The idea for a reptile rescue came to Tonya Hinshaw when she picked up two geckos that were advertised on Craigslist.
The critters were malnourished, and their little terrarium was dirty and littered with dead cockroaches.
“The seller said his roommate left the geckos behind in the garage when he moved out,” Hinshaw said. “He asked 20 bucks for them and I just bought them. I felt so sorry for them.”
Now Hinshaw is trying to launch Reptile Domicile, a nonprofit reptile rescue and adoption service, from her home in the Garland District. She’s already found homes for a tortoise and a couple of geckos, and a woman recently showed up with a Chinese water dragon.
“She has to move and she can’t have a pet in her new apartment,” Hinshaw said. “We are going to try and find him a new home and an owner who will let them stay in touch.”
A tiny woman with brightly colored tattoos running up both arms, Hinshaw said she grew up with bearded dragons.
“Why did I have bearded dragons? I don’t know,” Hinshaw said, laughing. “They are personable animals. They like to be held and petted. I just like them.”
She’s got one pair, Sandy and Oscar, who live in a terrarium in a warm and insulated downstairs reptile room. Those are the only reptiles that breed while in Hinshaw’s care.
“There was some confusion: It turns out Oscar is a girl and Sandy is a boy,” Hinshaw said. “Suddenly, we had eggs.”
Among rescues is a veiled chameleon who came to Hinshaw severely dehydrated and with an eye infection. Judging from his confident strutting on her arm, he’s now doing pretty well.
“He will hiss and try to bite you, but he’s much better,” Hinshaw said, while holding the flushing green and red animal. “He also had tail rot when we got him, but we took care of that.”
Hinshaw is so recently married to John Hinshaw that the couple’s tattooed wedding bands still look a little raw. They have brought together seven children between the ages of 8 and 18 – five live at home with them.
Hinshaw said her autistic son is especially fond of a large ball python that lives in a big terrarium in his room.
“As long as the snake is there, he does much better at calming down,” Hinshaw said.
About a dozen rescue snakes live in the downstairs reptile room, including Trixie the very friendly orange corn snake. The snakes live separately in neat plastic cubbies.
“I had to get used to the snakes,” John Hinshaw said, while holding Trixie. “It took some time before I could calm down around them.” A small breeding operation in large plastic tubs provides cockroaches and mealworms for the many reptiles.
“We breed their food,” John Hinshaw said. “That is a lot cheaper than buying it.”
Mice for the snakes are purchased on an as-needed basis.
The reptiles’ need of constant heat does drive up the power bill.
“I’ve never broken it down to how much it costs,” John Hinshaw said, “but I changed all our light bulbs to fluorescents to save power.”
The Hinshaws are both unemployed.
A scar cutting across Tonya Hinshaw’s face is a constant reminder of why she had to stop working as a medical assistant in 2012.
“I got bitten by a hobo spider while I slept,” she said. “I was in and out of the hospital a lot and I just couldn’t continue to work.” John Hinshaw is looking for work in the heating and air-conditioning business.
When asking Tonya Hinshaw, it is clear that by far the majority of the reptiles are not up for adoption, either because they have become family pets or because they are still recovering from malnutrition or other health problems.
“People don’t know what they are getting into when they buy them,” Tonya Hinshaw said. “They don’t know what they eat or how big the snakes and geckos get. That’s why they give them up.”
She said people find Reptile Domicile via the neighborhood social network NextDoor or on Facebook.
The Hinshaws hope to be able to file for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status soon, and dream of some day running a small store front with rescued reptiles for adoption.
The couple refuses to take in reptiles that are not legal or caught in the wild in Washington.
“I don’t want to do anything illegal,” Tonya Hinshaw said. “We are not in it to make money. It’s all funded by us.”