Jabba is a member of the second-largest species of frog in the world. Photos by Michael Contino
June 03, 2013 | 10:33 AMCastro the rock iguana;, Jaws the alligator snapping turtle and Jabba the pixie frog are a few of the more colorful characters among a group of 200 animals at Jungle Bob's Reptile World in Centereach. Just ask "Jungle" Bob Smith himself.
"It's a celebration of natural history really," Smith said. "I want to connect my customers back to nature."
Jungle Bob's is a full-service reptile pet store, located on Middle Country Road in Centereach since 2010 that functions as a quasi-school for those who want to learn about reptilian care.
Jungle Bob poses in the newest addition to his store.
Originally across the street, Smith relocated the business in 2011. Last year, he added the "outback," an outdoor nature center that is open from April though October. This year, he installed a fossil shop, behind the main facility.
"That young man took a building and revitalized it, made it something that's going to be interesting," said Legislator Tom Muratore, whose office is located down the road. "He's brought something different to the community."
Residents near and far are taking notice. According to Smith, the company has an email list with 3,200 addresses. He credits the addition of the outback — where animal experts give lectures, he hosts birthday parties and visits from senior citizen homes — with getting the store more frequent visitors than ever before.
"We definitely have a lot of people coming back, over and over again," said Dakota Mason, an employee at Jungle Bob's. "They come in for one animal, they come in a couple of months later and get another one."
Smith informs and educates as much as he sells and often finds himself dissuading people from getting certain pets and convincing them to buy a different one, due to their preconceived notions about certain reptiles. For example, many come into the store looking to buy a green iguana or a turtle, but they don't realize that they are among the highest-maintenance reptiles. He tries to pair owners with reptiles that will fit their lifestyles.
For the record, Smith said snakes — particularly corn snakes and ball pythons — bearded dragons and tortoises make excellent pets, especially for children.
Castro is a Rock Iguana. According to Jungle Bob, Rock Iguanas make far better pets than green iguanas because they are used to staying on the ground.
He also advises the serious owner.
"He tells you exactly where it's coming from, what to do, what you can't do," said Ralph Johnson of South Setauket, who often adopts animals if people return them to the store. "All of his animals are healthy, you don't have to worry about anything that you have here."
As recently as 2008, this store was nothing more than a hobby for Smith, albeit a considerable and long-standing one.
Growing up he had always had an interest in animals. As a child in West Babylon, he would find reptiles and take them to local pet shops to sell them for 25 cents apiece. When he got older, he studied computers in college and eventually became the owner of a computer company in Hauppauge, which primarily did work for financial institutions. He had 52 employees and a 16,000-square-foot building.
"The back 2,500 [square-feet] was my animal collection," he said. "I'd bring my kids' friends through and we'd do parties. I didn't charge anything. And then one day I thought, 'this could be a business unto itself.'"
The dart frog in this photo is found in Suriname.
It's turning into a family business. Smith's son Dylan, 21, is a junior at Stony Brook University who works at the store during his free time. For him, the best part about the store is the work they do to educate people about exotic animals.
"A tarantula, for example is the first thing we bring out and everyone backs up," the younger Smith said. "By the end, almost everyone is coming close to it, if not holding it, touching it or asking questions."
For the elder Smith — a self-taught reptile enthusiast with no degrees in herpetology or animal husbandry — it's all still a pleasant surprise.
"I've been doing this as a hobbyist for 30 years, as a person for 45 years," Smith said. "I never really thought I'd own a pet store."