Walk into Christine Peyreigne’s bedroom and you’ll find pink curtains and a Justin Bieber poster. But you’ll also find snakes, geckos and tree frogs. Real ones.
Welcome to Christine’s world. The 15-year-old Weston High School sophomore has a number of unusual pets, making her room look more like a zoo than a teen’s bedchamber.
In one corner, she has a display case containing a jungle carpet python named Frowny, a Hogg Island boa constrictor named Priscilla, a California king snake, and a corn snake. Across from them she has a number of bearded dragons, tiny tree frogs, and a gecko. She also has tanks of crickets and tadpoles.
Exotic pets are Christine’s passion. She enjoys collecting them, handling them, and caring for them. When she graduates from high school in a couple of years she plans to study animal and pre-veterinary science and work with reptiles and snakes.
“I love having the opportunity to handle such great animals and interact with them on a daily basis. They’re so much fun and I think they’re beautiful,” she said.
Christine works part-time as an intern at Animal Embassy at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, and at the Connecticut Audubon Society in Fairfield, where she enjoys caring for exotic creatures and teaching others about them.
Conducting an inventory of her pet reptiles and amphibians, Christine explains they are all legal to own, and her snakes are all nonvenomous (nonpoisonous).
Many of her pets are rescues, and several were adopted after people turned them in because they couldn’t care for them. A bearded dragon lizard she recently adopted had its leg nipped off in a previous home.
Christine’s pets have their own tanks labeled with their names. Frowny is a vibrant yellow-and-black jungle carpet python about 4 years old and four and a half feet long. Christine adopted Frowny from Animal Embassy.
Paisley is a brown, yellow and green ball python. Priscilla is a baby Hogg Island boa constrictor, just 2 months old, with muted gray, pink and white colors. Kodak is an orange corn snake.
She also has a bearded dragon named Rosa, and a leopard gecko named Midnight. Her white tree frogs include Cups and Slibbit. She also has Hoppy, a gray tree frog, which she plans to release back into the wild in the spring. She also plans to release a pool of tadpoles she rescued in the fall, which she is keeping in a tank during the winter. “The tadpoles likely would have died with the onset of a sudden freeze, so I saved them and will release them when they turn into frogs. This gives them a much better chance of life,” she said.
Christine speaks with authority and knowledge about these animals, because she has much experience with them.
Like many other children, when Christine was 3 she liked to run outside and play. But she didn’t head for the swing set. She was more interested in looking for frogs. “I would catch a few frogs and keep them, feed them and observe them. I just thought they were the cutest things ever. I never thought they were yucky like other kids did,” she said.
As she got older, her interest expanded from frogs to lizards, which she saw pictured in books. “I asked my mother if I could get a lizard and she let me have one,” Christine said.
She started small with pet lizards, first with a gecko and then a bearded dragon, a lizard native to Australia.
Christine’s mom, Betsy Peyreigne, an animal lover herself with three Siberian huskies, wasn’t keen on letting Christine just adopt reptiles and amphibians willy-nilly. She insisted Christine prove she understood about them and was able to properly care for them.
“To be honest, I was pretty terrified of snakes and didn’t want to have to deal with them,” Ms. Peyreigne said.
Before Christine asked for a new pet, she would research it and prepare a PowerPoint presentation for her mother explaining about the animal and the care it required. “The presentations were very professional and Christine answered all my questions. I could see she had done her homework and knew what was involved in keeping these animals. I could also see her enthusiasm and I knew she would look after them properly. It made it hard to say no,” Ms. Peyreigne said.
So Christine’s menagerie grew. Like all pets, her animals require daily care and maintenance. They also have special diets.
“For the snakes, I have a freezerload of mice and rats. The gecko eats a lot of bugs, and the bearded dragon likes bugs and fresh greens like watercress, escarole and collard greens. The tree frogs like crickets and mealworms. I buy the mice, rats, and crickets, but I breed the mealworms myself,” Christine said.
She enjoys handling her snakes, especially Frowny the python. As a result, she said, some of her friends are a bit scared to come into her room. “But others are fine with them and they like to see the snakes and feed them with me,” she said.
The 7-year-old daughter of one of her neighbors loves Christine’s pets and likes to stop by after school for visits. “We have a lot of fun and I like to teach her about these animals. I call her my little intern,” Christine said.
Owning reptiles and amphibians is a major commitment, and isn’t the right choice for everyone. Many reptiles have long life expectancies.
Christine has owned Midnight, the leopard gecko, for six years. It has a 20-year life expectancy. Her snakes have 20-year life expectancies, too.
“When people first adopt these animals they often have no idea what kind of commitment they are getting into. That’s one reason a lot of these poor creatures end up at rescue centers. Their owners just can’t care for them long-term,” she said.
Some exotic pets, such as iguanas, which are popular with young people, require extensive care or the animals can get very sick and die. Iguanas require special heat lamps and light, as well as space to climb. If they are not fed a properly balanced diet, they can develop a fatal bone disease.
“The best advice I can give to someone interested in adopting a reptile is to start out small,” Christine said.
Instead of an iguana, Christine recommends that a person’s first reptile be something like a leopard gecko, corn snake, or white tree frog. “They are much easier to care for. Do your research first to understand the animal and figure out what can fit into your life,” she said.
Christine also said people shouldn’t expect reptiles to be warm, loving pets like dogs and cats. She said you have to be careful handling them, especially snakes.
“Reptiles aren’t pack animals like dogs. They are wild animals, solitary, and do not bond. You can’t give these animals human attributes,” she said.
Thinking about college in the future, Christine is developing a plan for the care of her pets. She wants to go to school in Connecticut so she can be near home, but she would also like to live on campus, where pets are not allowed. So she is training her mother to care for her pets when she is away.
“I’ll still come home every couple weeks to visit, but I’ve been working things out with my mom so she can feed and care for the animals when I’m at school,” Christine said.While Ms. Peyreigne doesn’t mind Christine’s frogs and lizards, she admits the snakes are a challenge. “I was very afraid of the snakes at first. Terrified really. But after seeing how well Christine handles them and how much she loves teaching others about them, I’ll do what I need to do for her and I’ll learn how to feed them and care for them,” Ms. Peyreigne said. “After all, it’s her passion, and it’s contagious.”