This week in our career-advice column, we find out how a deep-seated interest in parrots, lizards, and snakes can lead to rewarding careers in both elderly care and children’s entertainment.
Name: Seth Falk
Job: Co-owner and founder of Hands on Exotics, a company specializing in animal-assisted care and activities.
How did you first get into this line of work?
I started Hands on Exotics a few years ago as a fluke. I had a lot of pets in my apartment and nowhere to go all winter, so I started asking nursing homes if I could bring them in for visits. They said, “Of course,” and then they started paying for my taxis to come and visit the patients there. I loved it but, when I got a full-time job, I had to tell the homes that I couldn’t do visits anymore. So they told me they would start paying me to come in and, eventually, I decided to quit my job and start doing this full-time.
Were you always really into animals?
When I was a kid, I made my mom take me to every pet store and every zoo. I volunteered at junior naturalist programs, and worked at African Lion Safari for a year as a zookeeper, which meant cleaning up goat, llama, and elephant poop all day. But I thought it was awesome! When I lived with my parents, I had about 15 animals in my bedroom—geckos and lizards and small birds and frogs. When I moved into my own place, I saved up money and started paying off [the purchase of] a parrot. And then I got some more parrots—I would take the birds to the park all summer to get exercise, and I met people from the nursing home nearby, and I asked if I could bring my animals in for visit. Then, that home called other homes, and now we have visits at 60 to 70 nursing homes in Ontario. We also have programs at public and private schools, and we do Pawsitively Pets camps. We’re doing 120 camp shows this summer alone. We also do a lot of birthday parties. A lot of these kids have never come in contact with these animals before, so it’s a great way for them to learn about them. We go anywhere they will take us; we did the stage show at the Harry Potter comedy with our owl, and we go to office parties. We also do a lot of events for the City of Toronto.
How did you teach yourself how to train animals?
I bought all the books they had at Pet Smart on training. But I’m also a zoo fanatic. I go to zoos all over the world and watch their animal shows, videotape them, and take notes. With less common animals, you have to learn by watching, and through a bit of trial and error. Birds are the hardest animals to train, because they are so smart, and they have sharp beaks and claws. Our focus at Hands on Exotics is on birds, which no other animal-therapy group does, so that’s helped us do really well. My birds are all different—some work for food, some work for attention, so you have to find what they love and give them that, with lots of positive reinforcement. Snakes are the easiest to train—they just lay there!
Can you tell me a bit about how Hands on Exotics’ animal therapy works?
For nursing homes or long-term care homes, certain floors will have people who are more mobile, while in other areas the residents will be less so. I usually bring three to five animals that I think that specific demographic will like, and then I go room to room and visit people. We talk about their pets and we play with the animals I brought, and take pictures. I think there’s almost a spiritual connection that people have with the animals. Seeing them brings back memories from childhood, of seeing animals on a farm or going to a pet store. I bring in my wolfhound Kovatch, and they’ll remember the dog they had or that their friends had, and it brings up a lot of positive memories. It gives people this warm feeling—gets them smiling and laughing, and takes them out of where they are at the moment. My birds remember faces, so after a few visits the birds will remember the residents, and they can have a conversation. The bird can even mimic the language that they speak, so the person feels really connected and special. It’s also the opportunity for the residents to do something new for the first time. These people may have never seen a tarantula before, or touched a boa constrictor, and probably didn’t think they ever would. But you’re never too old to have a new experience.
Animal therapy is often done with dogs and cats. What made you want to try therapy with exotic animals?
I always loved exotic animals. Being able to have a bond or a connection with an exotic animal for me is so special, and I think the residents also feel that special bond. It’s also a learning experience for the residents; I try to bring new animals each time, so that over six months they’ll see interact with different ones. [Hands on Exotics manages 80 animals, though some are small, such as hermit crabs and chinchillas.] For someone laying in a hospital bed with a feeding tube and a colonoscopy bag, they might not be able to adjust the bed so that they can reach down and pet a dog. But I can still put a snake around their neck! So, for some people, a snake is perfect for tactile interaction. Other residents are blind, so getting to talk to a bird is a great thing. Exotic animals are kind of perfect for people with special needs, because they all have their own needs, too.
How has working with animals changed your views on sustainability and the environment?
A few years ago, I went to South and Central America for a year. I lived in yoga camps and volunteered at animal-rescue centers. It was a great learning experience for me to see animals in the wild, and how they can be hurt by illegal smuggling or animal trade. I also got to see what habitat destruction is actually like. I traveled down the Amazon river with these Indian tribes, and the river was full of plastic bags and oil. That was a really big wake-up call. Learning this stuff can be sad and scary—almost all parrot species are endangered, and there’s talk about how there’s more parrots in Canada than in their native countries like Brazil. I’ve also learned a lot about wild-caught animals, and what happens to excess animals in the pet industry.
So is it possible for people to have exotic pets without supporting the negative parts of that industry?
Absolutely. The first thing you should do if you are interested in having an exotic animal is to join a club. I’m part of the York Region Parrot Club, and going there for a few workshop nights will tell you all about the animal and how to care for it. They can help set you up with a rescue animal, where not only do you save a $1,000, but you also give an animal a home that needs one. The people at the clubs are experts, so they’ll give you a bird that’s just right for your needs. There are so many animals up for adoption or foster care that you can help; most of our animals are rescue animals.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
My least favourite thing is driving. I don’t like cars, so I used to take all my birds and snakes on the subway. But now we have on average 120 shows a month, which are all over the GTA and beyond, so we have to drive everywhere. My favourite part is doing any show; they’re so much fun. I love showing people the animals. We almost always get an email or a phone call afterward where people tell us how special it was. I think our animals are super-spoiled. They all get to go outside and have lots of exercise every day; I have leashes for my lizards so that I can take them out for walks. I don’t know of any other exotic animals that get fed, exercised, and cuddled every single day!
Think your job could be somebody’s life? Email Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy.