Lifestyle

Saturday 20 September 2014

The iguana in the living room

Forget dogs and cats – you're more likely to find snakes, pigs and birds of prey in these four Irish households

Eddie and Margaret Drew looking after some of their flock, a 10 week old raven, three, 3 week old Bengal eagle owl chicks and a cockatoo at home in Kilmacanogue Photo: Ronan Lang.
Jake looks after one of his raccoons,Tullula at his home. Photo: Ronan Lang
Eddie and Margaret Drew's 3-week-old Bengal eagle owl chicks. Photo: Ronan Lang

Heard any strange animal noises lately? Like chattering chimps, hissing snakes, grunting pigs, squawking parrots and snapping turtles?

You may think your ears are deceiving you, but many suburban back gardens and kitchen conservatories are becoming second homes to a host of weird and wonderful exotic pets – from royal pythons, iguanas and chipmunks to chinchillas and raccoons.

Garden sheds are rattling with ring-tailed lemurs, kitchens are chattering with cockatoos and sofas heaving with curly tailed micro-pigs.

Fortunately, many of these animals have found wonderful homes with Irish pet enthusiasts and herpetologists (who study amphibians) who are committed to giving them a fulfilling life in a healthy environment.

We tracked down some of Ireland's most unique pet owners and met their amazing creatures.

Denise Woods

These little piggies

I came across teacup pigs on the internet five years ago. I was immediately smitten. I just had to have one of those gorgeous little pigs, so I contacted Rob Rose, who is a micro-pig breeder in England. I travelled over to the UK to see them.

My husband, Cormac, and our two sons, Barry and Sean, discussed it and we decided to get not one but two pregnant sows, who are called Lottie and Polly. Later on, we got a male boar known as Wilburt.

They were adorable when they came home. A few months later, they gave birth to eight piglets – four girls and four boys. I kept the females for breeding and then sold on the little fellas to friends who also love micro-pigs.

The level of interest in these loveable pets encouraged me to continue breeding them, and I set up my own website with the help of my brother called micropigfarm.ie.

Lottie and Polly sometimes potter around the kitchen when they aren't mucking around in the yard. In the summer, they love a big hose down with cool water and they dry off in the sunshine.

In fact, contrary to perceptions, these pigs are very clean, intelligent and easily toilet trained. They love to curl up on the big bean bag here and snuggle under a large fluffy blanket beside us in the evening.

It's lovely to sit back and hear them give the odd contented 'oink, oink'. They get on great with my three dogs. You can see them smiling with their little snouts.

They love the outdoors to mooch around in, so I have a pen out the back for them to play in. You can give them lots of scraps, such as fruit, vegetables and pasta, but no meat product and nothing fattening as they are prone to putting on weight.

I like pork myself – in fact, it's the only meat I eat. It's ironic as I used to feel sorry for big pigs who were reared for the slaughter. These pet micro-pigs live on average from 12 to 20 years and grow to be the size of a small dog.

To really get to know the pig, you must first earn the piglet's trust and win them over emotionally. They won't go with anyone and don't like it if strangers pick them up. They will squeal – just like any child, I guess.

But once you win them over, they will love you unconditionally and shower you with affection. One little piggy follows me around the kitchen all day long.

I always had a certain fascination with pigs. I used to collect memorabilia, from little ornaments to teacups decorated with pigs, when I was younger and when I used to run a flower shop in Dundalk. It's great to have the real thing snuggling up beside me now.

Eddie and Margaret Drew

Flying high

I always had an interest in birds and so did my wife Margaret, so we started an aviary [Copsewood Aviaries] on our farm in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, about 15 years ago, with parrots, parakeets, owls and cockatoos.

Then we started training hawks and ravens for shows such as 'The Vikings', 'The Tudors' and 'Camelot'. To train a bird, you have to slowly build up a relationship with them and have lots of cupboard love – treats and snacks – as food is a key element in that process.

The falcon can be a bit moody and gives me the odd nip to tell me he is hungry. He eats baby chicks, so I don't have him in the house as he is a bit smelly.

I recently ordered in some chipmunks, chinchillas and marmoset monkeys to add to the collection. The monkeys are fun, but they are very messy animals if you have them indoors. They are impossible to toilet train.

I've trained donkeys, cows and goats – whatever animal is needed by a director, I try to locate it and then get it to perform.

The big, white, fluffy cockatoo is very funny and has a great infectious human laugh that gets everyone chuckling. She talks all the time, although half of it is gibberish.

There are birds here that will sell from €65 to €1,000, so there is something for every bird lover.

The African grey parrot never stops talking and would drive you around the bend at times. We call him a lot of names, I can tell you, but most of them are unrepeatable. On the plus side, he is very intelligent and great with words.

In fact, a bird expert in the States has discovered parrots who speak not out of repetition but of necessity, to ask for a specific thing such as a glass of water or some food.

If I had a favourite, it would have to be Rocca the cockatoo. God bless her, she is dead now, but she was a lovely cockatoo we had for years. She was great company and appeared on TV programmes such as 'Echo Island' and 'The Late Late Show'. She was something of a celebrity.

I used to work on this farm as a young lad for two sisters, Connie and Frieda Baker. They were Quakers and ahead of their time when it came to food produce. Twenty-five years ago, I was helping them to make Bulgarian live yogurt using their goats' milk, which was sold to niche markets and shops in the country.

They also kept a small herd of Kerry cows. They were very kind to me and, when they died, they left me 35 acres of farmland which we have looked after over the past 18 years.

Margaret and I also have three German shepherds called Uisce, Pele and Mala, and a whippet dog, too.

Animals are like humans: they have good and bad days; they have tantrums; they get into sulks and can be as stubborn as a mule. Still, we wouldn't swap them for the world of offices or business. They are very special to us and a central part of our home.

Jake McGouran Endall (15)

Animal farm

I have roughly 30 to 40 snakes, a massive iguana called Sid, a cute caiman croc, some spiders, scorpions, snapper turtles, a six-foot anaconda and a crocodile.

I also have a raccoon called Tallulah, my parrot Marley and my dog Reilly, whom I regard as a friend and family member.

I lived in Spain for two years when I was six and that encouraged me to find lizards, turtles and spiders. My mum, who is really supportive of my interest, helped me set up a room for my lizards when we came back to Ireland.

I got my first snake for my confirmation – although I had been pestering my mother for one since the age of four. I got a python; they like to feed on small rats or a couple of mice a week.

I used to go to Fintastic Aquatics all the time in Dun Laoghaire, except I never wanted to leave without buying something. I also got bearded dragons and that's when I discovered Reptile Haven in Temple Bar, which is owned by Ben Lyons, a leading herpetologist, along with his girlfriend Melanie. He taught me so much about reptiles. I really want to be a herpetologist and go to college.

My grandad, Joseph McGouran, helped me build a proper reptile house with racks and shelving, and that's where I keep the snakes, snapping turtle and crocodile, who is on loan for the weekend.

My mother always emphasises health and safety, so I keep the place really clean and make sure all the animals are fed, watered and receive the proper amount of heat and lighting every day.

A lot of people are afraid of snakes. I get bitten frequently, but nothing too serious. I make sure I have my hand sanitiser and disinfectant for any little scratches. I would never hold a boa constrictor snake that's bigger than myself without having another person close by, as they could squeeze you to death.

I think I may have the biggest turtle in the country. He is called Tiny. The crocodiles and the caimans are very smart and cunning. I have to be careful with them.

I love travelling and I went snake hunting in Morocco on holiday, although my mother was a bit worried.

Also, I met the world's biggest venomous snake breeder, Tom Crutchfield, who showed me around his farm in Florida.

I get a great sense of achievement working with these fantastic animals, and I have a whole network of like-minded friends through my love of reptiles.

Dave Griffin

Scaling up

One of my favourite pets is Eddie the iguana. He is about 16 now and loves nothing better than sitting down by the fire with us at night and having a little treat of pizza, or bread and butter. He is meant to be a vegetarian, so we only give him the odd snack.

He likes to go for a ride in the passenger seat of my truck. I am convinced he thinks that I am a tree because he always wants to sit on my head, which is painful.

Colin, the younger crocodile, is very good and generally well behaved, although he can get a bit worked up now and then. When he gets in a tizzy, I just have a chat with him to calm him down.

Kevin is the adult crocodile and he is very smart, too, and seems to know everything that's going on around him. Beaky the parrot talks all day long and is very funny. He tends to imitate things I say and eavesdrops on conversations, so you have to make sure he doesn't repeat anything you don't want said.

I bought him from an owner who was in a holy choir, so when he arrived first he was always singing: "Let's all gather round the table of our Lord and hear his holy name." He was like an evangelist. He's now singing the signature tune of 'Star Trek', which he picked up from a friend visiting from the States.

Polly the parrot sits on the washing line during the day while Harold the snapping turtle takes a bath in the yard. Frank the monitor lizard looks like a Komodo dragon, but is very affectionate and loves a cuddle in the evening.

The kids love Seamus the snake; he has great charisma and appeal.

I was always into animals, even as a kid. I used to round up stray dogs when I was about eight and bring them home to my poor mother. She would try to rehome them.

My dad owned a veterinary store and was also a pharmacist, and I suppose that connected me to the world of pets and their needs and supplies.

I got my first bearded dragon when I was a teenager. At the time, there were very few reptiles in the country. Then I started collecting more reptiles, snakes and turtles, and was asked to visit schools for educational talks with the animals.

After that, word got out about me and the requests came in for kids' parties and wildlife classes. Children naturally love animals and you can teach them so much without them feeling like it's learning.

My partner Ann does a lot of the hand-rearing of the young animals, the feeding and the administration. I love travelling to places such as Borneo, South America and Africa, where I photograph the most amazing animals in their own environment.

My eldest daughter, Layla (21), is training racehorses in Kentucky. Horses have been her obsession since she was a little girl.

My other daughter, Sara, is doing her Leaving Certificate this year and she really wants to be a fashion designer. She likes the animals, but not the tarantulas or the scorpions. It's funny because whenever they escape for a ramble, they tend to crawl into her bedroom. Then I hear her shriek: "Daaad, will you get that creepy-crawly out of here!"

Dave runs Dave's Jungle, an educational micro-zoo. See davesjungle.com

Irish Independent

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