The Indiana Exotic Pet Expo held at Delaware County Fairgrounds is a platform for businesses that cater to a niche community. Led by Ron Bililingsley, the Indiana Exotic Pet Expo held Sept. 25, showcased hundreds of different types of animals and products brought by vendors, breeders and exotic animal enthusiasts from around the country.
Aspen Wheeler, owner of Furry Friend Hideaway, saw the Indiana Exotic Pet Expo as an opportunity to expand their customer base and offer cage accessories for smaller animals, such as rats and ferrets. He said the cage accessories, like hammocks sold online and in stores, didn’t have the quality needed to keep Wheeler’s rat, Fievel, from chewing through it.
“The hammocks and stuff you can buy from big retail stores, they’re flimsy, one piece of fabric … But when it comes to rats, that’s not going to cut it, so I started working on making my own hammock,” Wheeler said.
After trying multiple designs and his rats chewing right through them, Wheeler finally settled on a design in 2021, but then he discovered there was a need for similar products for larger animals. He aimed to increase the longevity of the hammocks and cage sets.
“If you’re spending $70, $80 on something, you want it to last,” Wheeler said. “Everything I [build] is meant to withstand the most weight and damage it could possibly take. I have a set that I made for my ferrets that I've now had for two years, and it's still up and running.”
Although he has a lot of experience with expos, Wheeler has bigger plans for himself and Furry Friend Hideaway.
“I want to be able to partner with an exotic animal rescue of some form, be it [Exotic Animal Rescue and Pet Sanctuary] or Five Points Ferret Refuge … and I want to basically have a cat cafe but for exotic animals,” Wheeler said. “I want to be able to work with shelters of animals that need homes and have them in the facility to help adopt them out and … also be able to storefront my products.”
Carissa Snyder and Michael Clyatt pose behind their booth while holding a monitor lizard and a snake on Sept. 25. Alex Bracken, DN
Storefronts are a large goal for many of the businesses that attended the Indiana Exotic Pet Expo. James Applegate, owner of Rockin Pet Depot, and Nikki Ruman, manager of the Rockin Pet Depot, started to rely heavily on exotic pet shows to connect with customers after a gas leak destroyed their storefront. Traveling from expo to expo gave Rockin Pet Depot a platform to share their brand: “It’s Not Your Average Pet Store.”
“I will generally stay more focused with the animals and help educate people with the actual animals, so they can gain that type of experience,” Ruman said. “I have created two different care sheets based on our personal knowledge of taking care of [animals], which is a lot more than you get at an average pet store,” Ruman said.
With their focus being education, Rockin Pet Depot attempts to be the mediators between interested, but intimidated pet owners and the exotic animals they care for. Both Applegate and Ruman encourage their own children to help with the process.
“A majority of the time, they come with us to the expos and they are also educating adults and kids. It kind of helps [customers] realize, if they can hold them, maybe ‘I can and my kids can too.’ We’re a family-friendly educational place,” Ruman said.
For many of these businesses, family is the motivation for their entrepreneurship. While the Rockin Pet Depot may not be a family affair, it does play a large part in their efforts to be successful.
Brandon Scott Ruhl, owner of Serenity Raptors, heavily relies on his exotic pet business as an outlet to spend more time with his daughter. As a child, Ruhl was always intrigued by animals, and he received his first gecko at nine years old.
He started his first reptile business as a teenager, but it didn’t succeed due to his limited knowledge about business. He decided to build his current business with his daughter in mind and with the aim to have more people understand the exotic animal lover community. Serenity Raptors specializes in breeding small reptiles like geckos.
“I was doing this even before she was born … so it just drove me a little bit harder,” Ruhl said.
He still works full time but has aspirations to grow Serenity Raptors. He said showcases and expos give him the face time to impress customers and give them the experience he believes they deserve.
“I think if you can put on a good show, you're gonna bring a good audience, and I think it's all about how you present yourself,” Ruhl said. “What I’ve been doing at expos has been topping my internet sales. I think it's a lot easier to make a presence when you're actually in person.”
Jason Michael shows off his 3 year old Cuban rock iguana to guests Sept. 10. Alex Bracken, DN
However, not every owner wants to have a large business. Expos are helpful in attracting customers interested in the niche community, but some owners are happy with how their small business is doing.
Iann James, co-owner of Mouse Army Mousery, is a full-time photographer but enjoys breeding mice as supplemental income. He prides himself on breeding “fancy mice” — mice that don’t have any genetic deficiency or carry harmful diseases. The mice that don’t get sold become feed for reptiles like snakes and monitor lizards. James wants his prices to be as equitable as possible, he said.
“It's hard for people to have these reptiles and stuff when they have to feed every two weeks,” James said, “and I try to get people as good as deals as I can while still making sure that I'm covering food and housing for the animals.”
James says that he’s very cognizant of the risks that come with breeding mice. However, he believes his business aims for quality mice, which means breeding for specific traits.
“Some people don’t like breeding, but with any pet, you can’t have top-quality stuff without it. You have to keep the diseases out, especially in the rodent community. We have to be as careful as possible to make sure it doesn't reach other breeders' stock,” James said.
Working in the world of exotic animals means trying to encourage people to step outside their comfort zone to expand the exotic animal community and move past their fears, Ruman said. She said she’s observed multiple customers who have assumed they were afraid of animals but fell in love with them.
Ruhl believes many people are scared because they are unaware of what it’s like to be around exotic animals. However, it’s his hope that opportunities like the Indiana Exotic Pet Expo will change minds. Muncie residents have another opportunity to visit the Indiana Exotic Pet Expo on Nov. 27 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m at the Delaware County Fairgrounds.
“People like myself are just trying to bring this a little bit more out there to where people can understand what's actually going on,” Ruhl said. “I think it's a misunderstood community and I would like it to be more understood in the future.”
Contact Imani Butts with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @imani_butts.