tampabay.com

Scaly but not scary

By By CAMILLE C. SPENCER
Published February 17, 2007


HUDSON - After English class at River Ridge High School, Nick Isabelle isn't headed to football practice or a burger joint to make some extra cash.

He's got flying geckos and ball pythons and a bearded dragon named Pebbles to tend to.

Saturday marks the grand opening of ReptiCenter, a 1,000-square-foot pet store on U.S. 19. And 17-year-old Nick isn't just the stockboy and the cashier. He's the owner.

"I would say it's incomprehensible compared to what other kids do, like being on time going to the mall," he said. "If I'm not here, an animal can die from not being fed."

Nick has loved reptiles since he was a little boy growing up in New Hampshire. There, he collected orange salamanders.

"One year, we hired somebody for his birthday to come in with reptiles, snakes, Madagascar cockroaches," said his mother, Darlene. "He's always been fearless about animals."

In fact, he's always liked the critters that grossed out other people.

In 1999, Nick toured the East Coast with his parents and brother Josh. Nick used the trip to learn more about reptiles. The family stopped in Florida along the way, and eventually moved here in 2001.

His parents, who owned a sheet metal company in New Hampshire, bought a building on U.S. 19 as an investment.

Meanwhile, Nick researched reptile genetics and attended reptile shows across the state.

He bred animals for extra cash and sold the reptiles through his Web site, www.repticenter.com.

Nick even started "Reptile Refuge" last year so classmates could donate unwanted pets. Nick and his girlfriend handed out fliers at River Ridge and Ridgewood high schools.

He took in about 10 reptiles. He kept some, sold the others.

But spending too much time studying and collecting reptiles caused Nick's grades to drop. His parents, who paid his $300-a-month car insurance with the stipulation that the honor student kept his grades up, put their foot down.

"We said, 'You're going to have to flip burgers or something,' " Darlene said.

Nick had a better idea. He knew he wanted to work for himself like his parents did, and he loved reptiles.

So he decided to open a pet store.

His parents gave him a $60,000 loan. The timing was right, too. The previous tenant was moving out of the U.S. 19 storefront his parents owned.

"We figured we may as well set our son up there," Darlene said.

To get things rolling, Nick bought reptiles from breeders and animal wholesalers. He got tanks at yard sales. He ordered toys and pet food from an online supplier.

ReptiCenter, Pasco's 16th pet store, opened two weeks ago.

His parents run the store for a few hours before Nick arrives after school. It's a temporary arrangement until Nick can hire help.

Most of the store's paperwork is in his name. Except the merchant account, which allows a business to accept credit cards. That's in his parents' names because Nick is a minor.

When he gets to the store, Nick feeds about 50 animals, cleans cages and does inventory. He stays late hours and works on weekends. An online sale of chinchillas prompted Nick to add furry animals to the store.

Blue and yellow parakeets run $15 each. There's a $40 lionhead rabbit. The flapneck chameleon is $50. A peach-faced lovebird goes for $40. And $275 can buy a female albino Burmese snake.

By all means, Nick says, touch the animals.

"I want people to play with things," he said. "People are more apt to buy something they can hold first."

His approach seems to be working. In the past two weeks, he said, the store has made about $2,000 in profit.

Jeff Peery stopped by last week looking for a chinchilla. It was a Valentine's Day gift for his fiancee.

"She wanted a rabbit, but I didn't want one," said Peery, of Brooksville. "She thought of a chinchilla next."

Kujo, as Peery's fiancee nicknamed the critter, cost $100.

With college looming, Nick is considering getting a veterinary degree for exotic animals. He might become a breeder.

In the meantime, he wants people to leave his store knowing that feeding crickets to iguanas causes gout, and that you only need to feed a rabbit once a day.

He just turned 17 last week, but when you enter Nick's shop, he's the expert.

"I am very interested in genetics and being able to produce anything I want and to educate people," he said. "There's more interesting things about pets than people know."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at 727 869-6229 or cspencer@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

What's available

Here's a sample of a few critters Nick offers in his store:

Origin: Australia

Housing: Tank

Diet: Vegetables such as squash

Price: $60

Origin: South America

Housing: Cage

Diet: Timothy hay

Price: $100

Origin: Tropical rain forests

Housing: Tank

Diet: Crickets and mealworms

Price: $25