“And here’s Tyrone,” Adam Harris of Harris in Wonderland grunts, hoisting the massive African spurred tortoise. Tyrone retracts his baked potato-shaped head into his shell; his wrinkled face is like that of a kind old man. “I’ve been raising him since he was fresh out of the egg, twenty-six years ago.” Harris lowers Tyrone back into his fenced-in corner of the store. The tortoise trudges toward his heat lamp with determination. “And he’s got a full routine. After sleeping under his log, he’ll come out to bask before eating as much as he possibly can, then he’ll go stare at his friends over here.” Harris nods to a wooden enclosure of much smaller tortoises. “I don’t know what the interest is, but Tyrone just loves these little guys.”
Harris sports khaki shorts, a long beard, and is gleeful when holding giant reptiles like an Americanized Steve Irwin. His love for scaly creatures is like that of the late conservationist, but rather than host a television series, he channels the excitement into his specialty pet shop in Canton, Connecticut.
Harris in Wonderland’s modest exterior blends seamlessly into the rural town in western Hartford County. The only clue about the wild world inside is the front door handle: a stunning metal rattlesnake, poised as if ready to strike. Past the deadly serpent are shelves of assorted specialty pet supplies. Dozens of customized tanks and bioactive enclosures house an array of exotic reptiles. A green tree python sleeps coiled over a twisted branch, camouflaged in the dense foliage of its junglescape. Nearby, a pair of Chinese water dragons peer back from behind hanging moss, pothos vines, and a small rock pool. The store itself has an earthy smell and a warm atmosphere. Combined with the sound of bubbling water from the fish tanks on the back wall, Harris in Wonderland is a natural habitat of its own.
To the left of the entrance, Harris stands at the checkout counter with one baby ball python wrapped around each hand: a pastel pied morph on one, and a mahogany cinnamon fire on the other. Harris grew up in Connecticut, where harsh winters mean limited reptilian diversity. Although his father’s passion started with fish, he felt most in tune with reptiles from a young age. “When I was eight years old, I visited my uncle in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and his backyard was this amazing sunken garden. There were lizards running around, stuff that’s just so different from anything that I knew growing up.” The pastel pied looks up at him with bright, inquisitive eyes, flicking its tongue as he continues. “It was just so captivating.” A child’s fascination became a lifetime of dedication. “I think it’s important in this business to have that level of interest.”
The origins of Harris in Wonderland stretch back to the forties with Adam Harris’ father, Seth. “When he was a teenager, he opened it up in his mother’s kitchen. His thing was breeding tropical fish, so he put a sign in the window and it grew from there,” he explains. “It was basically an overgrown hobby that turned into a business.” But Mrs. Harris eventually needed her kitchen back from all of the cichlids and guppies. Luckily, Seth Harris was able to invest in an actual storefront. “It’s been off and on. He had a teaching career, some military service, and then in 1999, he and I reopened it again.” At the time, Seth Harris was retired from over thirty years of teaching and Adam Harris was already working another job. But, unwilling to turn their backs on Harris in Wonderland forever, they pursued their calling once more. Reopening out of love for the practice is a clear sign that passion is the lifeblood—or, cold blood—of the store. As a business, sales have remained more or less stable since its reopening in 1999. But COVID-19 changed that in unprecedented ways.
Harris returns the pythons back to their enclosures and disappears into a back room, returning with a Tupperware full of cat gecko hatchlings. “Initially, it was insane; it was literally insane,” he chuckles. “I mean, people were stuck at home. They had all kinds of extra time, so everybody wanted to get a pet.” Opening the lid, he watches one of the smooth, reddish-brown geckos grasp his finger with its tiny hands and climb aboard. “Plus, they got stimulus money, so people would walk in and say, ‘what do you got for six hundred bucks,’ which is probably my biggest turnoff. That’s just not the way to buy anything.” And it’s especially no way to commit to rearing a pet. Harris is not one to let money talk when it comes to homing his animals.
In 2019, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) found that $97.1 billion were spent on pets in the United States, including food, vet bills, and other services. This number jumped to $103.6 billion in 2020; a 6.7 percent increase impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With quarantine measures in place, a surge of people sought animal companionship in place of human contact. A hefty portion of that amount includes exotics. The APPA estimates that 5.7 million households own reptiles, 14.7 million own fish, and 6.2 million own small mammals such as rabbits and hamsters.
The gecko leaps to his other hand and curls its white-spotted tail into a spiral, posing like its feline namesake. “So that was kind of an uncomfortable battle to negotiate, but it did make for a crazy, weird year of increased sales. I would say it’s been an artificial increase just because people needed something to do, which is initially a positive thing. But then you have to think about what happens when everybody goes back to work,” he shrugs. It was both a blessing and a curse for Harris’ own line of work. Gently placing the hatchling back in the container, he makes his way behind the first shelf facing the front desk.
Beyond encouraging customers to acquire pets responsibly, Harris in Wonderland also breeds many of their animals to foster healthy, captive populations, as some species are declining in their natural habitat.
Harris emerges with a slender, three-foot-long snake; its colors are like shiny black vinyl, save for some delicate white fringing along the chin and between the scales. It glides back and forth, twisting from hand to hand with fluid motion. “This is a black pinesnake male. I hope to find a female pretty soon because it’s important to proliferate protected species.” According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the black pinesnake is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. “Which is entirely due to habitat loss,” Harris adds. “In this instance, their native habitat in Alabama has been largely overdeveloped.”
Harris extends a hand towards the animal’s vivarium, watching its tail slowly uncoil from his wrist as it slithers further inside its den, a shadowy hiding spot under a cork bark slab. Once the last of the tail is hidden in darkness, he locks the door with a key from his belt and takes a step back, all without lifting his eyes off the snake’s enclosure.
Of all the reptiles in Harris in Wonderland, snakes get the least love from the general public. Hatred of the animals has been a Western cultural mainstay for centuries; everyone remembers serpent-haired Medusa from Greek tradition, or Satan assuming the snake’s form in Paradise Lost. Even in the twenty-first century, one of the most popular quips to say around snakes is “snakes. . . why’d it have to be snakes?” thanks to Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or another favorite from Snakes on a Plane starring Samuel L. Jackson, “I have had it with these mother——g snakes on this mother——g plane!” But times are changing faster than ever.
“I think people are more open-minded these days. A lot more people care about a creature that was basically loathed by everyone, so I think it’s all headed in the right direction,” Harris states. He walks back across the store and through the entrance, stopping to point at the rattlesnake handle on the other side of the door. “There were people who literally couldn’t enter the store because of that handle. There are people whose first instincts are to smash every snake with a shovel. I see less and less of that.”
Harris believes more people are recognizing the value in all wildlife, mainly in light of new ecological realities. Seeing one of these animals in person inspires people to care—not only about a species with a bad reputation, but about the environments that they come from. After all, seeing lizards in Baton Rouge was the start of his own interest. He predicts that Harris in Wonderland and the industry at large will continue improving public opinion as long as they work responsibly. “That’s why I went to school for a biology degree,” he states matter-of-factly. “I was gonna go into an ecology kind of thing, but this is where my path led me.” Taking a seat in a lawn chair beside the door, Harris looks to the trees across the street. “I’m just as happy doing this kind of thing. If I hadn’t seen those animals in my uncle’s backyard, and cared, then I could have been the one smashing snakes with a shovel.”
Samantha Shaner is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine.
Rattlesnake sculpture by JL Cook / Header Photo Credit: Samantha Shaner