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Prehistoric Pets owner Jay Brewer wants to change your mind about things that slither – Orange County Register

The Reptile Zoo sounds like a roadside attraction in the Everglades, but the Southern California version is part of a 30-year pet store legacy, currently housed in a stuccoed Fountain Valley strip mall, just off the 405 Freeway.

Sandwiched between a gun shop and a Copy 4 Less are several storefronts, the yellow signs advertising PREHISTORIC ADVENTURES and JURASSIC PARTIES in peeling green letters, the windows covered in cartoon paintings of frogs and giant scorpions.

It’s not exactly how I’d pictured the home base of a social media sensation – dare I say,

“The Lizard King”? I dareth.

I’m here to interview Jay Brewer. If you’re into things that hop, wiggle or crawl, you’ve probably heard of Brewer – let’s just call him Jay. Perhaps you’re one of his 6 million Instagram followers of him, or his 10 millionth TikTok fan of his. Maybe you saw him on the MTV Music Awards or the news, or you’re just a kid like my godson, who begged for a Jurrasic birthday party and was lucky enough to get one. Twice. (Both times, I was, uh…busy. Because gross.)

Whoever and wherever you are, you know that the pandemic forced many businesses to rethink how they interacted with their customers. During this time, Prehistoric Pets has successfully used social media to give audiences dramatic – and often inaccessible, dangerous – glimpses behind-the-scenes at The Reptile Zoo, like how hard it is to help a massive reticulated python mama hatch an egg (hint : it requires protective gear).

Walking up on a recent Saturday, the first thing I notice is that familiar pet store smell wafting through the propped open doors. I’m instantly transported back to my childhood, eagerly pointing to the tiny turtle I want to take home. A fitting memory, considering that as soon as you step inside Prehistoric Pets, you can’t miss the massive gurgling pond to the right of the entrance, full of what I assume my turtles would have grown into, had any of them made it past the three-month mark.

Prehistoric Pets is a 5,000-square-foot pet store, encompassing the Reptile Zoo and designed to satisfy even the wildest of herptile needs, from the critters themselves to their enclosures, food, lighting, decor and beyond. On any given day you can feed tortoises, hold a Burmese python, watch alligators eat lunch, and take part in interactive displays and presentations.

Book a private creature experience! Sign up for Junior Zookeeper Summer Camp! When it comes to dreams of interacting with the scaly or the slimy, Jay and his team of him can probably make it happen.

As I stroll around the shop, waiting to interview Jay, I watch people feed the turtles. Some kid in mismatched socks points to a hairy spider. “This one looks scary,” he says to his friend about him. “What do you think they eat?” From behind me a little girl bellows, “I HATE SNAKES!” as another professes her de ella love for dragons. There are people everywhere.

I recognize Jay from across the room, waving at me. He’s wearing full safari khakis, the bill of his signature baseball hat bent in an oval to frame his face.

“I wanted you to get a real feel for the place,” he says, holding open the gate to the zoo and ushering me quickly inside.

Jay Brewer, right, owner of Prehistoric Pets in Fountain Valley, poses for a photo with visitors on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

At 57, he’s a whirling dervish with a wiry gray beard. What starts as a tour returns into an ongoing to-do list. Something needs to go in that tank. Someone needs to close that door. Who’s leading the next presentation? At one point, I think Jay is yelling directions at me – until I realize there’s an employee’s face pressed against the glass of a tank at the bottom of a stack close to my feet.

Soon, I am struggling to keep up with him – even though he’s a decade older than me and I’m a certified personal trainer – both of us dodging pointing kids and possible photo ops that are going to have to wait until we figure out just what’s up with the AC. I have no idea if we’re actually going to have time to sit down and talk, but I’m positive that I’ll need a nap after all of this.

Jay meanwhile is greedily courting the happy chaos of a Saturday afternoon in the Reptile Zoo. He’s the first to say it’s the perfect anecdote to his own lonely childhood from him. Born in Orange County and adopted by an older couple, Jay’s mother died when he was just 4 years old and, as Jay says, his father was unavailable, both physically and emotionally. With little supervision, no money and a lot of freedom, he has spent his childhood outside, exploring fields and irrigation ditches, catching the only pets he could afford – lizards.

“I traded those lizards for bigger lizards,” Jay says. “You could do that at pet stores back then.” Lucky for Jay, his little friends of him were also relatively easy to take care of for a family of one. You don’t need to walk them. Not constant attention. No allergies. It was the perfect scenario.

Then, when Jay turned 14, his dad died. Suddenly, he really was alone, and the last place he wanted to be was at home.

“I started fishing,” he says. First for fun, then, out of necessity. “When my dad died, I had 500 bucks and nowhere to live,” Jay says, matter-of-factly. It makes me think he’s told this story a lot. On paper, he was being looked after by a man he calls “Uncle Lou,” but he was expected to take care of himself financially. He did that by cleaning and selling the fish he caught.

“I ended up building my own boat at 15 years old,” he says. “Then I got an opportunity to buy a little space in Newport Beach at the Dory (Fishing) Fleet (and Market, a fishing cooperative founded in 1891). I was very successful right out the gate.”

A very good thing, considering he was a terrible student who often received the message that he was “never going to amount to anything,” both from his teachers, who were always attempting to label him with a learning disability, and from Uncle Lou, who often told him he had no work ethic – most likely in a (misguided?) attempt to motivate him.

All of that negativity lit a fire in Jay. “I had a chip on my shoulder,” he says, and as a result, “I was scared of nothing. I would do anything.”

Soon, he was making thousands of dollars a week, out on the water 20 hours a day and surrounded by hard-living fishermen. It was an untenable situation, I realized at 19, for a young man hoping to start a family.

When it came time to switch careers, with a wife and the first of three daughters on the way, his drive to prove wrong people brought him back to his first love – herptiles.

Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, from the Greek work herpeton, which means “creeping animal.” Listening to Jay’s story, it’s easy to see why he gravitated to creepy crawlies. He was kind of one himself – misunderstood, reviled, written off.

Not someone you’d want to bring home to Mom. Just like the creatures featured at his store, where the tagline is, “If it hops, wiggles, crawls, or gives your mom the chills, you’ll find it at The Reptile Zoo,” and most of them have survived for millions of years, against all odds.

Jay Brewer, owner of Prehistoric Pets in Fountain Valley, holds a rare albino American alligator, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Jay Brewer, owner of Prehistoric Pets in Fountain Valley, holds a rare albino American alligator, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Obviously, Jay’s dedicated his life to flipping the switch on that narrative.

“Reptiles get a bum wrap,” he says. In the wild, they might be the ultimate predator, but when they are born and raised in captivity for multiple generations, and they’re fed on a regular basis, you have the opportunity to bond with them. Jay tells me about Frank, the seven-foot Asian water monitor – also known as Mrs. Kipling from the Disney Channel’s “JESSIE” – who had free reign of the store for a decade. “He could be anywhere, and I’d go sit down and he’d come around. Just to come hang out.”

(Turns out they even painted Frank’s nails on the show.)

The kids loved it, Jay says, and that’s the point. “When you touch and feel it, you fall in love with it, then you want to protect it in the wilderness.”

Or have one in your home.

If you’re looking to add a reptile to your repertoire, Jay has a few suggestions. A crested gecko is a no-brainer because, “they don’t even eat bugs. They eat dry food that you add water to.” If the food source doesn’t concern you, you might also try a leopard gecko, a bearded dragon or a ball Python. Don’t know what any of these are? Visit The Reptile Zoo!

Jay claps his hands together, thanks me for coming, then tells me I can’t leave until I hold a spider. I do n’t want to do it, but I am no trader to my sex – Jay says that his decades of experience have shown him that 70 percent of men are scared and wo n’t do it while 70 percent of women , while afraid, will reach for a critter out of curiosity – so I say okay.

That’s how I end up letting Rosie the Chilean rose tarantula crawl up my arm.

While we’re talking tarantulas, Jay tells me that his Uncle Lou invested his last few thousand dollars in Prehistoric Pets, then died before he got to see it pay off. I can’t help but notice that he’s crying as he tells me this. I realize Jay is kind of like his favorite spider of his, Rosie. She looks super scary, like, the size of my palm with some serious fangs, but at the same time, she’s so delicate that a fall could kill her, the impact causing her soft insides to spill out.

Here’s the other thing I notice about Jay. Yeah, it’s about the animals, but it’s more about the people. He wanted to give his girls the childhood he never had. He wanted to bring people together, to think outside of the box, to challenge their beliefs and inspire them to change their thinking. He wanted to see three or four generations of families learning and having fun together.

Telling me this, he gets choked up again, pointing to the rooms full of people. I ca n’t help but remember the viral video of his daughter Julia feeding Darth (the) Gator. The huge reptile took an unexpected header out of his tank during a feeding of her, and, seeing her struggle to get him back into the water, Jay stepped into the frame of her to help her, both of them laughing their butts off of her .

Just another day on the job.

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