Dangerous Unconventional Pets

It has been said that the world is divided into dog lovers and cat lovers. But there are pet lovers who believe cats just don't cut it, and that mutts are, well, mundane.

For some, a rattlesnake feels just right. For others, a turtle is terrific. And there is nothing icky about an iguana to people who love reptiles.

At Glades Herp Farm in Central Florida, there is no shortage of wild and exotic creatures, reptilian or amphibian. Co-owner Rob MacInnes has been in the exotic pet business for 30 years. It's clear he sees beauty where others see beast.

We walk over to the turtle area. MacInnes reaches into a slime-filled bathtub to pick up a 2-foot-long prehistoric-looking turtle with a very ugly head. It is a mata mata.


"These guys are from the Amazon," MacInnes said, as I searched for eyes and nostrils in the odd-looking head. "There's two things that sell in exotic animals: ugly and pretty. It's the in-between stuff that doesn't sell that well."

The turtle opened its mouth and hissed ferociously. I kept my distance. "They throw their heads like that to kind of scare you," he explained.

It works.

In a dirt enclosure, MacInnes picks up a foot-long tortoise with bright red legs, a Bolivian red root, from South America. The redder their feet, the better they sell.

White animals sell well, too. The odd-looking albino snapping turtle is usually covered in green slime, but his white shell means he'll fetch a cool $1,000.

In a good year, MacInnes will see sales of a million dollars. It's a fraction of the $1.6 billion Americans spend buying and caring for these creatures each year, according to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the pet industry lobby group in Washington, D.C.

There are more than 5,000 breeders in the United States -- some are little basement operations, others are big businesses.

Some of the reptiles here are imported, others are born on the Glades Herp Farm. MacInnes showed us the simple incubator used to hatch tortoise eggs.

He opens containers filled with eggs a little bigger than a chicken egg. One of the eggs is pierced, and a little tortoise foot pokes through. The turtle hatchlings will sell for $95 each in a few weeks.

But any turtle is downright tame compared to what's around the corner.

Where Venomous Snakes Abound

"This is where we keep all of our venomous snakes," MacInnes explained as he opened the door to the snake house. The room normally remains locked, as required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Every single snake in the room has the ability to kill humans, but that seems to be part of the attraction. The Coral Cobra sells for $400 and the New Guinea Taipan, considered one of the deadliest snakes in the world, goes for $600.

Cassie Sare started volunteering at Glades Herp Farm in April 2007 and was recently hired to work with nonvenomous snakes. It's a far cry from the waffle house where she used to waitress.

"These are too small for me," she said as she handed me a strikingly beautiful Pueblan milk snake. "I like the real big snakes," she said.

There are bigger reptile farms, but Glades Herp boasts it sells more venomous snakes than any other. The Moroccan black cobras sell for $600, deadly venom included.

People have lots of different reasons for wanting to buy the snakes and other creatures, MacInnes explained. "We sell to zoos and aquariums, and [to] people for display. We sell to venom labs. We also sell to private collectors. You know, people keep these. I mean it's a totally different thing than having a fish tank. But in lot of ways it's the same.

"It's an animal that's beautiful. It's interesting to watch," MacInnes said. "People choose to do a lot of different things, you know, like ride a motorcycle or jump out of airplanes. Those are dangerous things. ... It's a calculated risk that you assume if you want to own one of these."

MacInnes also sells pythons that are 15 feet long and can fetch up to $5,000. Although pythons are not venomous, they can easily crush you to death.

Avoiding Life-Threatening Injuries

All the snake-related deaths MacInnes has heard about have involved individual snake owners.

"People who keep large snakes, if they make a mistake during feeding time, they can get killed by their snake," he said. But "nobody is going to order a 15-foot python that's never had a snake and doesn't know about snakes."

Even though he's surrounded by danger, MacInnes has so far escaped unscathed.

"We've never had a serious -- I want to knock on wood -- we've never had a serious envenomation here. We've had, you know, close calls where someone gets a fang but doesn't get any venom. But mostly it's because we train, stay real safe, stay at the other end of the hook or the tools," he said.

Yet just a day after ABC News visited MacInnes' farm, a neighbor who had bought snakes there was bitten by his pet cobra and had to be rushed to an Orlando hospital for emergency treatment. He survived, but buyer beware.

Pythons are not native to the United States, yet somehow they have escaped captivity in their new homes and made themselves comfortable in the Florida Everglades, where they have had run-ins with cars, alligators and cats.

It raises he question, if these nonindigenous animals are escaping into the wild, is it really appropriate to sell them in the United States?

"I think so," MacInnes said. "I mean, we've been selling snakes, you know, for 50 years in Florida and this is one of the very few species that has ever become established, and it was basically a freak thing that happened. And it's probably because of Hurricane Andrew and one or two snakes -- it's yet to be determined how many snakes -- but a few snakes have made their way to the everglades and started breeding."

Frogs and Scorpions and Spiders, Oh My!

Away from the giant snakes, a collection of colorful red-eyed tree frogs selling for $45 each, seems awfully appealing.

There also are white tree frogs, African bullfrogs, blue frogs and huge toads. But don't let colors seduce you: These guys are poisonous, although not when bred in captivity.

Some people get a kick out of owning scorpions. These creepy crawlies are $5 and up. But if you're thinking of buying a tarantula, don't plan to touch it -- its hairs hurt.

"They kind of just float in the air. They get into your nasal passages and your eyes and your skin and make you itch, and it keeps predators away from them," MacInnes explained.

Like so many companies these days, this is a mail-order business. You can buy reptiles in 6,500 pet stores across the country, but more and more are being sold online. And, yes, you can ship almost everything. But check your state and city laws, because in a lot of places a lot of these creatures are illegal, or at least require a license.