Some Clovis residents have their fill of exotic pets

Clyde the camel basks in the backyard sandbox of Sam Snell’s home. (Staff photo: Ryn Gargulinski)

By Ryn Gargulinski

Anyone who visits the home of Clovis veterinarian Kristine
Weaver might think twice before wearing red shoes.

Although her two African tortoises are usually laid back, they have been known to chase guests who sport scarlet footwear, she said.

Mac and Franc, a pair of African Spur thigh tortoises, are also regulars at the county fair every August where they wander around the sheep arena and ignore the children who dote on them, Weaver said. “They don’t interact too much.”

When Weaver first got the tortoises 10 years ago from a wholesaler in Las Vegas, Nev., she said they were the size of a 50-cent piece.

Now 65-pound Mac’s shell is nearly as large as a manhole cover while Franc weighs in at 45 pounds, Weaver said. They’re large enough to merit their own house.

“Most people don’t even know what I have in my shed,” she said of the abode she blankets with rabbit pellets and cleans once a month.

Caring for the mammoth beasts, who can live to the ripe age of 70 with a shell length of 3 feet and bulk of 240 pounds, is pretty easy, Weaver said.

“S & S Supermarket has been excellent with giving us leftover veggies,” she said, adding they also eat her grass and drink water from the heat pump puddle or the hose.

Since the tortoises are of an African variety, they do well in hot summers while the shed provides winter shelter.

The tortoises are a natural pet choice for Weaver and her husband, since they used to raise reptiles and now have a melange of beasts that includes six dogs, two snakes and a vocal Amazon parrot.

The animals get along well, Weaver said. In fact, they even interact.

“The bird is usually telling the dogs to shut up,” Weaver said.

Lizard king
What started as a snake caught in the grass four years ago has grown into an entire reptile kingdom for Gerald Kilmer.

“I was out in the back yard where I caught a desert king snake and I was going to kill him because I thought he was venomous,” Kilmer said.

Instead of homicide, however, Kilmer turned to research where he found out more about the snake. One thing he learned is that it’s not poisonous. He said he enjoyed learning about the reptile so much that he began collecting snakes, which eventually led to his rescue service for wayward reptiles.

“Reptiles require a lot of maintenance,” Kilmer said. “They depend on you to survive. If you can’t take care of the animal or if you’re not comfortable with the animal getting 30 to 40 feet long, you should really reconsider.”

Kilmer, who lives just outside town, has amassed some 80 reptiles — from a 9-foot, 30-pound albino burmese python to an array of 13 turtles. He also has a 3-foot American alligator, frogs and fish, one dog and one cat.

City co-compliance officer Glenn Vienneau said there are no provisions against keeping exotic pets, such as snakes, lizards, large cats, wolves or other unusual creatures within city limits. The only blanket provision that applies to all animals is there be no more than three of the same sex, caged and neutered, he said.

Kilmer said he dedicates an entire room to his reptiles, complete with racks, wooden cages, and a pond in the middle of the floor.

“Reptiles took over my bedroom,” he said. “I live in the office.”

Black and white and red all over
Clovis resident Joe Van Ruiten said he was tired of looking at the world in black and white — literally. This Holland-born fellow was raised in the dairy business, around black and white cattle, and just two months ago sold the last of the seven dairies he amassed in the southwest for the last 35 years.

Van Ruiten said this leaves him free to pursue his hobby — the keeping and breeding of exotic animals. With a headcount of six llamas, six ostrich, two miniature Watusi, one Watuisi-longhorn hybrid and a few other cattle, Van Ruiten has a full house of colorful pets. And he still sees a little black and white — with a pair of zebra.

The animal array on Van Ruiten’s 80 acres in north Clovis is constantly fluctuating, he said. “I’ll sell if you make me an offer,” he said, adding “I like the variety.” He likes the variety so much he frequents exotic animal sales in Texas at least six times a year.

He also said he enjoys the animals’ personalities and making the rounds for feeding.

“They know my truck when I drive up and come running,” he said of the pair of zebras, animals notoriously hard to tame. Van Ruiten said he’s broken them in the past; his favorite trained one, Billy, sold for $6,000.

“I do it for pleasure but I end up making money,” said Van Ruiten, who set up the animals to be self-sufficient with food and water.

Although Van Ruiten said the animals have an array of antics — the ostrich’s legs and beak turns bright red when angry — none have ever tried anything as drastic as escaping and storming downtown Clovis.

“Even if they got out they would not want to leave,” said Van Ruiten. “They have it too good here.”

Home of the bray
Kevin Musick would not be surprised if one of his mules one day ended up on Broadway. A spotted mule of his is already acting in Missouri’s amphitheater Shepherd of the Hills where the mule plays the bad guy’s steed.

“They got a log cabin that catches on fire and blows up,” said Musick, “and the spotted mule is tied to the hitching post.”

The mule is accustomed to such a spectacle after many rehearsals and the hands-on care provided by Musick to all his animals, he said.

Musick’s property south of town houses two giant donkeys — known as a mammoth jack and a mammoth jenny — and five mules with a sixth on the way.

What qualifies a donkey as “mammoth” is a measurement of 14 1/2 hands tall — or 58 inches — at the withers. Musick breeds the jack with a mare or the jenny with a stallion to produce his mules, some of which are spotted and all of which make wonderful pets, Musick said.

“Mules are smarter than your average horse,” Musick said. “But whenever an animal becomes smarter it becomes harder to train; he won’t blindly follow orders.”

Musick said donkeys and mules have a mind of their own when it comes to opening gates to escape, carrying things around in their mouths, braying loud enough to shake the neighbors’ windows and placing in the rodeos Musick attends with his cousin.

Musick said mules also inherit the toughness of donkeys, have more endurance and better footing over rough terrain and live longer than the horse, with an average lifespan of 30 years.

Is there a camel in the house?
Clovis native Sam Snell said he sure attracts a lot of attention around town. That is, when he’s riding his pet camel.
Snell actually owns three of the humped beasts, one of whom resides on Snell’s Remuda Street property, the other two who live on a ranch north of Cannon Air Force base.
Clyde, the Clovis resident, is a one-humped camel Snell bought six years ago at an exotic animal sale in Hartford, Texas. Snell said Clyde feels right at home in the Snells’ home — in fact, he recently walked right into their living room to stand by the air conditioner. However, Clyde more frequently hangs out in the back-yard sandbox.
Snell, former owner of Cici’s Pizza, said he and his wife first became interested in camels when they rode in an Australian safari. They said they are easy to care for, are friendly to humans and can be trained just like any other domesticated pet. When upset, however, they tend to spit.
“Since they chew their cud it can get really messy,” said Snell, adding he only had the problem with one of his camels.
Snell said his friends in Australia taught him the way to train camels not to spit — throw dirt in the camels’ mouths when they open to expectorate.
Snell’s highlight of owning the animals is taking a ride. “The motion is kind of like a rocking chair,” he said. He also enjoys sharing the animal with others — he once gave rides to people from England who pulled over to snap his picture. He’s also taken a camel to almost every elementary school in the area.
Snell gets a laugh at some of the reactions he receives.
He said, “An old farmer once saw me riding my camel along the road and he asked, ‘Is it that damn dry around here?’”