Cold-blooded orphans warmly welcomed here
By Paola Loroggio / Star-Ledger Staff
Photo from Smithsonian
Behind the cozy appearance of the Fetzkes' well-kept, brown-brick home in Sayreville lies a slithery secret. William Fetzke, 28, has turned his family's basement into a reptile rescue center, currently housing more than 20 snakes, a handful of iguanas and a few wayward lizards. He's dubbed the operation New Jersey State Reptile Rescue and opened up shop three months ago with a pet store license from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"They're just like cats and dogs," said Fetzke, as two Colombian red-tail boas wrapped around his tattooed forearm. "They get abused and abandoned." Many of the reptiles that inhabit the Fetzke basement were former pets that grew beyond their owner's expectations and were set loose. Fetzke nurses the sometimes injured or neglected reptiles back to health and cares for them until they are adopted. "It's a passion," Fetzke said, standing among gigantic terrariums used to house his charges.
The largest snake he's rescued to date is a nearly 14-foot-long, 120-pound Burmese python named Bear Bear, whom it takes three people to handle. Bear Bear is not up for adoption. The python has become an unofficial mascot for the rescue and is too dear to Fetzke's heart for him to give up. He acknowledges, however, that finding new homes for pets that lack the cute-and-fuzzy draw of puppies and kittens can be a challenge, particularly with the tough Hollywood image that movies like "Snakes on a Plane" project.
John Bergmann, director of the Popcorn Park Zoo in Forked River, Ocean County, said reptiles have seen increasing popularity in pet stores in recent years, leading to a spike in abandonments. The zoo is already at capacity with 27 iguanas up for adoption and has been looking for other groups to share the burden for reptiles, which are traditionally difficult to place, Bergmann said. "There's practically no demand," Bergmann said. "I wish there was."
Fetzke said larger reptiles require lots of room, equipment and attention. So far, he's found new homes for a couple of reptiles using adoption Web sites like petfinder.com and craigslist.org, he said. "It's a seven-day-a-week job," said Fetzke, who also runs a salvage yard and works at a Brooklyn bar to fund his rescue. The rescue costs about $250 a week to run, primarily for food costs, though he also receives donations from the Snake Pit store in nearby East Brunswick.
Fetzke's parents have supported the rescue, but his dad, William, said the basement is now off-limits to him. He hasn't ventured downstairs since his son began harboring the reptiles. "As long as (the snakes) stay down there, it's okay," said the senior Fetzke, 53. The neighbors feel much the same way. "It's only a problem if something shows up on my lawn," said Steve Kieselowsky, 43. Kieselowsky said he was surprised, though, that Fetzke was not required to notify others in the neighborhood about the rescue effort. "When I put up a porch, I had to notify everyone within 250 feet," he said. "They have a basement full of snakes and they don't have to tell anyone?"
More than a dozen glass terrariums with labels like "Kitten," "Monty," and "Lunchbox" to keep track of the snakes, now line the small wood-paneled basement room. Fetzke has also been caring for former pet rats, some the size of a football, in a second basement room. Fetzke said Sundays are his busiest day. That's when he and two volunteers feed the snakes. Dylan Preston, 17, and Amanda Walker, 22, help clean the reptiles' tanks, change their water and remove their sheddings.
The weekly cleaning and feeding starts at 10 a.m. and often lasts well into the evening, they said. The volunteers -- both sporting bites, scratches and "scale-burn," a rash caused by rubbing scales against the grain -- said the snakes need to be cuddled on a daily basis. "It helps keep them calm and friendly," Preston said. Fetzke, Preston and Walker bring reptiles to local events and flea markets in an attempt to boost adoption rates, they said. The trio has seen grown men run away and "little girls run up and hug the snakes' tails," Fetzke said.
Fetzke said he wants to show the public that snakes are safe, affectionate pets when the proper care is given. He even dreams of someday opening a cafe-like storefront that would allow people to get familiar with snakes and dispel fears unfairly associated with reptiles. "People put up pictures of their cats and their dogs," he said. "But you never hear anyone say, 'Check out what my snake did today.'"