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The Devon household where there's plenty to go bump in the night

By Mid Devon Gazette  |  Posted: November 13, 2012

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THEY say that when one door closes another one opens.

Unfortunately, in the Stapley household, opening some doors could leave you face-to-face with several expired rodents.

The airing cupboard door in particular is one to avoid if you are weak of stomach.

Still, the saying in slightly less literal terms is one which holds true for Andy Stapley.

He could have been forgiven for being somewhat downbeat after a couple of years spent battling against changes within the NHS.

As a manager for NHS Devon, representing the team which provided a range of support services, he has been fighting controversial changes to hand over their responsibilities to NHS Shared Business Services, a joint venture between the Department of Health and private company Steria, as reported in the Echo.

The move went ahead and he was recently made redundant.

But rather than dwell on the disappointment, Andy has seized the opportunity to make a business out of a lifelong passion.

"It was a long fight and I'm so sorry for my staff that it didn't go the way we wanted," he said.

"We knew it was coming though, so we all had time to prepare for the worst.

"I'm approaching 50 and I realised it would be difficult to find a job elsewhere, so I thought about turning my interest in reptiles into a career."

Andy had been learning about falconry with Dartmoor Hawking and, seeing the success of the experience days it offered with raptors, he was encouraged to see if he could do the same with his collection of 25 snakes, a dozen lizards, 10 scorpions, 20 spiders, snails and millipedes.

And so far, with very little publicity, Dartmoor Reptiles has been a roaring, or more appropriately, hissing success.

"After observing how children and adults got so much pleasure from seeing the magnificent birds up close and learning more about them, it seemed clear that there could be a market for doing the same with reptiles," said Andy.

"That's the biggest thrill for me. The animals I have in my home are often those people are most afraid of, and I get such a buzz from seeing people conquer their fears through handling them and discovering what they are really like."

He calls Maddie, a Dumerils Boa, a "sweetheart", and it's hard to disagree as she allows herself to be handled in very placid fashion.

He displays similar affection for all of his animals, from Spike the bearded dragon to Lizbeth, a green tree python.

And it's a family affair with his wife Sal, and daughters Zoe and Holly, all pitching in, although Andy is not always keen on the names they award – see Tweetie Pie, the pastel royal python and Cuddles, a young boa.

His interest began as a 15-year-old when he got his first boa constrictor and the collection has grown since then.

"I'd been encouraged to do a couple of school visits with them but nothing too grand," he said. "But since we launched Dartmoor Reptiles things have been incredibly busy. I've put on experiences at Bovey Castle and Crealy, and I'm in talks with Dartmoor Zoo. We've also been booked for photographic shoots and parties."

The main aim at the moment is to relocate from their current base near Cullompton to a larger property on Dartmoor, which should happen in the next few weeks.

Here they want to provide somewhere for families to experience what could be a unique opportunity to visit and meet the animals, as well as continuing to be a mobile enterprise.

It will also give him the chance to work more closely with Dartmoor Hawking, providing photographers with the chance to work with raptors and reptiles side by side.

And it's clear that their current location is not always ideal.

"My wife's office is now home to most of the animals," he said.

"The airing cupboard is where we store the food for the larger snakes, rats and mice, so, as you can tell, we've outgrown our home."

Sal, who met Andy in 1988 and initially had a phobia of snakes, added: "I think I've probably got used to it now but it will make a big difference when we move.

"I confess I was a bit sceptical about whether this could work as a full-time business, but the response we've had so far had been extraordinary and I now think this has massive potential."

Andy has a group of suppliers, including Exeter Exotics, whom he trusts to provide him with his pets.

But he has also been called upon to take in reptiles whose owners are no longer able to keep them, as well as exchanging a number of animals with Devon-based naturalist and TV presenter Nick Baker.

"Nick is brilliant and it's people like him, as well as Steve Backshall, who are educating a generation of children about these incredible creatures," he said.

"They are giving children confidence and knowledge about a wide range of animals which means they are often fearless when it comes to handling them.

"It's parents who are often the ones we have to be more careful with. I met a 75-year-old the other day and gave him the chance to hold a snake for the first time in his life.

"He said, 'Oh, it isn't slimy', and I really enjoy helping people to overcome their fears and challenge misconceptions."

So, is there anything to be afraid of?

"The only times I've been bitten is when I've done something wrong," said Andy.

"It's when I've been careless while cleaning or feeding them.

"You come to learn their moods and know when they are okay to be handled.

"And, even in the worst instance, a bite or sting from a tarantula or scorpion is no worse than that of a bee. You just have to be careful – and teaching people how to be careful is a big part of what we do.

"I've been in office jobs all my life so it's a big change for me to be out and about, meeting people and sharing my love of reptiles with them. At the moment, it doesn't feel like work.

"Sure, it can be exhausting when you put on a display and 140 people are bombarding you, wanting to handle their first snake, but it is all worth it when you realise you are changing their perceptions and also sharing in their excitement."

For more information, or to book Dartmoor Reptiles for an event email enquiry@dartmoorreptiles.co.uk or telephone Andy on 07779 999562.

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