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Reptile specialist gets to play with newts, frogs and snakes, oh my!

(Jennifer Priest Mitchell is a writer who lives in Beaverton. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

Abandoned bird nests, slithering snakes and rats around the neighborhood- all the makings of a perfect day of outdoor play for many little kids.

In some cases, those lucky children grow up and still get to play with, care for and teach others about the fascinating world of nature in the form of scales, claws and appetites for bugs.

Chris Stenerson was once among the curious children who adored the outdoors and every small creature he could find.

'Like a lot of little boys, I guess, I loved to find snakes and other small animals when I was playing outside. My mom did not like that too much. Sometimes she'd let me keep one, but it was easier to settle on a true pet that everyone in the house agreed on,' shared this Petco employee, who is now the reptile specialist at the store on S.W. 117th, off of Canyon Road.

And just what does it mean to be a reptile specialist?

'Well, you have to earn that title,' he explained. Petco actually has a training program where employees can become specialists in a variety of areas by reading specific books, taking part in the hands-on care of those types of animals and by passing a test.

'Once I passed the test and earned the title, then I began to specialize in the care, maintenance, and upkeep of the reptiles [in the store] and their habitats,' he said.

Stenerson is also the go-to person for would-be reptile owners who come to the store.

'When people start to ask me about the various reptiles - when people are thinking about buying a lizard or perhaps another pet for their child, I usually send them away with some homework first. They need to understand what they are getting into before buying the pet.'

And that, we do. I recently took my two children, ages 6 and 7, to Petco to watch the bearded dragons. Chris shared with us that he sells a lot of pets to people and he recommends that folks educate themselves about the commitment involved, the supplies needed and the basic care required for each of the different kinds of animals.

He explained, 'Bearded dragons are actually hardy reptiles. They're loving . . . I know it sounds weird, but they actually enjoy being held and played with. When a kid's friends come over, they want to play with your pet and hold it, that is what it is all about, and the bearded dragon is very tolerant of this attention and actually enjoys it.'

With an 8-year lifespan, and needs for an under-tank heater, the tank itself, and a light, the average transaction for the animal and its supplies can run between $150 and $400. This is not something to step into lightly, and Stenerson wants parents to understand this when they decide to help their child choose a pet.

'With these pets,' he said with a smile, 'you can't push pause. You can't hit save and come back later. You have to get the animal what it needs, treat it right, and remember that it is always there and it always needs you to feed it and care for it.'

A native Oregonian, Stenerson grew up in the Lincoln City area and enjoyed all the coast has to offer while he was a youth. He moved to Portland and began working at Petco in the city before he transferred to the store in Beaverton. As a single parent, he likes that the store offers him flexibility with his job so he can spend time with his pre-school aged daughter.

'It is also great to bring her into the store,' he offered. 'She loves lizards, reptiles . . . all animals!'

Stenerson confesses that his all-time favorite pet of his own was a cat named Murphy who lived to be 19 years old, but he has owned a lot of reptiles and had a lot of experience caring for them before working for Petco and taking the training to become a specialist.

He is also a companion animals specialist who helps people who have questions or problems with their dogs and cats.

'I am learning a lot while on the job in that area,' he said. 'I took the training and passed the test and everything, but you really learn a lot and gain a lot of experience while just talking to the people who come in and have stories to share or questions to ask.'

He is now working to become an aquatics specialist, which is another certification in the series available to Petco employees. When asked what he likes about living in the Beaverton area, Stenerson chimed right in, 'Well, there is a lot more diversity and there are a lot more opportunities than there were living in a small town. And I like working here and all that there is for me here. Eventually, I would like to live out a little ways and own some land. But I've been to Washington and I've been to California and there is really nowhere else I'd want to live.'