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While Cats And Dogs Fared Well During Pandemic, Less Popular Pets Have Struggled

Shelly Oneida allows her reptile friend to perch on her shoulder at the Escon...

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: Shelly Oneida allows her reptile friend to perch on her shoulder at the Escondido EcoVivarium on Apr. 8, 2021.

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COVID-19 was great for dogs and cats, but not all pets fared as well and local animal advocates hope to keep those animals in the spotlight.

Aired: April 15, 2021 | Transcript

A backpack-sized Sulcata tortoise chomped on lettuce leaves at the EcoVivarium Living Museum in Escondido.

The tortoise, named Ninja, is surprisingly quick when its food supply is moved. And when Ninja catches up to the food, his strong jaw crunches leaves of romaine.

“The terrible twos,” said Shelly Oneida, a keeper at the reptile center. “Terrible twos, but as a creature.”

Ninja was about the size of a saucer when he was brought here five years ago.

“(The tortoises) have all the wide-eyed wonder of a little kid and all of the destructive power of a tank. All just in one. It’s great,” Oneida said affectionately.

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Reported by Erik Anderson

Ninja lives at the EcoVivarium because the tortoise’s previous owners were locked in a domestic dispute.

Animal control came to Susan Nowike, the founder and director of the EcoVivarium, looking for a home for the tortoise. Ninja got that home.

But that’s not the typical outcome for a reptile in a difficult situation — the cold-blooded animals didn’t get the same pandemic love that was directed at dogs and cats.

“The opposite happened in the reptile world,” Nowike said. ”Suddenly people were meeting difficult circumstances where they were not able to care for the animal anymore. Because of job loss and the cost of the food and care and everything for the animal and there are no programs out there to supplement, like there are for dogs and cats. So they were left with having to find homes.”

The facility’s population swelled from 200 to 300 during the pandemic.

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In one case last year, a local pet show owner just walked away from his business, leaving dozens of reptiles homeless.

“What do you do with hundreds of animals that need care for the next 30 to 50 to 100 years,” Nowike asked.

The animals have homes here but Nowike pays a steep price. Vet and food bills can run thousands of dollars a month. That happened at the same time COVID-19 was cutting the facility off from people.

“Visitation and our outreach programming and birthdays ... all those kind of things were how we paid for the animal care. And all of that went away,” Nowike said.

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Having kids interact with the animals is only possible now in small groups — like a prearranged tour for the Alvarez family.

A mom and two small children toured the building, seeing everything from scorpions to snakes. Toddler Levi Alvarez let out a big “Whoooo,” when Oneida pulled a frog-nosed snake from her enclosure.

That in-person interaction is what makes the EcoVivarium unique, according to Nowike.

The place regularly hosted school groups, which got an educational experience along with a close-up view of the wildlife that lives here.

That interaction was key to attracting donors, and people who might eventually adopt a resident or two.

However, a local animal-friendly nonprofit organization hopes to help through YouTube videos that highlight some of the region’s lesser-known animal rescue and advocacy groups.

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“Places like Penelope’s Purpose that focus on pig rescues,” said Annie Petersen, of the Animal Bond Academy. “We recently visited Libby Lou’s (Safe Haven) in Boulevard, and they focus on cow rescue. So, these are all animals that may not be on the forefront of people’s minds but we wanted to make sure that the Animal Bond Academy videos kept all of these organizations relevant.”

The list of groups slated for coverage has grown since the academy started getting the word out.

“I am still learning about organizations,” Petersen said. “Small organizations that I didn’t know were in existence. New organizations that were planning on opening but didn’t.”

Photo by Erik Anderson

Susan Nowike holds a huge snake outside Escondido's EcoVivarium on Apr. 9, 2021.

The academy is crucial for the EcoVivarium’s Nowike, who says seeing what they do allows people to better understand the value of the facility.

“They were able to see the people interacting with the animals and everything and see the kid's eyes lighting up,” Nowike said. “And that is so impactful for someone who is trying to figure out is this a fit for my class, whether it’s virtual or in person. Is it a fit? They see that and they understand exactly what we do.”

Anything that helps her organization’s connection with the public, will help Nowike rebuild the ties to the public once the pandemic subsides.

Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

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Aired: April 15, 2021 | Transcript

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Photo of Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson
Environment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI focus on the environment and all the implications that a changing or challenging environment has for life in Southern California. That includes climate change, endangered species, habitat, urbanization, pollution and many other topics.

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