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Reptile rescuer honored for service to exotic animals

Reptile rescuer honored for service to exotic animals

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WEST VALLEY CITY — First you have to get by the guard dogs.

Once inside James Dix's home, which doubles as the headquarters for his Reptile Rescue Service, there's a surprise around every corner.

Earl the raccoon is in a wire cage below that of a skunk. Next to them are three alligators. Next to them is a pool teaming with 525 red-eared slider turtles, which were impounded by police because they were too small to be sold.

In the garage, heated to a toasty 90 degrees, one finds dozens of exotic snakes, including a python that killed a human and a not-so petite 21-foot tiger-reticulated python that weighs in at about 250 pounds.

And on a typical Friday in the not-so-typical life of Dix, the rescue's founder and chief volunteer, he's heading out the door to a construction job. On the way home, he's picking up two turtles and three snakes to add to the 850-plus snakes, lizards, turtles, alligators, tortoises, frogs as well as a few coyotes, raccoons and a skunk presently living in or about his home.

This past week, Dix was honored by Salt Lake County as a 2011 Vital Volunteer during a brief ceremony in the County Council Chambers for "his efforts to care and rescue sick, impounded, endangered and unwanted reptiles and other animal species," said Salt Lake Mayor Peter Corroon.

He was also recognized for the outreach programs he provides to educate people about the importance of treating all species of animals with respect. Reptile Rescue also offers safe-handling classes to animal control officers, peace officers and the Utah Animal Control Officers Association.

Dix, who is assisted by seven other volunteers including two veterinarians who specialize in exotic animals, has permits from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to hold, rescue, provide care and exhibit exotic animals and snake species.

Dix's interest in reptiles stems back to his childhood in California, where he lived on a private lake near Simi Valley.

"I've been doing reptiles, collecting them and having them as pets, since I was 12 -- and I'm 51 currently," Dix said. "I caught a lot of snakes, frogs and amphibians and it stayed with me."

The rescue started with Dix adopting a box turtle from Salt Lake County Animal Services for $5.

He was told if the the turtle wasn't adopted that it would be euthanized. That led to more questions about the collective fate of reptiles that end up in area animal shelters, although Dix admits, "Of all the animals I deal with, tortoises and turtles are my favorites."

He was told reptiles that weren't adopted or purchased by pet stores would be put down. "I decided to help by taking some of the reptiles from shelters and that's how I got started doing this."

Unfortunately, the need for Dix's service is ongoing. The rescue saves 400 to 700 animals a year. Some are permanent residents of the rescue while others are cared for until they can be adopted. Many are sent out of state.

While some end up in Dix's care through owner neglect or through law enforcement seizures, some animal lovers purposely seek out Dix's help when they have to give up a pet.

Audrie Ercanbrack credits Dix for saving Earl the raccoon. She found Earl and a littermate when they were babies. The littermate died of internal injuries but she kept Earl until she learned it was illegal for her to keep him. She learned of Dix through word of mouth.

"If it wasn't for Jim, he would have been euthanized. Jim has been a lifesaver for him and me," Ercanbrack said while visiting the raccoon, now 9 months old.

Some of the animals end up in Dix's care through human indifference. He's rescued snakes from trash Dumpsters and lizards thrown over the fences into animal shelters and the zoo.

Some people simply get in over their heads when they purchase snakes, which when young may be only a foot long and as big around as a man's index finger.

But they grow three to five feet a year. That could mean a 15-foot, 150-pound snake in three years.

It can be challenging to locate food that they want, such as live rabbits or rats, because few pet stores sell them, not to mention the increasing expense as large, exotic snakes grow. A large snake may need to eat three five-pound rabbits a week.

"As long as they're full and happy, they won't try to hurt you or bite you. If you can't feed that snake properly, then it's going to be hungry and get aggressive. I get ornery when I don't get enough or eat on time," Dix said.

He plans to move from the residential neighborhood where the rescue is currently located to a commercial building within a couple of months.

There, he hopes to have more space to properly display his vast menagerie and share with the public their intrinsic "beauty."

"A lot of people just misunderstand them. A snake can kill you, yes, but you have to also remember you have to respect than any wild animal. A dog, can kill you, and that's domestic," he said. "You just don't hear a lot about it like when a reptile does it."

For reptile removal or education outreach you can call James Dix at 801-860-2497.



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Marjorie Cortez


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