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Archive for Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Reptile rescuer scales legal barriers

June 20, 2000

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— In a blur of activity, Robert Shapiro juggles ringing telephones, a hungry monitor lizard, and pleas from people who have become rattled or squeezed or maybe even uncoiled by the experience of keeping a pet.

Shapiro, 43, operates Social Tees, which sells custom T-shirts with messages like "Join a proud minority. Read books," or "No child is born a racist."

But he has another mission, too. He operates New York City's unofficial reptile orphanage, taking in and finding homes for boas, pythons, iguanas and other slithery creatures being given up by owners or found loose on the streets.

And all this from an East Village storefront not much larger than a walk-in closet, sandwiched between a paint store and a school. Cages for the reptiles fill the shop and a back room. A monitor lizard is under one desk, an 18-foot python beneath another.

At any given time, he houses anywhere from a dozen to 100 reptiles.

Shapiro, a lifelong New Yorker who began his reptilian career more than 20 years ago at the now-defunct West Village store Fang and Claw, is careful not to irritate his neighbors. His lease, after all, says that he simply runs a T-shirt store. But he takes his chances, and he does it for love.

"Reptiles are the most misunderstood pets in the pets industry," Shapiro said recently while feeding frozen mice to a blind monitor lizard.

Shapiro deals with them all: Burmese pythons, Mexican black snakes, iguanas and, maybe four or five times a year, an alligator.

Alligators are illegal as pets in New York City, as are pythons, any poisonous snake, Gila monsters, iguanas, crocodiles and Komodo dragons.

When they are found, the reptiles sometimes tumble around in a bureaucratic spin cycle before ending up at Shapiro's shop.

In other cases, police simply bring the creatures to Shapiro. Last week, an alligator found in a Staten Island pond arrived that way.

But, technically, he can't keep them, either. So he relies on a network of snake enthusiasts, sanctuaries and zoos willing to take in the reptiles.

Often snakes and lizards are brought to Shapiro's shop by people who can no longer take care of them. That was the case with Dolora Correale, who arrived with her two iguanas, Spike and Bigger.

"I wanted to give them to someone who would treat them right and find them good homes," she explained tearfully. "These are my babies. This gives me real peace of mind."

Just after Shapiro dealt with Correale, his assistant Sean Casey showed up with a soft-shelled turtle rescued from a store in Chinatown where it was being sold -- illegally -- to make soup.

"I took this one because he still seemed alive. The rest of the ones in the bucket looked like goners," Casey said.

Bill Cavanaugh jumped off a motorcycle and pulled a 7-foot Burmese python out of his backpack. "I don't want to do this, but I just can't keep him anymore," Cavanaugh said of the snake he found three months earlier in a garbage can.

"God, it's only 1 o'clock. This is going to be a busy day," said Shapiro, laughing.

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