Call of the wild: Our neighborhoods more unusual pets

Pets, beyond dogs and cats

Throughout history we humans have been drawn to nature, fauna in particular, frequently of the furry, snuggly and — in the Instagram era — photogenic variety. Our wants and impulsivity can put pets du jour in peril, if we aren’t mindful. We recently spent time with Lake Highlands families who have adopted atypical pets — some with snouts or scales — and gained first-hand insight into the pros, cons and conditions of unconventional-pet ownership.


Peaceable kingdom

From left: Pigs come running when Haley Ephraim opens the fridge; Hayden Ephraim gets cozy with his pet snake, Mr. Cuddles the python. (Photos by Danny Fulgencio)
From left: Pigs come running when Haley Ephraim opens the fridge; Hayden Ephraim gets cozy with his pet snake, Mr. Cuddles the python. (Photos by Danny Fulgencio)

Moments of pandemonium ensue a time or two each day. When Maribelle and Olivia are allowed inside, mostly. They explode across the back-door threshold and dart into the kitchen. Quick attempts to punch open the pantry door and unlock a childproof gate prove futile, so they pop a U-turn, and scurry up a hardwood hallway. Hooves clip-clop, tails swing and snorts escape upturned snouts in manic bursts. A few rounds and they start to settle. Their chief caretaker, 15-year-old Haley, commands them to sit; she rewards them with a treat when they do. Olivia, the smaller, blonder pig, a kunekune, plops down, appearing comatose, awaiting a belly rub. Maribelle, the larger, darker Juliana pig runs a few more laps before making a pillow out of a visitor’s black dress shoe and exposing her paunch.

If anyone cracks the fridge, chaos resumes.

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When a pig needs to poop, she trots to the back door and rings a bell attached to a bright red ribbon dangling from the knob. They prefer outside — with their muddy pen, plastic pool and sprawling yard — to indoors, notes mom Delene Ephraim, whose silky blonde hair, tidy clothing and unruffled demeanor baffle considering her home contains three children, two swine, one python and a bearded dragon.

The love inside this large, traditional-looking, cul-de-sac-situated home is palpable. The atmosphere is joyful, not stressful.

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That is by design, says Delene, who is allergic to dogs and cats.

When Haley — a well-spoken Lake Highlands High School student with red hair and porcelain skin — asked for a pig, she promised to care for it, as young people are wont to do when pleading for a pet. Her parents told her to write a proposal, a research paper outlining proper pig care. When Haley turned in a first draft, they wanted more detail. “It took two years,” Haley says. But by the time Maribelle moved into the Ephraim house, Haley was a proficient in pig.

“They are insanely smart. The house is baby proofed, which means pig proofed,” she says. Her mom adds that generally they have the intelligence of a 4-year-old. Olivia later joined the family, fitting in quite seamlessly.

Haley’s 13-year-old brother, Hayden, might help with the pigs on the mornings Haley doesn’t rise early for volleyball practice. Whoever is up first has no choice. “As soon as they hear a footstep or see a light come on, they start squealing,” says Hayden, a precocious Dallas Academy student with surfer-blonde hair to his shoulders.

Haley, however, wants little to do with Hayden’s main squeeze, a 4-foot-long python called Mr. Cuddles.

“My son loves this snake,” Delene says.

That is clear — Hayden wears Mr. Cuddles like a slithering accessory — shawl, necklace, hat, belt. He wraps Mr. Cuddles around the neck of a towering stuffed giraffe, which the python circles repeatedly, never attempting to strangle the toy (for what that’s worth) and when Hayden says, without concern, “he’s gonna fall,” Mr. Cuddles falls. The snake hits the hardwood with a thud. Hayden says not to worry. It’s the same when the python escapes his enclosure, a regular event. Cuddles’ knack for absconding and hiding in the house for days until his hunger draws him out is a habit Delene and Haley do not particularly relish.

“He won’t come up the stairs on his own, to the bedrooms,” Haley says, a small comfort.

Still Hayden sometimes gives Cuddles a lift. He likes to torment his sister’s friends, allowing the snake to squeeze itself under Haley’s bedroom door when the girls are gathered inside. “I know now that we have to wait it out,” Haley says. “It takes it a while to squeeze itself under the door, and it would injure him if Hayden opened the door while he was under it.”

So she tells her friends to stop screaming. It will be over soon.

Braxton Ephraim with Noodles the bearded dragon. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Braxton Ephraim with Noodles the bearded dragon. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Mr. Cuddles eats live white mice every few days. They live in a little house situated, appropriately and disconcertingly, on the pet food shelves.

The littlest Ephraim, Braxton, 11 — red headed like his sister, with a spray of freckles across his nose and an infectious smile — owns the smallest and least threatening among this White Rock Valley menagerie: a bearded dragon. With an average adult size of 24 inches, including tail, it’s a lizard with a flap of skin under the chin, the beard, which flares in response to stress. But don’t call it a lizard or a “beardy,” as many do.

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“Dragon” was a selling point for charismatic Braxton. These dragons are harmless as can be, like the Game of Thrones hatchlings; never will they grow to the size of an aircraft and set fire to your enemy’s kingdom (nor yours, which is reassuring). They don’t have sharp teeth and are not easily rattled. Noodles the dragon rides around atop a toy Camaro. He poses patiently for his photo shoot — that is, until he sees his own reflection in the lens and makes a run at it. Noodles willingly endures a leash on which Braxton attempts to walk him, though Noodles seems content cruising, sitting on the couch or in a lap. When the interviewer holding him asks about his bathroom habits, he answers. “Well, he’s doing it right now,” says Braxton, cracking up. Everyone is in stitches, even mom, who dashes for a roll of paper towels, even the shat upon, as she lathers her legs in sanitizer.


Tale of Winter rabbit

Winter the TV-watching rabbit. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Winter the TV-watching rabbit. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

A photo of Winter the snow-white rabbit wearing a ruffle dress snagged first place in the Advocate’s 2017 Pet Contest. Grace, 11, a Wallace Elementary School student, nominated the fuzzy winner.

Winter does not like the dress. But she loves Grace.

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When we meet Winter, she’s in the buff, all ivory fluff, exquisite as an eiderdown pillow. A touch of charcoal liner encircles marble eyes (“They are brown, like mine,” Grace points out.), and the tips of her perpendicular ears seem dipped in the same dark hue.

Grace was not immediately allowed the pet for which she pleaded, at birthdays and Christmases, year after year.

First, she would need to do her homework and gain full understanding of what it means to raise a rabbit. Bunnies require special care, and “are not toys.” That’s the first thing you’ll read upon clicking the homepage of the North Texas Rabbit Sanctuary. That’s where Grace, with her mom Melissa Strack — once they were fully prepared — found Winter.

Approaching age 9, Grace researched rabbit care, watching hours of YouTube videos on the topic. What do they eat? “Some think carrots,” Grace says, “but hay is really best.” She learned about the animals’ temperament, habitat, healthcare, litterbox training and exercise. The studying paid off, because — although operators at the sanctuary want to find homes for their rabbits — prospective bunny parents are probingly vetted.

Winter the rabbit loves cuddling her owner Grace Strack, 11. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Winter the rabbit loves cuddling her owner Grace Strack, 11. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

“Barbara quizzed me,” Grace says. “I was really glad I studied.”

Barbara Yule is the founder of the rabbit sanctuary in Garland. She let Grace pick up and hold three rabbits, teaching her the proper techniques.

Winter was the most playful. Grace immediately adored her. “The other ones seemed lazy,” she says with a smile.

The sanctuary operators note that only 5 percent of bunnies offered up as Easter gifts live past age 1.

“They are a cute 10-year commitment,” they warn, adding that a stuffed toy bunny should do just fine as a gift, because you cannot kill a toy bunny with neglect or abandonment. When it comes to bunny care, the sanctuary volunteers mean business.

Grace’s brother Ian, 9, also a Wallace student, is enamored with the bunny. Even the 12-year-old beagle mix, Belle, didn’t seem to mind the addition. Winter does anything for a raisin — sit, stand, turn a circle, wear a fuchsia headband. Winter is content on Grace’s bed, playing with toys designed for human babies — rattles and oversized keys.

“Winter loves HGTV, we believe,” says mom, Melissa, who discloses she has wanted a bunny since her own childhood. The rabbit watches TV and seems to favor home and garden shows. Grace’s grandfather, Jimmy, built Winter a large wooden habitat. Grace and her father, Glen, later added a second level, basically creating a bunny mansion, now situated in front of an expansive window in Grace’s room. When Glen works from home, he lets Winter roam. He loves that bunny more than he lets on. “Sweet Winter,” muses Melissa. “She brings so much love and joy to our family.”


Night is dark and full of crickets

(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

They are easy to care for. Fun, they have cute little personalities. Safe, they don’t bite, and if they do, it won’t hurt. The creatures are improbably charming — wide wondering eyes; mouth in a semi-permanent smirk; a spikey “beard” like a thousand tiny spears evokes a prehistoric origin; the endearing head tilt, like a curious dog when his human speaks.

Crickets make up about 75 percent of its diet. Feeding resembles a video game; the reptile picks off the insects as they scurry in all directions. If one happens to escape into a crevice of a decorative aquarium rock, it chirps throughout the night, keeping the household’s humans awake.

Bearded dragons like Ivan are an increasingly popular pet. Asher Wilson received one last year for his sixth birthday. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Bearded dragons like Ivan are an increasingly popular pet. Asher Wilson received one last year for his sixth birthday. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

“We found that out the hard way,” says Heather Wilson, whose 7-year-old, Asher, received Ivan the bearded dragon for his sixth birthday. Heather adopted Ivan from a young woman at her church who was heading to college.

Asher understood what it means to be responsible for living things thanks in large part to his education at Moss Haven Elementary and its learning garden and chicken coops, she says.

These so-called “beardies” are exceedingly popular. The Advocate each year inquires about people’s pets for our animals issue. Typically submissions run 90 percent dogs, 9 percent cats and 1 percent other. This year? The bearded dragons flooded in. We couldn’t quite pinpoint why — sure they are adorable, simple and entertaining. (Ivan lounges in a wagon as the Wilson children — Addie, Asher, Claire and Oliver — pull him around the living room.) But why now? The Australian lizards have had a reputation, among herpetology enthusiasts, as hearty, easy pets — as exotics go — for decades.

“I think it’s ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” Heather says. “The show has made dragons cool; everyone wants a ‘dragon.’ ”


The menagerie

From left: Marley the dog and Henry the rabbit cuddle on the couch; Cali the hedgehog strikes a pose; Maui the bearded dragon on the hunt. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
From left: Marley the dog and Henry the rabbit cuddle on the couch; Cali the hedgehog strikes a pose; Maui the bearded dragon on the hunt. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

What lives in Old Lake Highlands and has 12 legs, long ears, a spiky back and a sack of skin that puffs up like a beard?

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It isn’t a mysterious lake monster, but three of Sonay and Colt Baker’s pets. Their rabbit, bearded dragon and hedgehog make for quite the diverse household.

Sonay is a pet photographer and former zookeeper, but Colt is the one who researches how to care for this unique herd.

Their rabbit, Henry, has free range of the house much like an indoor cat, though he is more likely to gnaw through the coffee table than your average feline. Thankfully, this bunny is litterbox trained and gets along swimmingly with his three canine companions. Henry has starred in many an Easter portrait alongside neighborhood children, and isn’t scared to hop in your lap and snuggle up. That isn’t to say he can’t spook an unsuspecting victim, as his blood red eyes on his white fur are reminiscent of Bunnicula the vampire rabbit.

Cali, the hedgehog, hates to be out of his cage, his safe space. He makes a snorting sound that would be terrifying if he wasn’t 8-inches long. He retreats into a spiky ball when he feels threatened, and in nature, hedgehogs actually do roll down termite mounds in a ball like Sonic from the video game. Cali loves to go for night runs, when her exercise wheel can be heard squeaking through the house.

The bearded dragon gets its name from a sack of skin that is a darker color below the reptile’s mouth, looking like a beard as he puffs it up when he senses danger. The Bakers say that these lizards are great for children because they don’t have teeth, and their own little dragon, Maui, is relaxed enough to ride around on your shoulder.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that Colt grew up training horses while Sonay’s mother was certified to rehab raccoons and possums at her childhood home. Zoos are a staple of the Bakers’ vacations these days, where Sonay uses her connections to get behind the scenes for up-close animal encounters.

“It’s how I knew we were a good fit,” Sonny said of Colt. “We have a lot of love to give.” —Will Maddox

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Wallace to the rescue
Sonay Baker’s love for animals goes deeper than most. Her dog Wallace once saved her from a home intruder. A man walked into her open garage and up to her kitchen door when Wallace started barking. Baker turned as the man asked, “Is this the open house?” There was no open house. Wallace, sensing the danger, attempted to bite the man, and as the intruder jumped back and kicked the fur ball, Baker was able to shut and lock the door. Wallace was fine, but later that week, Baker received notice that a woman had been attacked at her complex that week by a man of the same description.

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