Roosevelt Blair and his brother Jeff Blair have made sure East Liberty had its fair share of giant lizards for the past four-and-a-half-years. Their shop, Animal's Place on Penn Avenue, specializes in alligators and other lizards, including a pair of adolescent 'gators -- one that's over 5 feet long. Roosevelt Blair, 30, grew up in Homewood surrounded by pets.
Why the gators? Who keeps pet alligators?
I notice a lot of City of Pittsburgh police officers have pet alligators, housing officers have pet alligators. There's a lot of women that have pet alligators. I know one female who used to come in and feed our alligators, she used to say that was just to burn off a little hostility. Before we even owned a pet shop we were into the alligators as pets, basically because of their aggressive nature. That's one of our biggest sellers.
Gators are cold blooded -- how do these guys get to soak up sunshine?
We take our animals out front. We set up a gazebo out front and take the alligators out. We used to let them walk around but it was messing up their skin on the bottoms of their feet so we stopped doing that but we'll hold them out in the sun, let them sit out in the tubs. I have a few customers that'll come to the door and ask me if anything's out before they'll come in.
What do they eat?
The big alligators, they eat mice and rats. The little alligators eat feeder fish and crickets.
What pets do you have at home?
I got kids! I don't need pets. I don't have pets at home. I have four kids.
How do kids react to these beasts?
I look at it like this here: If you get kids loving animals when they're younger, as they get older, it really helps out with the way they live. When I was growing up, one guy tied a shoestring around a cat's neck, which eventually killed the cat. Now, he's in jail for doing a murder. If you teach kids to love animals when they're young, it changes their whole way of life, whether it's with animals or people.
You sometimes have kids working here as volunteers.
Kids, they want to get a job here but I don't have room, but they just want to come and help out just so they could be with the animals. If they don't do good in school and I talk to their mom and their dad and they don't let them come down to the shop, that hurts more than taking away the video games. We do a lot of events with kids, also, like say for the report cards. If they've got good report cards, we'll give them a free betta fish, we gave out free green tree frogs, free goldfish. We deal with the Urban League Charter School -- we go every year for their Career Day. We also maintain their animals and their aquariums. On Career Day we take up about half the animals we have in the shop, even the big alligators. We just talk to them about a career in the pet business whether it be as a veterinarian, a herpetologist or basically even just working in a pet shop. We never get to finish that, it's always "We want to touch the animals!" We're the biggest attraction of the day.
How did you get started with the shop?
We've always had animals, used to catch the little garter snakes, we had dogs, cats and reptiles, a lot of reptiles. We really got into the reptiles and the shop after my oldest brother got killed. His nickname was "Animal." That's why we called it "Animal's Place." He was the type of person who could make all the sounds of the different animals. We keep his pictures up. A lot of the customers knew him, and that's some of the main reasons why they come in. It could be just to buy anything, a goldfish -- they just want to be able to try to support the shop any way they can. After he got killed things just started working out in different ways to where we were able to do this, and that name just really fit. I mean, it really fit.