Ever since childhood, David ‘Tiki’ Utrera (left) and Manny Durand (right) were fascinated by animals and made a dream to reality when opening Tiki’s Geckos: A reptile business based in Pompano Beach, Florida, that specializes in the breeding of geckos and lizards since 2011. Known especially for their colorful collection of crested, gargoyle, and leopard geckos – they also expanded with all kinds of exotic reptiles: From chameleons and skinks to bearded dragons, but also snakes (boas, pythons), turtles and tortoises, and amphibians, like frogs, as well.
Below, the guys from Tiki’s Geckos speak with Richard from The Urban Twist about their business in the reptile industry, the misconceptions of these animals and the impact of the restricted law in Florida.
Could you tell a bit about how it all started with Tiki’s Geckos?
David: We started Tiki’s Geckos just as a hobby really. I think that a lot of people in this industry start just for the passion of the animals, keeping pets, and then one thing leads to another. You keep one animal, you want to breed it and then before you know it you have like 50 animals. So it just started as a hobby, and then started breeding them. As I saw that you can make money from it, I [first] basically did it to pay for the animal’s food and everything back, and for [getting] new animals. Then I met some people in this industry and I saw that they were making a living, a decent living. At one point I wasn’t sure if you could actually even sustain a family with it, but when I saw that you could, that’s when I decided this is what I want to do full time.
Manny: I actually started with fish, so it’s a little bit different. I started loving animals because my grandfather taught me how to fish when I was really young and I just became super fascinated by animals. [David and I] met in High School and he introduced me to it, that you can keep reptiles. And I was like… ‘What?! This is real? You can actually do this and hold them?’ Basically after that, I started getting more and more [into it], and then he started helping me and teaching me about breeding. That really launched me into it. Actually the animal that did it for me was the panther chameleon. After I got my first one I was like ‘This is what I want to do! I want to make more of these and I want to make people feel the way I felt when I first got my chameleon or my crested gecko.’ That’s what really got me into the hobby. Thankfully we are both doing this full time now.
On your Instagram and social media you can see your rich collection of reptiles, from different colors and different species from places all over the world. Do you also crossbreed them or how did you get such a huge amount of different animals?
David: When it comes to crossbreeding you can’t really crossbreed two different species of lizards. There’s some exceptions to the rule, but for the most part you can’t. Just by itself there’s like thousands of different species of geckos, let alone lizards or snakes, so it’s not like we have to create new ones, there are already here. It’s not something that we can do anyways. The beauty of it is that there are so many different species of animals that can be kept in captivity, that appeal to different people. Because of the colors, because of the patterns, because how easy it is to care for them. Some people might not like this gecko but they like this lizard, or they might not like a snake but they like a turtle or a tortoise. It brings a lot of different people and we get a lot of variety, so we can give everybody what they like.
Manny: We love all these different kinds of animals, too. That’s one of the reasons why we have so much variety. We both love tortoises, we both love all kinds of snakes, all kinds of lizards, all kinds of chameleons. So it makes it easier to keep all that when you generally appreciate it and really like it.
Was it hard to get such a large amount of different reptiles?
David: Yeah, it is. When Tiki’s Geckos started about ten years ago, we didn’t always do it full-time. Obviously, like I said earlier, it was a hobby – it started and it grew to this point. But it’s a gradual increase because if you just get a hundred animals at one point, you might not be ready to take care of all those animals. You gotta learn the animal first. And it takes some time to build a collection like this. But when it’s what you love and like, you’ll do whatever you can to make it happen, and it doesn’t feel like work either.
Manny: Just little by little. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s taken a long time to – not just get the animals – but also to breed them and reproduce them, ‘cause there’s a lot of stuff that we produce that we keep. That’s how we got the collection that we have. And we keep getting more. We just got a new iguana, so we constantly getting new [animals], but it is a process.
Is breeding reptiles a 24/7 job? Does somebody always have to be there or make sure the animals are ok?
David: The good thing about reptiles is that since they’re cold-blooded they don’t need to eat as frequently (not every single reptile but for the most part). Their metabolism is a lot slower, they don’t require to eat as often as a mammal, like a dog or a cat that need to recreate its own heat so it needs all that extra energy. I would say that reptiles are even easier to take care of than fish for the most part. Because even fish you got to be very particular with the water and all these things and they can die very easily. Most reptiles are very tough animals and they’re easy to keep, so between three people, we take care of all these animals. And honestly, it’s mostly [me], Manny and another employee, and that’s it. It’s a daily thing, yes, but it’s not like taking care of 600 dogs, it’s a lot easier.
Manny: They don’t require that attention either. Like a dog, you always got to constantly be there for them and give them attention. I’ve owned plenty of dogs in my time and these [animals] a lot of times don’t really prefer [to be noticed]. They do better when you leave them alone but provide everything they need to survive. We’re basically just giving them all the tools to survive.
Geckos also don’t really try to break out or anything. They just leave where they are basically, right?
David: Geckos are very instinctual, so if their basic requirements are met (like shelter, food) and if their enclosure is set up properly, they’re gonna feel good. They’re gonna thrive in captivity. Now when some of that is stripped, they can start to stress a lot and then you see a different kind of reaction from the animal. But for the most part, they’re gonna be very very good in their enclosure. But it’s not an animal that I can say “Oh come here little gecko” and it’s gonna come to me. Some reptiles, yes. But not geckos.
If somebody comes to you, wants to buy a lizard but has no experience and doesn’t really know anything about them. What kind of advice would you give and what kind of lizard would be a good starter animal?
Manny: The most important thing first is ‘What do they like?’ Do they like a snake, do they like a lizard, etc. Because there are very good beginner reptiles in each of those categories, and if you don’t like it, you are not gonna take care of it as it should be.
David: Let’s say they’re drawn more to geckos. Then I would say start off with a leopard gecko or a crested gecko – they are very easy to care for and they are very hardy animals. If they lean more towards snakes, then we would say a ball python, or a corn snake even. Most people that are drawn to these reptiles have a little niche: They like a particular type of lizard, so then we’d say ‘try out a bearded dragon’ [for example]. [Mostly] they are very low cost and low maintenance, but it also depends on how much space the person has to give that animal. Some lizards can grow to six or seven feet, some lizards stay eight inches. So it just depends on the space, on what kind of care the person can provide and what they like.
Manny: …And what they want in return. Some people want a pet, something you can interact with consistently. Some people want a great display animal…
David: …Some lizards are very good to interact with you. They are very personable, they get to know you, they recognize you. And then some lizards are very terrified every time they see you because of instinct. So it depends on what the person is looking for from the animal as well, like Manny said.
When we think about lizards we think about warm countries, tropical climate, climbing trees and buildings, etc. When you keep one as a pet, what’s most important that they need to have?
Manny:It’s important to look at where the animal comes from, so you can mimic that environment. If there’s something coming from Central Australia, you know they’re gonna like it very hot. If something’s coming from New Caledonia (which is where crested geckos are from), that climate is very tempered so you’re gonna want it cooler. You gotta look at where the animal comes from and where it lives. Is it living in the trees, is it living in the bottom, does it like to be burrowed a lot, etc. Those are very important things to ask yourself when you’re getting these lizards: ‘Where did they come from, where did they live?’
David: Before anybody gets any of these reptiles, what’s important is that they do their research beforehand. There’s plenty of information out there. In regards to these animals, they’ve been kept in captivity for generations and generations and years and years before [Manny and me] were even born, so there’s already a lot of information for most animals that are out there. The most important thing is for the person to go and do their research, to first identify what animal they want, and then do the research on that animal. Like we were saying, some require hot temperature, some require a little bit cooler temperature. Some require vegetables to eat, some require only rodents.
I also heard the environment doesn’t have to exactly mimic a jungle or a tropical atmosphere one-to-one…
David: It depends. The animal can’t really tell the difference between a nice pretty plant and somewhere that they can just hide and shelter. As the keeper, you take advantage of that. Especially us, the breeders: We know what they’re looking for. They’re looking for a lot of visual barriers, they’re looking for a lot of places to hide and feel secure. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be a piece of wood, because the animal is not smart enough to tell the difference between a piece of wood or a piece of PVC pipe that it can hide in. It just wants to hide. If it feels like it can hide and feel secure then that is gonna make the animal feel better. Some animals you could keep with paper towels as a substrate, you don’t need real moss or dirt, you use towels, very simple, and give them hides. Then as long as they get water, their food and their hiding, they’re gonna be very comfortable and they’re gonna thrive.
Manny: About the atmosphere, that is important because if an animal comes from a rainforest or a jungle we are gonna need to keep them in an environment where it’s more humid. There’s high humidity like water and air, just like it is in their natural habitat. So we know glass or plastic is better because it retains and creates higher humidity. If we’re using an all-screen cage, the humidity is just gonna shoot out. So it’s just gonna make it much more processed.
David: For a rainforest animal, you would be given a mist with water, you mist it like everyday. If it’s from the desert then you don’t wanna do that.
What happens with lizards that you can’t sell or are too old to sell?
David: Thankfully we don’t get that problem too much. It’s a very big market here in the United States, and also I started off very slowly so more people know me. I started off with only geckos but then I started selling [a few] bearded dragons. Then people started realizing ‘oh he sells bearded dragons [too]’. I didn’t just buy a dozen different species at once, I built my way up so that I didn’t have that problem. [That way] I didn’t have to hold animals for too long without them selling. Sometimes we have an animal that hasn’t sold in months, so we have it here. We take care of it, and it just stays here until it sells or we decide to breed it.
Manny: I have a skink that doesn’t have any eyes. It was born with that. Either it’s gonna stay here forever or I’ll give it to a friend who’s gonna take care of it for the rest of its life, you know, someone that we trust.
David: Some animals we have here will never be producers of pennies, they’re just pets. And it comes back to the thing what we said. We did this in the first place because we like these animals, and we kept them as pets before we made any money. So a lot of the animals here we have had for years and years and years.
Do you offer transport from all over the world?
David: Not in every country. Some countries have different laws. In the United States where we are in Florida, we can ship anywhere. Some other countries we can export but for the most part, we’re selling in the U.S. because exporting can sometimes be expensive because it is a live animal.
Manny: …And different countries allow certain animals while other countries don’t…
David: For example in Australia we cannot ship anything and they cannot ship anything to us. They’re completely closed off for any animal trading, so it just depends on the country and the laws.
If you’d ship an animal to Europe, for example, could you describe how the process would look like? Is it easy for them to survive and is there enough food? Because shipping would take longer, and the box may get shaked also. Is it okay for an animal to stay so long in there?
David: If the animal is packed properly there shouldn’t be a problem. Think about being in an airplane. There’s some turbulence, you might get stressed out, you might get scared for a little bit but it’s not gonna kill you. Now when we export to different countries, there are people who take care of the animals. So, let’s say I’m exporting to Europe. I would ship to California [where it’s taken care of], then it goes from California to either Netherlands or Germany, and then somebody takes care of it there, and then it ships there again. So it’s a little bit longer process, but it’s necessary because it is a live animal. So we gotta make sure it gets water, it gets food.
As I understand now, the animal is packed securely in a box with water and food. Though it’s still very dark in that box. Does the animal have a certain understanding of what’s happening?
David: Well, they don’t understand what’s going on necessarily. But a lot of reptiles feel secure when they’re hiding, when they are in dark places. Now, like I said, it can be stressful for sure because some people may grab a box and they might be a little rough with it. But unfortunately, you can’t control every single aspect of a shipping process. The boxes are all labeled – ‘live animal, harmless reptile’ – and most people are gentle with the boxes. They treat them as if there’s an animal in there. And then, unfortunately, there are gonna be some people that are a little rougher with the boxes. It might stress out the animal, but it’s not enough for it to be detrimental.
Did something ever occur or happen?
David: Yes. We ship hundreds and hundreds of animals so every now and then very very rarely will something happen. Recently a customer got an animal and the gecko’s tail fell off because of a defence mechanism. So they feel stressed, they just pop their tail off and then that’s it. Now the gecko’s healthy and it’s fine, but sometimes things like that happen but like one out of a hundred packages. It’s very rare.
Are some of the lizards you offer endangered?
David: Not endangered, but there are some lizards that are vulnerable species. The problem is if people are taking them out of the wild and selling them in captivity, or selling them into pet trade. But, as far as the animals that are ‘vulnerable in the wild’ but bred in captivity, there’s no problem with that. They thought crested geckos were extinct and then they started bringing them here to breed them and now in the United States there are more crested geckos that will ever have been in New Caledonia.
You guys are based in Florida and there they recently passed a bill named SB1414 which will restrict the breeding, selling, and keeping of green iguanas and tegus in that state. You teamed up with the nonprofit organization USARK Florida to help prevent the law (USARK is short for The United States Association of Reptile Keepers). The bill was eventually amended, but still has restrictions. The effective date will be on July 1, 2020. Did something change in that perspective for you guys?
David: Before, [the state of Florida] wanted to make this law so nobody can own or collect any iguanas and tegus…
Manny: …and all the species that are already regulated banned as well.
David: The organization USARK Florida that we were talking about [in our social media], they’re the ones who are hiring all these lawyers, and the ones who are fighting this on the front lines. Basically they made it so we can still own these animals. The people who had [them] already, they’re gonna get to keep these animals. And the breeders like us we could still breed them, but we gotta sell them outside of Florida and cannot sell them inside of [the state] anymore. It sucks, but it’s not the worst thing that could have happened. But we still have to fight for our rights here in Florida to make sure that they don’t keep taking away animals.
Why do lawmakers want to ban these animals in Florida?
David: Florida is in a perfect spot that’s very warm. A lot of these reptiles can naturally live out here. So a lot of these reptiles are not native to Florida, they’re not from here originally. They’re from other parts of the country or other parts of the world, and then they come here and some people release them (or they somehow escape into the wild), and they can procreate, breed, thrive, and survive out here. The population of them grows, and then it starts affecting other wildlife.
Manny: And that’s why they target specifically green iguanas and tegus. If you’re from South Florida or you come visit here you can literally see green iguanas everywhere you go…
David: …and they’re not originally from here, but they’ve been here for decades, a long long time. But the lawmakers want to work something out [as a solution].
Are there any other campaigns to support?
David: The main support is USARK and USARK Florida. They’re the ones who are really fighting for all the rights, for people that keep reptiles all across the United States. Because a lot of people don’t think that we should be able to keep these animals. But the fact is that these people don’t understand these animals in the first place. It’s like if [you] don’t understand a dog and [you’d say] ‘Oh why does this guy have his dog on a leech? Dogs shouldn’t be on leeches.’ [They] think like humans, they’re like ‘you should never put a human on a leech so you shouldn’t put a dog on a leech.’ But you don’t understand the animal and got to understand [them first] before you could start making laws about all these things. So a lot of people don’t think that these animals should be kept in captivity because they don’t think it’s good for them, but the matter of the fact is that these people don’t understand what these animals need, what makes them happy, what makes them scared. So if you don’t understand this it’s hard to even make an argument.
Manny: I think the problem comes from a lack of experience. These people making a lot of these laws have no experience with any of this, have never had a pet reptile or probably even held one. And yet they’re the ones for making laws of what we get to do with ourselves.
David: And a lot of people get pure enjoyment out of these animals. [They] literally give us a reason to live for, because this is all we do and this is what we enjoy. Everyday we wake up, this is what we wanna do, and the interactions between us and the animals, it’s such a special thing that unless you have experienced it it’s hard to explain. It’s like trying to explain somebody’s connection to their cat or their dog – I may not feel anything for your particular cat but to you, that’s your world, you might love that cat. You just gotta put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.
Manny: A lot of these people think the only ones that should be pets are cats and dogs. Not everyone wants cats and dogs, and not everyone wants that responsibility, or have allergies. There’s a lot of factors of why somebody wouldn’t want or can’t have one of those, but they still want a pet. They still want something to enjoy. And reptiles are a great alternative.
Yeah, and especially dogs need so much attention, and a cat as well…
David: Some people can’t even afford to keep one or to have the time for a dog or a cat because they are always at work…
Manny: …or their apartment doesn’t allow that.
But you need space for lizards too, right?
David: Some lizards need a six-foot enclosure, and then some lizards need a 12 inches high enclosure, so it depends on the species because there’s a lot of size difference. For a regular crested gecko – a very basic like beginner reptile – you could keep in an apartment, no problem. Whereas it might be too small for a dog or you might be too busy to keep the dog, a little enclosure it’s not gonna hurt anybody.
Manny: …And you could just fit it on your night stand. That’s all the space you need.
Exactly. And you guys also have geckos at home, right?
David: Yeah, I do.
Furthermore, do you have any future plans or dreams you want to accomplish?
David: What I want in the future is more of the same but ever since I was younger I wanted to have a reptile store. The reason why is because you can have all the different enclosures and show people that have never seen some sort of lizard before, and show them that this exists. Some people don’t even know these animals exist, so I think it’s really cool to have a little piece of nature, different little microhabitats along the store and teach people about them.
Manny: The store will bring in a lot of people who know nothing about these [animals] and they can see it first hand (David: …and have an experience). It’s different seeing something online in comparison to in person, to actually being able to hold it. A crested gecko looks cool online but once you hold one it doesn’t even feel like a reptile. It’s an experience, like [David is] saying. It’s making experiences for these people.
David: Basically, to answer your question: In the future what I want ideally is to one day have a really nice store. A lot of people have already made the blueprint of what I want to do. People like Jay Brewer from Prehistoric Pets, Brian Barczyk that started a really big reptile zoo-type place which is kind of what I want to do. Now that I’ve seen that, it helped me shape my dream a little bit more. But also, just growing the business, slowly but surely, and just keep doing what we do. That’s what we love: Keep making videos, keep educating people on this stuff, and I think that’s where we headed.
Awesome. And the same for you, Manny?
Manny: Yeah. We went to Prehistoric Pets in California, that was absolutely incredible. I would love to replicate that feeling that I got to other people. And especially to people who don’t know about these things. I love educating people. The more you know the better you are off.
David: A lot of people are scared of a snake or a lizard because they don’t understand it. But once you can and let them understand what these animals are about [they’ll see] that they’re not all vicious (and trying to eat you). Some of these actually look for your attention. Some of these animals will appreciate you petting them and they see ‘Oh, this is not just a mean animal that’s gonna attack you.’ Then their perspective changes and then you create a little experience with them that they didn’t think they could have. And I think that’s really important.
Manny: Yeah and I think that helps the animal in the wild, too. Because once you’re not scared of the snake anymore, now you have an appreciation for it. You’re more likely to help their natural habitat. You’re more likely to not kill one if you just see one in your yard, you know, because you actually have an actual appreciation for them. So I think that’s very important and it does help them. We do wanna keep them doing well in their native habitat.
Can people still visit you guys?
David: What we’re working from right now is not open to the public. We strictly ship from here, but because of overhead costs, it’s a lot lower than having an actual store. Starting off this is what I wanted to do, to make sure the business is stable enough before I open up a store because a store is limited to the local area. But online I could sell to everybody in the United States and some parts of the world. So I wanted to first establish myself online so I could have that security that if I do open up a store then I could at least feed it from the online aspect if the store is not doing so good in the first couple years. Right now it’s just a private little place where we work out of, and then in the future, we will open a store.