South Africa has seen a jump in pet sales during the coronavirus pandemic — and not just for guard dogs, which are common because of a high crime rate. South Africa’s pet shops say in a world of social distancing, people are finding companionship in a range of furry and even slithering animals.
For many, finding a snake in their garden would be a fright.
But for 15-year-old Jimmy Deib, it’s a comforting sight.
He started adopting snakes during the first pandemic lockdown, in part being inspired by a friend who had a snake as a pet.
“I just used to spend my days playing with my snakes and just holding them and cleaning the enclosures and looking at them. They really are just majestic animals. It’s not an aggressive, evil killer, like people think. And I can tell you that they are really awesome pets. I have dogs and I have some snakes that are like dogs. Like, they are really intelligent,” said Deib.
And he said he’s not alone in his hobby. He’s joined online groups with other snake parents to share tips and tricks about where to buy and how to care for the creatures.
They’re certainly not for everyone. But pet ownership and spending on pet care — from health to treats — has climbed during the pandemic, according to market research firm Euromonitor International.
Cat breeder Cheryl Moss said there was certainly a rise in sales for more traditional pets.
“I think a lot of people now they’ve realized home is actually where your heart needs to be, not work," said Moss. "And they need to now make their homes a home where they’ve got someone to come home to and share with them. And I’ve certainly had a lot of queries, a lot of interest. People saying, ‘You know what, I'm lonely, it’s time for a companion.’”
The pandemic was particularly hard for Dr. Cherie-Claire Susmak and her husband, who is also a physician.
She said getting a ragdoll kitten helped relieve their stress.
“Sometimes the unspoken love of a cat, especially after a rough shift where you don’t even really want to talk. And you just have someone who, who just is there, loves you, cuddles you. When you get home and you hold that baby, you just feel, okay, I can breathe,” she said.
Psychologists agree that pets have therapeutic benefits and that emotional support is increasingly recognized by the public.
Leigh Tucker is a clinical psychologist at the University of the Western Cape.
“We are seeing that there have been very positive shifts that have been made, where there’s a lot more narrative around the role of dogs and cats in the household and what they can offer. And our animal companions can be there to provide that comfort and that reassurance during difficult times," said Tucker.
While the pandemic has changed perceptions of the role of cats and dogs in the home, Tucker warns economic pressures and job losses are forcing some families to give up their new pets.
That’s not a concern for Deib, who anticipates his collection growing.
“I would love to do that one day, open like my own little reptile zoo. And I also was looking into going into nature conservation and that. So, I love nature and animals,” he said.
Snakes may not be a conventional pet, but they can certainly give you a hug.
And in the eyes of their owners, they’re great companions.