If anyone had asked a 13-year-old Laura Brewer if she was going to work in her family’s reptile zoo – home to 100 exotic species, including snapping turtles, rescued sulcata tortoises, tarantulas, and giant reticulated pythons – she’d have responded with a resolute, “absolutely not!”
Though she’d grown up with “lizards in our backyard, snakes in our garage, and a dog in our living room,” Laura’s initial plans didn’t involve animals – instead she was determined to forge a career in graphic design or advertising.
However, post-college, Laura found herself back in the throes of the family business – and on the crest of something special.
A walk on the wild side
A 30-year institution in California, the Prehistoric Pets Inc. brand has gone through several iterations, beginning as a passion project for Laura’s parents, Becky and Jay Brewer, in the late eighties.
Jay Brewer is the force majeure of the operation. Charismatic and roguish, Jay is akin to an American Steve Irwin; Prehistoric Pets has long been his brainchild. Unlike Irwin, Jay’s interest in herpetology – the branch of zoology concerning amphibians, reptiles, turtles and more – wasn’t strictly forged by his parents.
Adopted at birth and orphaned by 14, Jay inherited $500 which he used to design and build the small commercial fishing boat that became his first business. He would spend almost a decade making his living on the waters of California.
In 1987, newly married to Becky, Jay left the fishing business for a career working more closely with animals. In their early twenties and with $5,000 in savings, the Brewers bought Pet Country, a pet store in California. They sold dogs and cats and had a small reptile section.
Jay’s long-time passion was breeding rare snakes – and soon he began to cultivate a following of avid reptile lovers who were interested in his morphs, including Indian pythons and frilled dragons.
In its current iteration in Fountain Valley, Prehistoric Pets has been operating for 10 years as a permanent educational exhibit (longform for ‘zoo’) with a ‘living gift shop’ – the legacy retail section that carries animals which are more suitable as pets and the accessories required to keep them.
With about 150 species on display, the facility’s status as a zoo (it trades as ‘The Reptile Zoo’) means it can house animals which are illegal to sell – including snapping turtles, alligators, and rattlesnakes.
Initially, it was the intention to “give back to her family” that drew Laura into the business. Her goal was to streamline processes with tactics she’d learned in her studies.
One year turned into two and several years later, Laura was still there – so she made the decision to stay and to take on the mantle.
Day-to-day life in a reptile zoo
When Laura interviews applicants for roles in the facility, she tells them that they’ll never be bored. As long as they’re passionate about what they’re doing in the store – even if it’s hard – it’ll be rewarding. “We’re doing something that is incredibly special and valuable,” she says.
“I love that through these animals, I get the opportunity to interact with people from all over the globe. Because they’re unique creatures, there’s this level of vulnerability that people have when they come into you and they’re just so open when they interact with you.”
Growing up, Laura admits, she probably didn’t take as much advantage of the business as she could have. The perception of reptiles, arachnids, and amphibians was very different to what it is now. Perhaps, she thought, her classmates might have found it weird.
Indeed, in her youth, on a class trip to the zoo, Laura had taken the chance to show off to her classmates, only for the snake – which was perched on her shoulders – to defecate on her.
“I was distraught,” she says with a long laugh. “This was my moment to shine and I just got pooped on.”
It’s this closeness to the animals and the inherent realness that’s been the crux to challenging the perception of many visitors to the facility.
Frank, a 50-pound Asian water monitor, is the perfect example. He’s Laura’s favorite, though she has a fondness too for the tropical geckos she keeps in her office.
Frank hatched in the facility and is 15 now. Most Asian water monitors live to 12.
“He’s on extended play,” Laura says. “He’s like a dog to me. When he passes…I’m going to need some time off. He’s so curious and aware…he’s just the sweetest.”
Frank has spent much of his life roaming around the facility, unfettered. Guests will turn a corner in the sprawling compound and come face-to-face with a docile seven-foot lizard – which is all part of the charm.
In Laura’s day-to-day life, her official title is ‘Operations’ – which is manifold. Generally, she’s in charge of making sure that the team has everything it needs to succeed, while also fostering a positive experience for the visitors – including everything from engaging with guests to choosing the right animals for the zoo.
There is no one typical day: often, Laura is wherever she’s needed – at the front desk, at a business meeting negotiating contracts, or cleaning out a cage.
On one occasion, Laura found herself on national television on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. She wasn’t scheduled to be on set, but the team forgot to bring a Goliath bird-eating tarantula with them – “the big mean, scary one,” Laura quips – so she ended up onstage with Conan and the spider.
Three million followers and counting
Despite the modest beginning, the zoo has been on an impressive upward trajectory since its pivot to full-time display and education.
A huge part of that lies with Jay and the following he’s cultivated on social media – not least of all his 1.5 million followers on Instagram or the 800,000 people who subscribe to his YouTube channel.
None of this success was incidental.
“Jay has really been poised to be this person his whole life,” Laura says. “He started in the industry before there really was an industry, so he has the actual background to be an expert in the field.
“He’s so good at it…he can read the animals incredibly well. He can walk by a snake and be like ‘that snake is ready to breed’ or ‘there’s something wrong with that snake – go take a look.’ Just walking by is enough for him to realize that something is going on.”
The industry knowledge goes a long way, as does the draw of the exotic animals in the facility, though much of the success rests on Jay’s shoulders. He’s a warm presence who Laura talks about with great adoration.
It’s his authenticity that really resonates – the Jay on the screen is Jay in real life.
“Social media doesn’t have to be perfect and clean,” Laura says. “But it has to be real. Jay knows no other way. He’s 100 percent real.”
Pair that with a devoted work ethic, and it’s a winning combination. There’s no shortcut; putting the time in is the crux. The Brewers have been on YouTube for 10 years. Before that, they were on Myspace and now Jay is on TikTok, a growing social platform for kids and creatives.
“He’s this 50-something guy who has figured out how to do TikTok,” Laura says wryly. “I’m a millennial and I don’t know how!”
Of course, opening their store up on such a public platform isn’t without its downsides. Working with animals – especially misunderstood or rare animals – is a guarantee for backlash.
Case in point: any of the myriad videos that include Jay opening snake eggs with a razor blade. It’s visceral, with squirming baby snakes, gelatinous goop and trails of blood.
‘Why are you doing that? You’re killing them,’ is a common refrain in the comment section.
While the topic is controversial to followers, Laura is resolute in the ‘why’.
“We’re doing it to save the animals,” she stresses. “This isn’t the wild – so we’re going to do our best to protect the animals in our facility. With opening the snake eggs, it’s not dissimilar to a doctor in a hospital performing a C-section on a woman who is struggling during labor.”
If someone has a genuine criticism, the team works hard to take it onboard and do better.
Granted, Jay’s apparent devil-may-care attitude is one of the big Catch-22s of the facility. Daring videos of Jay being bitten or lounging in a cage surrounded by giant pythons he’s bred have notched up tens of millions of views on YouTube.
Much of the appeal is in this extreme.
However flippant the output may seem, the videos are all extremely-well calculated, created in a safe environment with some of the best-trained staff in herpetology in the States.
Viewers at home might see a 30-second clip, though each video involves an entire production process with detailed prepping and an exhaustive knowledge of the animals.
If Jay is working with a more aggressive animal, he’ll make sure he has a hook to hand, or he’ll wear a jacket with added padding – and he’ll be surrounded by professionals who can intervene if needs must.
“Even if we’re doing a video of Jay in a cage with all the big snakes, there are 15 people there who make it possible,” Laura explains. “He’s the only one in the video and it looks like he’s having fun and it’s off the cuff, but we’ve done a lot of planning. That one video was a four-hour shoot.”
The trick is in striking the balance between education and entertainment – a 30-second clip on Facebook can easily be misinterpreted without context.
Sometimes Jay, too, will push the boundaries with his ideas.
Laura admits it’s her job to act as his buffer. “He’s the big dreamer,” she says. “It’s not that the ideas are unfeasible – it’s more that it might not read well. I know he’s never going to do anything that’s going to put him or an animal in danger but sometimes, it could look like that’s what’s happening.”
Given the mammoth digital footprint, it’s no surprise that tourists come from around the world to visit the facility – and not just for the animals.
A budding mindset is growing around Jay’s mantra of living your dream – and Jay himself is central to that. With a boyish excitement and big personality, followers are drawn to his aspirational view on life – and it’s spreading beyond the States.
In an airport in Germany, Jay was recognized as the ‘snake guy’ while in a KFC in Australia, a group of very excited kids were shocked to see him.
“It’s so special because he’s making an impact on these peoples’ lives in a way that shouldn’t be possible,” Laura notes. “It’s such a testament to who he is. He meets people who are here onsite, but he also goes out to millions of people around the world to share his passion for the animals and his passion for life.”
On the other side of fear
The store’s meteoric rise and prime position as a destination has created extraordinary opportunities for Laura and her family.
From 2011 to 2018, Laura worked on the Disney Channel’s show Jessie and its spin-off Bunk’d with Frank, her beloved Asian water monitor. Frank plays Mrs. Kipling, a family pet on the show.
The longstanding mantra in Hollywood is ‘don’t work with kids or animals’ – and Laura reveals that the secret to working with Frank is in her innate ability to read him. Aged 15 now and one of the elderly statesmen of the reptile zoo, Frank has, in many ways, grown up alongside Laura.
On the Disney Channel, it was Laura’s job to interpret his quirks such that the director or crew could get what they wanted in their shot. Exposure on set helped with expectation: over time, the crew more actively came to understand Frank’s capabilities and they’d write to that.
“It was a lot of walking in the right direction and ‘turn and give me a look’,” Laura reveals. “The director would say ‘we’d like him to play piano’ and I can say ‘okay…we can sit him in front of the piano and put his hands on there.’”
But Frank isn’t the only extraordinary animal to have held tenure in the reptile zoo.
For eight years, a two-headed snake called Thelma and Louise lived in the zoo, while Twinkie was a Guinness World Record holder as the largest albino reticulated python in captivity. A 22-foot long gentle giant, guests still ask after Twinkie, who passed away several years ago.
“She was,” Laura says, “the perfect ‘spokes-animal’ for pythons.”
More recently, the Brewers embarked on an educational tour of Australia and Indonesia. Many of the animals in the zoo originate from Indonesia, so the Brewers organized a meetup on the island.
Over one thousand people turned up. Many of them didn’t even speak English but whenever Jay would say his trademark, “living the dream”, the participants would echo it back – making magic in the words.
Afterwards, Laura and Jay visited Komodo Island, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site, where they got to run on golden beaches with dinosaur-esque Komodo dragons.
“It was a dream that I had,” Laura says, “and I’ve done it now and it was beyond anything I’ve ever hoped for. It was incredible.”
Growing fame aside, it all comes back to a passion for people and animals for Laura – and, ultimately, overcoming fear and being brave in the face of challenges, an ethos she has inherited from her father.
Had a young, orphaned Jay not taken a risk first on a fishing boat and later with a pet store specializing in reptiles, the blueprint of the Brewer’s lives would likely be very different.
It’s typified best with the animals and how the goal of the zoo is to challenge perception.
“There’s so much fear around them,” Laura says. To counteract it, she has a beat she’s played out countless times: she’ll bring visitors into the zoo and request that they hold a tarantula in the palm of their hands. The body immediately anticipates aggression – starts to give in to fear.
“And then you put it in your hand,” Laura says, “and it’s so light and so delicate – and your brain is telling you it’s this big, scary thing and your hand is telling you it’s so fragile – and it’s so transformative because you come away thinking, ‘what else have I been afraid of? What else can I overcome?’”
For the Brewers, that’s everything.