Julia O'Malley: For Spenard's patron saint of reptiles, an uncertain future

commentDecember 26, 2013 

It is my theory that the trailers and dog-eared bungalows of old Spenard tend to breed a higher concentration of intense people, passionate people, specialists with special skills. Tattoo portrait artists. Vintage motorcycle mechanics. Breeders of Chihuahuas. Kombucha brewers.

Dianna Smith is just like that.

Smith, who is 56 and mostly blind, has been, for the last five years, Anchorage's patron saint of geckos abandoned during evictions, turtles let go in city lakes and 15-foot albino Burmese pythons given away on Craigslist. She, her son, Clint, who is completely blind, and her daughter-in-law, Tammy, have built Smith's reptile-centered dream, the Alaska Cricket Ranch, in a crumbling house on West 32nd Avenue. Aside from pet rescue, which she recently stopped doing, she teases out a living selling crickets, roaches, worms, caterpillars and mice to owners of cold-blooded pets and wild birds.

Old Spenard's old houses are melting away now. Rents are going up. Trailers are being torn down. The survivalist store is now a cheese shop. The Alaska Cricket Ranch's days are numbered, too. The landlord is looking to replace it with a duplex in six months or so.

"I do not know what happens after that," Smith said.

Sure, the house is in poor repair. The electrical box is a forboding tangle. Never mind the holes in the floor. But it suits Smith just fine. There aren't many places you can rent for $1,000 a month where the landlord is cool with you raising thousands of mice, tens of thousands of worms, crickets and roaches as long and thick as chicken eggs. Maybe someone with a big heart and a love of reptiles will come along, she says. Maybe they won't mind taking her as a tenant.

Or maybe not. That she doesn't talk about.

Smith's work has taught her a few things about human nature, she explained when I visited recently. Number one: people want something to love. This is true even if they live somewhere small, somewhere that doesn't have a yard. This is one reason a person might choose to bring home, say, a red-eared slider turtle from a big-box pet store instead of a puppy.

"They are this cute little turtle when you get 'em. They are just darling," she said. "Then they get big and all's they do is eat and poop."

How big? The size of a pie pan, she said. And they need about a bathtub's worth of room then, and food. And that's where you run into the other, sadder human characteristic she sees all the time: we tend to take on too much in the name of love, and then, when we get overwhelmed, some of us bolt. Which is how, by last May, Smith ended up with 60 rescued red-eared sliders, half of which she sent on her own dime to a woman with a pond in Missouri.

People have left lizards on her porch. They've walked in and walked out again, dropping a turtle. She's had to quit rescuing animals altogether now. It's too expensive. There are too many of them. And her future is too uncertain. That fact, she said, tears her heart out and shreds it.

She tries not to think about what happens to the pets she can't take. She's heard that people bring them back to pet stores and let them go inside. A customer told her a haunting story recently about unloading a snake among the Christmas trees at Wal-Mart.

Reptile rescue isn't cheap if you do it right. Every rescued animal in her shop has a feed bowl full of fresh, organic chard, shaved carrots and fat, juicy tomato worms. They live under special lights, in special mixes of soil and sand. Smith got down on the floor an called for a rescue turtle named Coco.

"There she is, she's mama's little girl," Smith cooed, producing a turtle with a thick, too-small shell from under a shelf. Malnutrition deformity, she said.

"All's they fed her was Friskies cat food."

Big Red, a 4-foot iguana with a skin condition, was being healed with an Internet-prescribed combination of jock-itch cream and Betadine baths. Timma, a Missisippi map turtle, was doing great after being plucked from a fetid tank filled with dead shrimp.

"It took me six weeks to get her to eat," Smith said. "I had to sleep with her and the dogs on the floor next to the tank."

Smith has to troubleshoot health problems on her own, she explained. There is no money for a vet.

I followed her into the mouse room. A wall of little specially made mouse-breeding drawers squeaked softly. She pulled a drawer open and ran her finger over six tiny baby mice curled together. She euthanizes them painlessly with carbon dioxide, she said. Pet stores sell mice, she said, "but most of theirs are freezer-burned." Plus she has "pinkies," infant mice that might be all a picky, sick reptile will eat. In the insect room, I watched her dip her hand into a tub of roaches. She's always loved bugs, she said. I'd been calling them cockroaches, but Smith's son poked his head in and corrected me.

"That's an insult to the bugs, what you're calling 'em," he said. "I raised 'em. They are roaches, not cockroaches."

Dubai roaches, to be exact. They are fatter and rounder than your average roach. A roach has the same amount of protein as five crickets, Smith told me. They are hot sellers.

"I can't keep 'em in stock," she said.

That particular batch had come by air and was lost at the post office for a week.

"If they're kept warm enough they'll eat each other and stay alive," she said.

Smith's son and daughter-in-law lugged in a couple of boxes of crickets. They'd been waiting for a resupply. The future of the business and all the animals was uncertain, but there were more immediate problems that day.

"Today, I can't pay the electric bill," Smith said. "But maybe next week will be better."

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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