Red Davis didn’t have to look through the microscope. He had seen what was about to happen countless times before. He let others in the store get a glimpse as one of his ant colonies went to work on a cricket, whom he had mercifully decapitated before dropping in the formicarium.
The ants tore the cricket apart, starting with the softest spots but eventually removing the limbs and all, carrying the pieces down to their queen.
As they worked, Davis expressed his excitement for ant-keeping, which he was only just introduced to last summer by his daughter, now 7 years old. Davis and his daughter began with one single ant, then added another before going up to seven. Now, they have six colonies ranging in size from six ants to 900.
When I tell you about Davis’ colonies, you may picture two panes of plastic filled in with sand for the ants to dig tunnels in. Uncle Milton’s Ant Farms, made famous by Milton Levine, are fun educational tools for kids, but that’s about it. They usually consist of around 30 ants that only live about 30 days.
Davis’ colonies, baseball-sized formicariums attached by rubber hoses, are something else entirely. Namely, each colony has a queen, and as long as that queen can continue laying eggs, each colony could last up to 30 years.
The way Davis sees it, the colony itself is the living animal, not the ant.
“I don’t think of them as ants, I think of them as a single organism — a superorganism,” Davis said. “When we first started, my daughter was upset because one worker ant died, but it’s kind of like thinking about skin cells; you don’t mourn skin cells. It’s part of the larger organism. Each individual ant is dumb, but the combination of them is really, really smart, and that’s what I love about it personally. I just love the concept that you have individuals working for a greater whole.”
Armed with one single fire ant queen, which can lay up to 1,600 eggs in a single day, Davis will soon begin constructing an ant colony for display at Cold Blooded & Bizarre, a new pet store in east Charlotte that caters to folks like him who keep the kinds of pets that inspire double-takes, wide eyes, shivers or screams at your average pet shop.
Cold Blooded & Bizarre is home to hundreds of reptiles and amphibians, including turtles and toads, snakes and skinks. Three Chicago natives — Patrick Kamberos and Michael and Shay Edelen — opened the store in February, and not only provide help to cold-blooded-pet owners like Davis, but serve as a boarding location, funeral home and rescue operation as well.
When Queen City Nerve visited on a recent Friday morning, the shop was housing an iguana that they named Captain Ahab, who had been found at a park off South Boulevard. The folks who found Ahab said they thought she was dead, but when they went to move her, she twitched one of her legs.
Ahab’s two front feet were severely burned, and although they were bandaged up on the day of our visit, they would later need to be removed. The owners are now working with a customer who has a 3D printer to potentially build a prosthetic leg for Ahab.
The original plan for the shop didn’t include a rescue operation, but that’s the way it’s gone so far. The staff estimated that they get about one rescue a day, most of which are unannounced.
“I was kind of surprised at the amount of rescues that we’re getting in,” Kamberos said. “Some of them we’re not expecting. They don’t call first, it’s just like, ‘Oh hey, here’s three turtles.’ ‘Alright, what are we going to do with these guys?’ We find them some spots and give them some love and do our best to rehabilitate.”
During our visit, a woman walked in with a gargoyle gecko she could no longer keep. Rachel Levi, the store’s lizard expert, was on the case. She immediately began analyzing the needs of the gecko. She deemed the enclosure that the gecko’s former owner brought in to be in good shape, so they could keep the gargoyle in there for some time while they waited to see how it would deal with living in a space with so many other animals.
As for its care regimen, Levi wasn’t worried about that. When asked if she’d have to look up any special needs for the species, she quickly answered, “These guys are very similar to crested geckos, which are very easy to take care of in general.”
We took her word for it.
The rest of the team hasn’t ducked their calling as saurian protectors, either. In fact, they’ve recently begun working on forming a nonprofit rescue separate from the store, partly because they’re running out of room.
“I’d like to model it after something similar to the Carolina Raptor Center,” Michael said. “There’s so many animals — for example, the iguana. We are hoping and doing everything in our power to be able to save its life. Is it ever going to be a normal iguana again? No. But can it have a happy rest of its life? We truly, wholeheartedly believe so. The idea is we want it to be an educational experience for adults and children. We’d like to work with the community, create jobs and create awareness.”
Michael’s love for the reptilian and amphibian worlds started early, growing up next door to a shop called Chicago Reptile House. He went there every day after school, “like clockwork”, he said, and stayed until sundown. He bought his first reptile at 5 years old, his first snake at 8, and by high school his collection of animals totaled 15.
Now 30, Michael has about 27 pets in his personal collection, although he cares for each of the many pets at the shop. That number changes daily, but one recent day found 261 creatures in his care.
Before meeting Mike in 2013, Shay grew up wanting to be a veterinarian. She eventually decided she couldn’t deal with the regular deaths of her pet patients and became a hairdresser instead.
During our visit, Shay was nursing a uromastyx lizard that had been brought into the store in bad shape and needed to be force-fed daily. At 34, she’s living a version of her veterinarian dreams.
“We’re pretty much keeping a zoo here,” she said. “They have to be fed every day, some need medication, it requires a lot of extra work … but we really like it. We get to play with animals all day, so that’s a lot of fun, but it can be challenging to battle the work life with the home life.”
Kamberos grew up down the street from Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the only free zoos in the country. He and his mother were near-daily visitors to the park, and at home he preferred being outside catching bugs and herping — the technical term for finding and collecting reptiles and amphibians — to staying inside playing video games.
It was an overseas outdoor childhood experience that began a different type of collection that now decorates the interior of Cold Blooded & Bizarre: dead animals.
Kamberos found a sheep skull in an Ireland field when he was just 5 years old, and as he puts it, he’s been into weird stuff ever since.
Now, skulls from all types of horned animals look down on shoppers, hung next to taxidermied deer heads and even a screaming monkey. The decor supplements the creepy feeling already involved with perusing an inventory that includes tarantulas, pythons and poison dart frogs looking out from their temporary homes.
However, Kamberos emphasized that no animals were harmed in the making of his collection, at least not under his orders.
“We didn’t hurt, harm, maim, hunt, kill or cause discomfort to any animals for the sake of the collection,” he said. “They all come to us secondhand from estate sales, antique stores, auctions, flea markets, that sort of thing … If it’s dead, it’s still useful and educational, and it’s still beautiful. You just gotta get past the stinky stage.”
Education is a big part of the Cold Blooded & Bizarre mission for its live animals, too. Shay has set up a reptile petting zoo at her son’s preschool, and the team has been in talks with the local YMCA to bring kids in for an educational experience.
One woman even came in with her psychiatrist to help conquer her fear of snakes, which was so strong that she couldn’t handle watching a cartoon snake on television.
Shay and Michael spent an hour with the woman, walking through the store and discussing snake anatomy. She eventually touched three snakes before leaving.
“She was so thankful because that morning, she didn’t think she was going to be able to even walk in the front door,” Michael said, “and we made such an impact that she was able to interact and actually touch a snake when she has an extreme phobia.”
It’s not just kids and ophidiophobes that have a lot to learn. Education plays an important role in every purchase made at Cold Blooded & Bizarre.
Herpin’ ain’t easy, and the store staff isn’t going to let just anyone walk out the door with a new pet.
“We won’t sell an animal to somebody if we don’t think that they’re going to take proper care of it,” Kamberos said. “It’s more than just a price tag to us. A lot of times, people will come in and say, ‘Aww, I want that,’ because it looks really cool, but that’s an advanced reptile. You gotta start with a more basic one that’s easier to take care of.”
Michael said selling an animal to someone can be similar to an interview process, but not because they want to turn anyone away.
“It’s more about educating individuals, because a lot of times all I have to do is really explain, ‘This is what you’re signing up for,’” Michael said. “And I’ve talked plenty of people out of what they were pointing at. I can neg them out. ‘Oh no, you don’t want that monitor [lizard].’”
You know what could be a better place to start? Ants.
While those aren’t for sale at Cold Blooded & Bizarre, Davis’ new display will certainly give shoppers a feel for how a real colony is worlds apart from an ant farm, adding one more educational aspect to the shop.
And with hundreds of other animals for sale ranging from beautiful and exotic to creepy and glutinous — including tiny toads, rare snakes, blue-tongued lizards and monitors larger than your computer screen — something will crawl into your heart.
The team at Cold Blooded & Bizarre is well aware of the odds they’re up against opening an independent pet store in 2019. Big box stores like PetSmart and Petco have long been eating into the clientele of mom-and-pop shops, but more recently, e-commerce has chewed up the profit for all brick-and-mortar retail pet stores.
According to Moody’s Analytics, online sales are the fastest-growing channel for pet sales in the country, and that trend is expected to continue, thanks in part to the convenience of having bulk packages of pet food delivered straight to the customer’s door.
That negatively affects walk-in traffic at stores like Cold Blooded & Bizarre, hampering the staff’s ability to educate customers, debunk misperceptions and find homes for the overwhelming amount of animals coming in the door.
“It’s hard to keep up and stay competitive with pricing and all that — with the overhead that comes with retail versus just having a warehouse and doing it online,” Michael said. “But after I had thought about it long and hard, if I did not grow up next to a reptile store where I was able to physically go in, I would not have that same passion as I do now with this. You really get an experience here that you’re not going to get in other pet stores or online.”
Cold Blooded also offers up quality food options that can be hard for owners to find elsewhere in town.
For example, many big box stores have stopped selling live feeders like rats for snakes, and the ones they do sell may not be checked for quality.
Davis, for example, lost an entire colony of ants after serving them crickets from PetSmart that were infested with mites. Even though the store doesn’t sell ants, he still sees it as a savior for his hobby.
“Honestly, I probably would have been stuck if they hadn’t opened when they did,” Davis said.
As would have Captain Ahab, and hundreds of other animals that nobody knew were in need.