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Nuturing reptiles, a Jackson couple’s lifestyle

It’s hard to believe Tara and Dru Reeves began developing a habitat devoted to reptiles and amphibians only three-and-a-half years ago. It all started with the gift of a chameleon for their daughter, Makenzie, who was then a freshman in high school.

“She was an honor roll student and really wanted a chameleon. After about two months, she grew out of it,” said Tara. But the attachment to the animal soon turned into a lifestyle for the Reeves, who accept surrendered animals and will travel to rescue them.

Sharing their love of animals includes networking with other pet owners via Chameleon Central USA (Facebook page) as well as participation at educational leadership meetings held at Go Fish Tropical, Cape Girardeau. Dru also assists pet owners online and finds himself private messaging folks from other countries regarding the reptile and amphibian world.

One chameleon turned into two and the number continued to grow steadily. Some were rescues and others were surrenders. The Reeves had fondness for the reptiles and enough enthusiasm to purchase more chameleons and various reptile and amphibian species until they spread across 750 square feet of the lower level of their Jackson home.

The animal living space is home to about 60 animals, depending upon whether a rescue, surrender or birth changed the count from the previous day.

“The number was at about 40, until a couple months ago when we had babies,” Tara said. They only breed chameleons, their biggest focus.

With that many animals there is one thing missing — the smell. “We have bio active tanks,” said Dru.

The lack of odor is due to the proactive planning provided by the Reeves. A layer of clay pellets, landscape fabric and then soil in the tanks enable them to be as self-cleaning as possible.

The Reeves also rely on isopods and spring tails that live in leaf litter and soil to help keep tanks clean, as they feed on fungi, plant material, feces and algae.

“We just have to clean the glass,” said Tara.

From poison dart frogs to Russian tortoises and chameleons, the Reeves construct each cage to provide optimum environments closest to the animals’ natural habitat. Pothos plants in a pot surrounded by ladders for climbing seem to work well for many of the pets. PVC pipe is used a lot in construction.

“We’ve learned to make everything. It’s cheaper, or what they need doesn’t exist,” said Tara.

Feeding the crew of reptiles and amphibians requires menu planning that relies on keeping three cricket sizes, some dubia roaches, super worms and mice available at all times. Two refrigerators on the lower level store pet food only.

Apollo, a panther chameleon, is one reptile that needs a little extra care. A white patch on the top of his head is the result of being burned by a light that was not well matched for his environment. He is a little blind so his cage has extra ladders that make it safer for him to navigate his cage.

Nash, a veiled chameleon, has rear area paralysis. When he tries to move he grabs his own paws.

“When we first got him he couldn’t move them at all,” said Dru. “He had lots of damage.”

 The animals need exposure to UVB lighting so they can produce Vitamin D. It was pretty apparent that Nash had metabolic bone disease from a vitamin D deficiency since the addition of proper lighting provided by the Reeves has enabled him to move around more freely.

“With MBD, their bones turn to mush,” said Dru. “It is slow and painful.”

During the summer months, the animals enjoy a vacation of natural sunlight, made possible with the ingenuity of hanging outdoor cages from hooks on the outside deck.

Inside, every cage is equipped with lighting and a misting system to mimic tropical conditions, including lots of humidity.

Tara and Drew have no children together, but they have seven children from previous marriages. Well, that is if you don’t count Fritz, Tara’s baby. He is a Tegu, native to South America, that currently measures three feet in length. “He’s about a year old, a sub adult,” said Tara. The couple worked together to build his 4-foot by 8-foot cage made of custom-treated lumber. When he’s not snuggling on the couch, Fritz may be doing laps in his 29 gallon swimming pool or basking on his 110-degree heated rock, for relaxation.

As for Dru, “He’s sweet on Val, the tortoise,” Tara said. “She was a rescue we received in a Rubbermaid storage tote.” Her new surroundings include a ramp for exercise and a spot for hibernation.

Daily socialization is important for Tegus, from birth to adulthood. “He eats meat, fruit, vegetables, and likes salmon, eggs, turkey, mice and rats,” Tara said.

“Tegus are known as dogs of the reptile world,” Tara said, who has a cat and dog allergy. This type of animal enables everyone to enjoy pet ownership.

Although the Reeves breed chameleons and can count on anywhere from $175 to $300 for each, depending on the sex and the species, that income does not sustain all their pets, rescues and surrenders.

“We’re happy if we have a $300 utility bill,” Dru said. Future plans include providing fun and educational birthday parties, as early as the summer of 2018.

“Donations are always helpful,” Dru said. They stay prepared to maintain the animals’ environments even in the event of power outages. A storm room on the same level includes extra cages and tanks, 48 hour heat packs, a generator and lighting.

The Reeves do everything together and that includes constructing, cleaning and maintaining the animal cages. Tara handles most of the care and documentation on the animals while Dru is big on education, and seems to know every fact on each animal.

“We both love animals and are very passionate about the rescues,” said Tara. Cleaning and maintaining takes an entire day on the weekends and two hours nightly.

“It’s a lot,” she said. But the rewards include relaxing in an environment surrounded by what you love in an almost tropical environment, whenever you get some down time.

People who are interested in reptiles and amphibians come to visit as do individuals and families who have surrendered their pets. Sometimes an animal will come full circle; having started out with the Reeves and then surrendered by family members who want the best for the pet of a loved one who has died.

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