The only way to keep an alligator tame is to keep handling it -- easy for Raymond Buck, reptile connoisseur, to say. Picking up a young American alligator while it hisses and thrashes poses little threat to Buck, who has been handling reptiles and other creatures for the past eight years.

Buck, a former diesel mechanic, opened Buck's Reptile Pets and Supplies at 1904 W. Superior St. 14 months ago. His fascination with reptiles began when his niece from St. Paul brought her 3-foot red tail boa for a visit. "She convinced me to hold it, and that was it," Buck said.

His collection started with snakes, lizards and monitors (large, flesh eating lizards from India, Australia and Africa). Then he discovered alligators.

"I love wrestling with them. I've gotten bitten before, it's no big deal. Eventually, in this business you get bit by something."

The store mascot, Boots, is a common caiman alligator that lives in the back of the store with his own tub for a watering hole and some room to walk around. Caimans reach up to 8 feet long.

Two American alligators are on display in the front of the store, although they're not for sale. They grow too fast and get too big, said Buck. Americans can reach a length of 13 feet or more.

Buck said he as always wanted to own a zoo, and is currently in negotiations to open one in Hinckley where he plans to make a home for the 17 alligators that he owns. He then hopes to open a zoo in Florida. In the meantime, he's running the shop and buying creatures that hiss, crawl and slither.

Buck said he specializes in the more exotic reptiles rather than commercial reptiles that can be bought at any pet store. Besides giant black millipedes, tarantulas, Brazilian rainbow boas (which are beautiful but too feisty to handle), Buck carries frogs, turtles and, ironically enough, a little gray kitten (not for sale) that has the run of the place and likes to inspect all the furry meals, such as mice and rats, that are for sale.

All of the reptiles in Buck's store are captive bred and bought from large wholesale dealers in Florida, California and Colorado. Captive bred reptiles may be more expensive, but offer a better quality and are easier to handle.

"If it's not captive bred, I don't buy it," Buck said. Reptiles from the wild may carry parasites and other internal illnesses, plus poaching is a threat to many reptile species.

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"As long as people keep paying $50 a plate for boa meat, there's still going to be poaching. As long as people buy snake skins there will be poachers," Buck said.

Caring for a reptile is a big responsibility that requires a lot of heat through expensive light bulbs, UV lights and hot rocks. Buck said it costs him $2,000 a month to light and heat the store. Also, cages need to be cleaned daily, and the animals need to be fed and handled.

If a bearded dragon hasn't been picked up for a while, Buck said its color will be dark. Once the dragon is picked up and given some attention, it turns into a lighter color and even becomes a little giddy.

Lizards require more daily care than snakes, Buck said. Snakes eat less frequently, but do need to be supplied with water every day. Buck said he owns a gentle, 16-foot, 160 pound snake that eats a 40-pound pig once a month. The snake is not on display at the store because snakes longer than 8 feet long are illegal within city limits.

Feeding the animals in the store is expensive and costs a minimum of $100 a week, and every couple of weeks Buck orders 10,000 crickets.

Buck said he has approximately 60 customers that come in on a regular basis. If business continues to go well, he hopes to expand his store to a larger space. He said the Internet is his biggest competitor.

"If you want to continue to see these animals, there's got to be places like this," Buck said.

Sandi Dahl is a reporter for the Budgeteer News. To reach her, call 723-1207 or e-mail to sandi.dahl@duluth.com.

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