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Shop Talk: Wrigglies
20th September 2016

By Sandra Pearce



From left: Julian, Hazel and Marc. The team is working hard to create a community of reptile enthusiasts and demonstrate how the hobby has progressed

Reptile specialist Wrigglies sells a mind-boggling range of animals, both common and unusual morphs, and last month opened its fourth shop. But as we discover, it is so much more than ‘just’ a shop

Hazel Darton remembers all too well visiting reptile shops as a teenager with her then-boyfriend-now-husband Marc. “You’d see this big, fat, tattooed bloke, gruff, who thought he knew it all, and he’d go ‘Well, are you going to buy or not?’.”

Not exactly the best advertisement for the reptile trade. So when the couple opened their own shop, they knew exactly what they did not want. Today, the couple have four shops (the latest opened as we went to press) and a loyal community of reptile enthusiasts. At the heart of what they do is this unwavering commitment to education and the drive to change people’s perspectives of reptiles and reptile keeping.

The biggest mistake anyone can make is to think they know it all, said Hazel. “We are learning all the time; we learn by talking to people.” She’d probably admit to being quite happy if, from the reptile husbandry perspective, Google disappeared overnight. “There’s just so much confusion and misinformation on the Internet,” she said. “We always tell people, read, buy a book.”


Brian the alligator looks nice and calm...

Julian Clare, who runs the newly-opened Leighton Buzzard store, agrees: “Children learn by doing things, adults learn by talking about their experiences. You can talk about a problem, and then someone else can say, ‘Oh I had that and tried such-and-such.’.”

Wrigglies therefore works hard at creating an environment that is welcoming to all, from families to long-time reptile enthusiasts, with a special emphasis on children – the reptile hobby is only as good as the next generation of keepers, notes Julian. As such, Wrigglies encourages school and uniform group visits, and runs Junior Handling Courses where children can learn to handle reptiles such as non-venomous snakes. Wrigglies is a ‘real house of learning’, they say.

The trick, says Julian, is to be open-minded. He’s been keeping reptiles for 36 years, and has kept pretty much everything there is to keep as well, but he admits you never know where your next nugget is going to come from, and that source of information can be as young as an eight-year-old hobbyist. He said: “We have some seven to 14-year-old kids, they started with frogs and newts in ponds and are now keeping some serious animals, and their animals are thriving and reproducing.”


Dangerous Wild Animals are kept in one area

Hazel is determined to show how the hobby has changed over the years. It’s no longer about shoving a few crickets into a box that is kept in a corner somewhere. Not only has colossal technological progress revolutionised the products on offer, but vivariums have evolved into beautifully-landscaped, self-sustaining biotopes. To this end, Wrigglies has a number of display vivs, giving that aspirational nudge.
“Whether you have a new-build, flat, room, you can still have the joy of keeping reptiles, the animals are well provided for, and the whole effect is one of beauty,” she said.

It’s about changing people’s mindsets and working outside the box, and the Dunstable flagship shop (affectionately referred to as the ‘mothership’) is living epitome. For one, you will not find straight aisles weighed down with products lined with military precision.

Instead, it’s more like weaving your way around a group of islands, with décor having a distinct rustic, quirky atmosphere. Hazel puts this down to her love of recycling and wanting to keep customers surprised: “You never know what you’ll find around the corner.”


Yes, that’s a coffin! This is a genuine item – it’s now home to the shop’s spiders

Used cable drums act as tables, pallet wood has been recycled to make the counter which rests at one end on a tree trunk. She found a bookcase on eBay for a tenner, livefood containers are attractively displayed in Fifties’ apple crates, while a traditional Indonesian wood canoe is a shelving unit. A focal point is a genuine Italian hand-carved coffin, bought off eBay for £120 which is home to the shop’s spider section.  

It was in 2007 that Hazel and Marc opened their first Wrigglies, in a small unit in Dunstable, along with a partner. Three years later, unknown to them, their partner upped and left them with a £60,000 bank loan, debts to the council, and a zero bank balance. Marc and Hazel had just returned from their honeymoon – they’d literally gone straight to the shop from the airport, with Hazel still wearing her sandals. “I remember logging onto the bank account and seeing our balance was zero.”

It took two years of hard slog and battles with the bank (they nearly lost their house) – but they came out of that tunnel. Five years ago, they moved to new premises almost four times bigger around the corner. Three years ago they opened a second Wrigglies in Biggleswade, followed by Milton Keynes in 2014 and Leighton Buzzard last month.


Possibly the only straight line in the store

The tiny Biggleswade branch is run by Marc’s sister and is a general pet shop, while Milton Keynes is a smaller version of the Dunstable offering. But Leighton Buzzard already has a soft spot for Hazel as this site will house an education centre. “There’s this big room at the back which will be our classroom, and we can use it for school visits, club nights and our DWA work. And I can have my own office, and we can also expand our boarding service.”

EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION
Julian runs Wrigglies’ Dangerous Wild Animals (DWA) Handling Course, having kept venomous snakes for 26 years. Now in its fifth year, the course looks at all aspects of venomous snakes, crocodilians and lizards, and has become so popular that demand means it is held almost weekly. It appeals to many, from club and society members to vets, from PhD students who want to learn how to handle these creatures before tackling them in their actual habitats to hobbyists who want to get a DWA licence.
Such is its renown that some European agencies and companies send their staff from across the Channel to attend.

Wrigglies also works with local agencies such as Environmental Health, councils and emergency services, and very often gets a call for help. He said: “Sometimes a DWA animal is found without a licence and presents a risk, and so we come out and deal with it. We very often are called to help identify and rehabilitate an animal.”


Pictures show customers exactly what’s in starter kits

Wrigglies will rescue and rehome all reptiles unconditionally. Hazel said. “We rescue hundreds every year: turtles, bearded dragons, boa constrictors, royal pythons… we are very, very lucky that we have a wide network to help with rehomes.”

Shop resident Brian is a black Mississippi alligator, and like many of the dangerous and wild animals instore, was a rescue. Now 10 years old, she’s been with Wrigglies for over seven years and has been target trained – but she is still very much a wild creature and can show her displeasure at being moved from her pool. And yes, she had been sexed incorrectly, hence her masculine name.


Original Indonesian wooden canoe has become an unusual shelving unit

“Wrigglies is so much more than just a business,” said Julian. “The business side is probably about 65%, but all the other activities, the education, awareness, animal rescue, that’s about 35%.”

Hazel reveals that Wrigglies also has a wholesale side and supplies a range of substrates, bedding and wood, including moss, bark, shell and gravel. “We sell thousands of bags every week. It’s got no fancy packaging, it’s just simple, good quality products.”

Wrigglies relies on a network of independent breeders across the UK and in Belgium, Germany and Holland for its livestock – Hazel wants to keep the gene pool as wide as possible because customers do breed from these animals. Wrigglies also has its own breeding programme. She added: “We are the only people in the UK, and possibly Europe, to breed our own black throat monitors.”


Wrigglies now has four stores

One of these first babies, Juggernaut, is another resident of the shop and has his own display unit. “We think it’s important to have displays of our monitor and our larger snakes, not just because they look nice, but they show people what a big monitor looks like and help people make informed decisions,” said Julian.

Other big species include reticulated pythons, anacondas and Nile crocodiles. He said: “The trade in these can be frowned upon, but we do not think it’s right to penalise keepers who want to keep them, and keep them well.”

Wrigglies is very strict about its livestock sales, whether it’s an alligator or £12 mantis. He explained: “We have turned away big sales because we know it’s the right thing to do.”

Hazel adds that livestock prices are also kept deliberately high to dissuade impulse purchases. Animal welfare is a joint top priority alongside customer service, she said. As such, each animal sale comes with a ‘help for life’ promise, which includes free sexing, clipping and health checks. “It’s about customer service, and it seems wrong to charge for this,” she said.


Frozen is displayed openly, dispelling ideas that reptiles need live food

But it’s so much more than customer service, it’s about building a community of enthusiasts. Wrigglies hosts a number of events, including a Big Snake Day, Open Days, and ties up with local businesses such as the pub to host BBQs and fun days. Halloween is a massive celebration with music and dancing till the wee hours. It also does a lot of work with autistic children and other charities. “We like working with people,” she said.

Thousands have ‘liked’ their various Facebook pages, and they respond to requests for help from all over the world. There’s no need for loyalty cards or advertising – the strength of their staff and word of mouth is good enough.

Hazel said: “We’re about safeguarding the animals’ well-being, we’re about creating a positive experience, making sure owners have training and support. We still hear a lot of ‘ewwww’ in the shop, and we want to change that. Reptile owners are still considered weird and freaky, but just because it’s not fluffy or has four legs does not mean it’s not a pet and cannot be part of your family. Bearded dragons make fantastic pets for children. We are so much more than just a shop.”