of a parent, though. For as long as she could remember, Adele Erickson had wanted a pet snake. Finally, at the age of 6, Adele was able to talk her father, Rodger Erickson, into taking her to Pet World, where she fell in love with a cinnamon Mojave ball python she lovingly named Spicy.

Now 8, Adele has watched Spicy grow from an 18-inch charmer into a three-and-a-half foot playmate, solidifying her love of snakes along the way.

“She is very curious, which is common for ball pythons,” Adele, who has poured herself into research the past two years, going so far as to write a book of her own on the subject, proudly shares. “One of her favorite things to do is hide in my hair.”

Adele’s mother, Donna Ginther, does not share the same passion for their family’s squamate, but she does support Adele’s care and keeping of Spicy, a routine that includes heating and cooling the 12-cubic-foot glass and wood habitat, weekly water changes and biweekly rodent feedings.

“Caring for a snake is hard at first, but it gets easier,” Adele admits. Spicy is housed in Adele’s bedroom, ensuring daily care.

Though the setup and maintenance for snakes are not necessarily complicated or time-consuming, both Adele and the Marcellino family emphasize that no one should take on a nontraditional pet without doing a tremendous amount of research.

Meghan Scheibe, director of development and marketing with the Lawrence Humane Society, agrees wholeheartedly, stating the most important thing a potential pet owner can do before adopting a pet is, “Research, research, research.”

“Many people think these nontraditional pets won’t be as much work as, say, a dog or a cat, but that’s just not true,” Scheibe explains.

The Lawrence Humane Society, located at 1805 E. 19th St. and perhaps better known for its adoptable cats and dogs, carries a small but steady supply of nontraditional pets, often including guinea pigs, birds, ferrets and rabbits, even an occasional chicken. Most of these animals are surrendered by their owners, as opposed to the dogs and cats, which are sometimes found stray. These owners often either find their living situations have changed and can no longer accommodate a small animal (a move, a new animal in the home, an illness), or they find the care and upkeep of a small animal to be more time-consuming than they believed it would be.

Upon the animal’s arrival, a staff member meets with the owner to get a history on the pet to find out what kind of care was provided and why the animal is being surrendered.

Once officially surrendered, the animal is given an examination by a member of the medical staff, including a dental exam for aging, with rabbits receiving the extra treatments of neutering/spaying and having an identification chip implanted. The Humane Society has a veterinarian on staff five days per week.

“We’re really lucky here,” Scheibe says of the expert care their animals receive.

After their paperwork and examinations are complete, the animals are listed on the Humane Society’s website, which is updated hourly, and are featured on its Facebook page, which has become an excellent resource for finding new homes for these pets-in-waiting.

These nontraditional pets don’t have much time to get comfortable, though.

While dogs will wait an average of 13.6 days for a new home, and cats will wait an average of 27 days, nontraditional pets only wait an average of 11.8 days before they are adopted.

Not every type of animal is lucky enough to find a forever home, though, as Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary, Inc., founder and CEO Kail Marie has discovered through her work operating the sanctuary for surrendered birds.

Marie’s clear and tireless dedication to providing an environment for parrots and other birds to live out long and happy lives evolved out of a deeply rooted love for all animals.

A biologist by education and a zookeeper by training, Marie worked 15 years as a zookeeper in Tyler, Texas, where she suffered many a broken finger at the hand, er, beak of a parrot, an experience that may send some packing for a life strictly with humans but instead nurtured a calling for proper care and treatment of animals.

It wasn’t until after her move to Kansas that Marie found a special way to make that happen. Twenty-one years ago, a cockatoo was brought to her for care after being confiscated from its owner, in treatment for hoarding.

She willingly took in the bird and quickly began educating herself on the best possible care and outcome for this and other birds. Six years and a number of unwanted birds later, Marie turned her passion into a nonprofit organization to better situate herself to care for the birds and educate the community on our avian cohabitants.

Together with her partner, Michelle Brown, a county prosecutor in Junction City and vice president of Tallgrass, Marie moved to Lecompton, where she was able to renovate her house to include a 750-square-foot space for the 40 parrots that now call Tallgrass home.

“Birds are social,” Marie explains, pointing out the varied pairings in the climate-controlled space. “But most people don’t understand that birds are wild animals. Even when domesticated and hand-raised, birds are actually wild animals.”

And these wild animals can easily outlive their owners, as the beautifully colored macaws can live 70 years, African grays can hit 60 and even the pint-sized cockatiel can live to 30.

Birds also need a tremendous amount of space to live happily. Marie’s macaw room, constructed almost entirely of concrete, glass and metal, contains two roomy, 5-x-5-x-7-foot cages (always left open for the birds to freely enter and exit as they desire), a hanging jungle gym of heavy hand-made ropes, several perching stools, a number of large plants and a few lizards to help with insect control, as well as one rooster, Paul E. Parrot, who prefers hanging out with his more exotic counterparts than roaming with the pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys and other animals outside.

The birds—many of whom arrived with the name “Rio” but have since been renamed—seem gleefully happy with their home, even though the sanctuary is currently at capacity. Marie reports that she typically turns down three requests per week from rescuers searching for homes for rescued birds. She and Brown are working on an expansion that would double the size of the parrot habitat, allowing them to take in more feathered friends.

Tallgrass was established to rescue and provide birds in need with a permanent home, which so far does not include rehoming or adoption because of the many needs and low success rates these pets and owners historically have. But that could change in the future, as Marie is exploring ways to establish a carefully vetted and well-supervised adoption program.

Until then, Marie cares for the birds herself, treating them to daily baths, cleaning the space every day and financing the operation through charitable donations, a hefty expense given the $1000-per-month grocery bill and ongoing medical care. Recently, however, a photo depicting beloved bird resident, Javi, took the Internet by storm, appearing on the websites The Dodo, Huffington Post and Yahoo News. Word of the Tallgrass mission spread with Javi’s full face and featherless body (a side effect of neglect, birds often pick their own feathers off in distress), along with details of the Tallgrass’s vision and mission, which has resulted in a significant increase in donations worldwide.

“Europe and Japan love her!” Marie laughs of Javi’s Internet fame.

Though Marie doesn’t advise most people to adopt birds as pets, she does have one piece of advice for the thoroughly educated, well-prepared bird aficionado: “Buy a cockatiel. They’re wonderful birds!”

For more information, visit the Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary website at

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