The Lizard Guys: Educating NJ With Rescued Reptilian Pets

By Ila Bonczek | December 16, 2021
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
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Reptiles are the second least kept pet, according to Enzo Cristantiello of The Lizard Guys, who have been entertaining and educating with these repurposed pets for decades. (Image: Ila Bonczek/Vision Times)

The Lizard Guys, located in New Jersey, have been educating and entertaining children and adults across the state for decades; taking their rescued reptiles to schools, daycares, libraries, and private parties.

In an exclusive interview with Vision Times, Enzo Cristantiello talked about how a struggling pet store venture evolved into an unusual edutainment business, featuring live animal shows for hire. Since reptile pets are often found to be less exciting than expected, many pet owners lose interest and the animals become a burden. The Lizard Guys have rescued many of these unwanted creatures and put them to good use.

An unlikely beginning

Enzo loves music. He was in a band in the 80s and keeps an ongoing collection of CDs. He was never trained in herpetology; he has an accounting degree. After 15 months of working in that profession, however, he decided it was not for him. When his former band-mate Billy, who was into reptiles, wanted to open a pet store, Enzo was game to give it a go, but he soon found that he also hated working retail. 

On top of that, just as they were opening up in 1994, Petco was on the rise, knocking other pet stores out of business left and right. So, although they specialized in exotic animals, and bought out supplies from other failing stores, Petco was tough competition that they would struggle against for the next nine years.

FURTHER READING

A combination of events led to a promising change in direction for Enzo and Billy. One day, Enzo’s sister-in-law gave his wife a parenting magazine, with an ad in the back for “The Turtle Lady,” which she pointed out, saying, “Why don’t…doesn’t Enzo do this?” And while they would bring some animals out to show now and then, it was hardly a focus of their business.

Shortly after that, they did a showcase at a local mall in Jersey City. They brought a whole bunch of animals in cages which they put on tables, intending to merely hand out cards; but the woman running the show had something else in mind. She came up to their table and said, “In about 20 minutes, everyone’s going to go up and give a little talk, so you’re on like third.”

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Enzo shows off his California King snake, Oreo. He also has a ten foot python named Tinkerbell. (Image: Ila Bonczek/Vision Times.)

Billy, although he’s been in a band all his life, and had been on stage hundreds of times, told Enzo, “I’m not doing it, you’re doing it.” That’s how Enzo found out his friend of 10 years had stage fright. So Enzo went up and gave his first talk. It was an instant hit that brought people crowding around their tables afterwards.

Some weeks went by, and his wife again noticed the ad for the Turtle Lady. Was this an omen? Business wasn’t going well at the pet store, and Enzo preferred taking the animals out to playing shopkeeper; so he suggested they try to do more shows. 

At a rate of 20 dollars per month for one year, they could get a tiny ad in the parenting magazine. They decided that even if they only did two shows for the year, if they charged $150 per show, at least that would pay for the ad. So they spent the $240, and waited. The first day of the next month came, and they got no response. The second, third, and fourth days were the same. They called the magazine to see if there was a problem, and were informed that the next issue would not come out until the tenth. 

On the eleventh, their phone was ringing off the hook, and they booked eight shows right away. 

The Lizard Guys did 54 shows in the first year.  

The following year they had 370 shows; and the third year they had 500. By the fourth year they were doing around 900 shows, pulling in over 100,000 dollars, while the store was making only 30,000, with demanding 15 hour days stocking shelves and dealing with people. 

Enzo was ready to let the pet shop go, but Billy was not. In desperation, Enzo presented his partner with an ultimatum, giving up his half of the store to cut out. This brought Billy around, and the store closed shop in 2003 in favor of making the show business their full business.

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This leopard gecko is a desert animal native to northern India and Pakistan. His two leopards, Salt & Pepa, are his most popular out of eight geckos. The bulbous tail is fat storage, which enables him to go long periods without eating. (Image: Ila Bonczek/Vision Times)

The animals and their habits

Billy and Enzo each keep their own animals. Their original stock was from the pet store, but, as Enzo says, “People get rid of stuff all the time. They get something and then get rid of it. Six weeks, six months, sometimes six days. People call up and want to get rid of them.” Reptiles are the second least-kept pet, with salt-water fish topping the list. So most of the animals are rescued, although Billy does go to shows to collect unusual specimens.

Enzo currently has about 40 animals, which he keeps in a reptile room in his garage, specially built by his brother, a carpenter. Since some of the animals are opportunistic feeders, they are all kept in separate cages, except for the tortoise, who roams free on the floor. 

box-turtle-Ila
“Thunder” is an eastern box turtle, native to the eastern U.S. Box turtles, like tortoises, live on land, but unlike tortoises, are omnivorous. You can tell that Thunder is male because of his coloring. The females are more camouflaged, with shades of brown, while males feature more vibrant colors like yellow, orange and red; both genders have long claws for digging. (Image: Ila Bonczek/Vision Times)

When asked whether his animals have names, Enzo revealed that, for him, the names are just for the show. He chooses names that will help engage the audience, and they apply to the type of animal, not necessarily the specific animal. For example, he has a bearded dragon with needles all over that make him look scary. His name is “Fluffy.” But even if he had five bearded dragons, whichever one he was showing on a particular day would be called Fluffy.

The names change with the times, rather than with the animals. He used to call his pair of cockroaches “Lil and Phil” from the ‘90s show Rugrats. Today’s kids are more in tune with Anna and Elsa, from Frozen, so he adopted those names to make them more appealing. His 10 foot python is called “Tinkerbell,” which causes an uproar among his younger audience; “He’s so big! How can you call him Tinkerbell?” This leads him to explain that pythons can grow to be 18 feet long, so really Tinkerbell is a small python.

His partner Billy, on the other hand, has about 400 animals, and they all have real names.

Feeding time

Just the thought of feeding all these animals makes one’s head spin, but Enzo says most reptiles eat only about once a week. Still, they have to keep a freezer stocked with mice and rats, and boxes of live crickets and mealworms. When he had a hundred animals, one box of crickets would last about a week, but now it lasts nearly a month.

When they had the store, Billy took it upon himself to breed mealworms, the larval form of the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor, and a common food for many birds and small reptiles, and even some people! The process began with hatching 100 beetles, letting them breed and lay eggs, and then repeatedly following them through the different stages of growth, requiring careful attention to timing and monitoring 30 different bins of the insects.

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Giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches breed only once per year, and are ovoviviparous, meaning they give live birth from eggs that are incubated within the female’s body. They have a lifespan of three years, which is very long for an insect. (Image: Ila Bonczek/Vision Times)

Enzo raises cockroaches for feed, but not his special Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which he includes in his show, but the more common pest that will quickly take over a home. But any extra offspring from his specimens are fair game for fodder, as well.

Reptilian requirements

Like birds, most reptiles lay eggs, but reptiles do not look after their young. Males don’t play any role after mating, and only a few species’ females, like pythons, will sit on their eggs to keep them warm. Most young hatch from abandoned eggs and are on their own from day one. So when questioned whether there was anything cuddly or affectionate about reptiles, Enzo replied definitively, “No, there’s not.” The closest thing he gets to a warm greeting is when his tortoise approaches him for food.

When people ask him about caring for reptiles, he compares the animals to art. “If you have a desert animal, decorate the cage with desert decor and enjoy that, because the animals themselves don’t do much,” although they are relatively more active in warmer temperatures. 

Here, Enzo brought up the interesting “Inverse Law of Adaptability:” An animal whose body temperature does not change can live in areas where the temperature changes; while an animal whose body temperature does change must live in an area where the temperature does not change. Warm blooded animals can self-regulate and maintain their heat, while cold-blooded animals have no heat to hold onto, so they will simply freeze in cold climate areas.

Enzo keeps his reptile room between 85 and 90 degrees F. When he takes animals to shows, he gives them a triple layer of insulation inside their crates. After sitting in the car for an hour on a cold day, the animals Enzo brought in to meet me were still warm to the touch.

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”Lightning” is a 40 pound tortoise who was living with his sibling in a college dorm room until his owner moved back home. The Lizard Guys recently relieved the exasperated mother of her daughter’s unapproved pets, and the tortoises are now gainfully employed and well cared for. (Image: Ila Bonczek/Vision Times)

Dealing with the occasional inevitable bite

Over the years, Enzo has been bitten hundreds of times. Not because the animals are vicious, but more often from a combination of carelessness during feeding time, and the animals missing their target.

During shows, he’s “holding onto heads for dear life,” to prevent any audience member from getting bit; but at home he’s much more relaxed and sometimes neglects to wear gloves. Only one bite, from an iguana, ever got infected. He ended up with cellulitis and had to go to the hospital. Otherwise, he just disinfects the wounds and they heal naturally.

Some animals, like snakes, will not let go once they clamp down. Enzo shared his trick for getting out of that situation. If it’s a small snake, he says there’s a 50/50 chance it will realize you’re too big to swallow and let go on its own. His python, however, is not so little. The thing to do if a snake bites, is to pry the teeth off with a credit card. It requires two people, and you slide two cards into the mouth, one above and one below your person, prying the teeth away from your skin.

Although his tortoise, Lightening, is a strict herbivore, his jaw and beak are powerful enough to take off a finger.

A gifted entertainer

Having been to one of his shows, I can vouch for their value. Enzo has a natural gift for gab, and his style is easy and engaging for both children and adults; plus he has an infectious sense of humor. In his own words, the former accountant says he’s “not an animal expert, but it’s enough to entertain a five or ten year old.” He’s clearly learned a lot from experience over the last 30 years, and shares his knowledge with obvious pleasure.

The names he uses for his animals are playful and endearing, which helps the squeamish get past any fear or disgust they might otherwise have for cockroaches, snakes, and lizards.

When asked what he likes about his job, Enzo says, “I’m always at a party.” If he were an accountant, half the time he would have to tell people they owe taxes. If he was a lawyer, he would sometimes lose a case. There’s no bad side to being a “lizard guy.”

Financial challenges

Like any small business, The Lizard Guys have faced many challenges. In their pet store days, while Enzo and Billy offered a large variety of exotic pets, this actually reduced their chance of sales. While they might have 25 different lizards, they only had the potential for one sale, compared with Petco, which carried a very limited variety of only the most popular pets. Also, Petco was large enough to sell feed at cost, killing their competition in this key component of profit.

After their first years of shows, they raised their price and at their peak would book nearly 1500 shows per year. This provided a decent living, while covering the cost of insurance, taxes, licensing, feed and maintenance. After the crash in 2008, however, they faced a new competitor. Individuals began to come out with magic or other entertainment shows for cash. With little to no overhead, these smaller shows were able to charge significantly less and still make a profit.

Also, before the crisis, various institutions set more money aside for edutainment. They used to do up to 120 libraries (about a third of all NJ libraries) per year. After 2008, that number dropped to 20-30 all year. 

But they have been hardest hit by COVID restrictions. Schools no longer allow outside people in the building. This year they’ve done only about 10 libraries. Private parties are only booking for the warmer months. In the meantime, they have 10 thousand dollars per month in expenses. Enzo’s wife, who takes care of paperwork for the company, has gone back to work. They’re all pulling back, and getting paid less. Enzo says he has become a “house husband” and is experimenting with cooking.