It’s a zoo at the home of Joe and Jess Pratt at Smith Mountain Lake. More specifically, it’s a snake and reptile zoo.
The Pratts and their children, 13-year-old JJ and 15-year-old Alba, share their home with 15 ball pythons, eight blue-tongued skinks, two bearded dragons, two leopard geckos, a crested gecko, a turtle and an Argentine black and white tegu.
Then there are mammals — a faithful Weimaraner dog, two cats and a cute little hedgehog.
“I have always been an animal lover and even registered for college my first semester in the pre-veterinary program,” Joe said.
He later changed his career goals and works now as the group director of administration for ncgCARE, a behavioral health community services provider in Virginia. Jess is a teacher at Rocky Mount Elementary School in the Franklin County school district.
They moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia in 2012 and “absolutely love this area for its culture, people and yes, milder winters,” Joe said.
An interesting hobby
Joe considers himself a reptile “hobbyist.”
“When I was a little boy in the extremely rural areas of northeast Pennsylvania, I grew up in the country and played in the woods and local ponds. I was always fascinated with reptiles and amphibians more than any other animal,” he said. “I enjoyed observing them and often catching them to play, which my mother found much less exciting than I did. My family often talked about never seeing me without a frog in my hands.”
Then Alba became an animal enthusiast and started asking her dad a couple of years ago about his love of animals.
“I told her how much I find reptiles fascinating and exciting. She said she had always wanted to hold a snake,” Joe said. “So we looked up local events to find a reptile expo and travelled to the first one we could reasonably get to, which was in North Carolina. She was able to hold various snakes and lizards and became extremely excited about the animals.”
JJ fed off the enthusiasm and wanted to go to the next opportunity to hold reptiles. His mom, not quite as enthusiastic about the new hobby as the rest of them, said she would allow a lizard in the house, but there was no way a snake was going to be there.
“We got our first reptile, a bearded dragon we named Blackbeard, and my wife instantly fell in love with him. He is still her favorite reptile today,” Joe said. “The kids and I started watching daily vlogs on YouTube from the big names in the reptile industry, and we talked about the animals all of the time.”
Jess finally agreed to allow a snake in their home, and after the next reptile expo, they brought home their first ball python they named “Gallium.”
“I used to quite literally — last year — hyperventilate if I was in the same room as a snake, but I have successfully bonded, slightly, with at least one of our snakes and can honestly say that they no longer bother me,” Jess said.
She discovered she loved lizards of most kinds and said she was married to Joe for 15 years before finding out he loved reptiles so much.
“Luckily everyone does a great job, mostly Joe, with keeping it all clean because I would not be as OK with it all if it made my house smell,” she said. “And the snakes have never gotten out of the enclosures, except for the tegu once. He is still new, though, so we weren’t expecting him to scale a large tank side, but we wisened up.”
Caring for the reptiles
The reptiles reside in the family’s unfinished basement in a rack system of stacked plastic containers with lids. Each has a water bowl and a generous amount of wood shavings where the reptiles bury themselves. They eat frozen mice that are kept in a nearby freezer along with the family pizzas.
The family also breeds the animals, which requires pairing the pythons up about twice a month beginning in November.
“The kids and I felt that we should try breeding some animals, so we started collecting several ball pythons and northern blue-tongue skinks, which are lizards from Australia,” Joe said.
They got their first ball python eggs in May 2019 and plan to have more this year and hopefully some skink litters also.
Joe explained skinks feel like snakes, but act like dogs and like to cuddle. One of them will put his nose against the bins when he hears noise in the basement and wants to get out to socialize.
A typical day down in the basement zoo, Joe said, is for the kids and him to have a snake around their necks as they clean up.
“That’s not me, though,” Jess said.
Alba also is interested in other exotic animals but didn’t know what kind she wanted to pursue.
“So I convinced her that a hedgehog is an adorable and exciting exotic pet, and she got one a little over two years ago, before we started down the reptile obsession path,” Joe said. “Quilly, the hedgehog, is an amazing little animal as well.”
Sharing their love of reptiles
As their collection and love of the animals grew, the family decided to start doing educational programs in the community.
“Then people could learn about them, interact with them physically and overcome the many irrational fears and myths that surround reptiles,” Joe explained.
They started programs within the past year or so and have worked with two local schools, Boy Scouts and a local church youth program.
“I feel immense joy in seeing the tentative faces of our audiences of both children and adults become far more comfortable and even excited about these harmless creatures,” he said. “At the end of every program I hear children talking about wanting to get a pet reptile themselves, so I feel fulfilled knowing I have shared my love of these animals with others. I just love the scaly animals and love they are misunderstood and I can explain them to people.”
In the programs Joe talks a lot about why people tend to be afraid of snakes and other reptiles.
“I think there is a cultural component and something biologically innate in people to fear certain things. Obviously venomous snakes are dangerous, so people have generalized that fear to all snakes, and honestly all reptiles in some cases,” he said. “Snakes also have negative religious implications for multiple religions, like the ‘serpent’ in the Garden of Eden. Some people are afraid of snakes because they don’t have legs and slithering seems unnatural to them or because they can strike at lightning speed.”
He said reptiles are intelligent creatures that have specific behavioral modes.
“If they are in food mode, they want to eat and you need to feed them. If they are in defensive mode, they need to calm down in their own time and not be handled,” he said. “There can be a brumation [hibernation] mode for some reptiles, and a breeding mode.”
Most captive-bred reptiles live in “intelligence mode,” according to Joe. They are exploring their environment and interacting in a non-threatening way.
“The reptiles we keep are honestly completely harmless. They are not venomous,” he said. “If you did get bitten, you would not need medical treatment or anything. I would not let someone handle an animal if I thought there was any chance they were going to bite.
“I’ve often told people that, while you shouldn’t try to handle any wild animals, I would sooner handle a wild non-venomous snake in our area than a wild raccoon or opossum because the snake is the only one that cannot do any real harm.”
There are many reptiles Joe would love to own as a pet someday.
“When I can get the proper setup I’d like to get a large breed snake for sure, like a large boa constrictor or reticulated python. I am in love with large tortoises too, so that will likely be my next pet investment,” he said.