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Sale of reptiles for household pets soars in Hong Kong

In this Jan. 18, 2013 file photo, an assistant shop clerk displays newly unveiled gold snake for sale ahead of the upcoming Chinese lunar new year, the year of the Snake, at a jewelry shop in Hong Kong. Chinese New Year remains the most important festival in the region, a weeklong round of family reunions, temple visits, and gastronomic excess. AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File

HONG KONG—As Hong Kong prepares to usher in the Year of the Snake, an increasing number of the reptiles are slithering their way into local households, with sales of the uncuddly pet rocketing.

Keeping snakes has become increasingly popular in the densely populated city in recent years as animal lovers seek out less space-hungry pets.

And with the spotlight firmly on the reptile in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year today, sales have surged.

At Reptile Paradise, a store which first opened its doors in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok neighborhood in 1994, dozens of baby snakes, not more than a few weeks old, frantically try to climb their way out of small plastic boxes.

As well as turtles and lizards the shop sells milk snakes, corn snakes, king snakes and ball pythons, plus containers of live white mice to feed them.

Rising sales

Its director, Vincent Cheung, said snake sales have been rising steadily for several months prior to the arrival of the new year.

“The increase for the past month and what I expect for the coming month is about 20 percent to 25 percent, compared with the last year,” Cheung said.

He has sold 100 to 150 snakes in the past three months and remembers a similar spike in 2001, the previous Year of the Snake, with 20- and 30-something Hong Kongers the most eager customers.

“When the Year of the Snake comes, they really want to save their money to buy a snake for it. Keeping snakes is very simple compared to keeping other types of reptiles,” said Cheung, adding that clients often learn how to raise and breed them on the Internet.

Mixed reputation

With real estate at a premium and rentals sky high, snakes appear to fit with the compact high-rise lifestyle of most of the city’s residents, popular breeds in Hong Kong like the North American corn snake and milk snake only measure 10 inches  when they are young, growing to around 47 inches.

But while popular pet reptiles such as the turtle represent luck, longevity and fortune, the snake has a mixed reputation in Chinese culture.

Although it can signify intelligence and happiness, it is also associated with tragedy—some believe that if a snake is found in the home it means impending disaster for the family concerned, though others feel that such a discovery brings good luck and peace.

In culinary terms it is held up as a delicacy in southern Chinese cuisine as well as a health booster, with thick soup made from snake meat thought to quicken the blood and ward off illness in winter.

Impress girls with snakes

In Hong Kong, practicality and a certain cool factor are fuelling sales, as well as money-making potential.

“Some people think it’s a good idea to impress the girls with snakes and some people want to keep them to make money through breeding,” said Gourry Chan, a director at Mong Kok’s Turtle Park pet store.

Demand has also spiked in his shop in the lead-up to the new year, though he criticized those who simply want to get on the Year of the Snake bandwagon.

“There are a number of people who are genuinely interested in keeping snakes—but lately there have been more people coming in, and if they say they are doing it for the Year of the Snake, we discourage them,” he said.

A snake can live up to 20 years and it takes dedication to keep one. Some are sold online when their owners get bored or they die from neglect.

Unsuitable pets

Animal protection groups also warn against buying a snake on a whim.

“There are many species of snake and all require unique habitats, including the right temperature and humidity to accomplish various physiological and behavioral processes. There are huge commitments behind keeping snakes and the SPCA [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] does not recommend it to be a suitable household pet,” said the SPCA’s Dr. Fiona Woodhouse.


Bad diet, poor care

Bad diet and poor care often leave pet snakes dehydrated and with bone deformities, while keeping them in small containers leaves them stressed and prone to disease.

The reality may also be more gruesome than buyers realize.

“Many snakes require the feeding of live mice and although some can be trained to eat dead food, many can’t,” the SPCA said, adding that it feared that unwanted snakes would end up abandoned.

Turtle Park’s Chan says he’ll make sure his customers know the nitty-gritty before snapping up a snake.

“As a pet enthusiast myself, I feel that I have a responsibility to tell them it isn’t right to buy on impulse,” he said.

First posted 12:23 pm | Saturday, February 9th, 2013

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Tags: Asia , Hong Kong , Lifestyle , Reptile Paradise , Year of Snake

  • MrRead

    HK loves Snake Soup.

  • bongarroyo

    sikat din naman sa pilipinas ang mga reptile diba?

    di nga lang ahas kundi mga buwaya at kapag nagkakasakit ipinagagamot pa kaya nga iyong reyna nila hanggang ngayon nasa vmmc pa…LOL

  • mamamiamia

    Great Goddess Medusa! Dito sa North Amerca, Itong mga nag-aalaga   na Asians (including Pinoys)  pag ayaw na nila sa pets nila pinakakawala nila sa park or local rivers ( mga hito or what they call “snake heads”)!

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