The wacky world of exotic pets

Benson Kho and his pets — The Bearded Dragons.

People often adopt domestic animals such as cats and dogs as companions. However, for 35-year-old Benson Kho, he finds comfort in having the companionship of exotic animals — tarantulas, scorpions, Bearded Dragons, and many more.

Finding companionship in the unluckliest of animals

humans have been known to domesticate animals since 2.6 million years ago, when it is believed that our ancestors first tamed wolves to be their hunting partners.

Since then, many animals have been reared and domesticated, such as dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, birds and others. Over time, a bond developed between the two and humans find solace and companionship in these creatures.

Benson Kho’s affinity with animals is nothing new. He was always intrigued with the thoughts of having exotic pets as companions. Exposed to wildlife adventures since he was a young boy, Benson explained that the interest might have developed through his times hiking with his parents and the hours he spent watching the National Geographic channel. “I remember the times I would spend hours looking for spiders during our visit to the Wind Cave in Bau.”

The exotic pet keeper with his Tarantula from the native Brachypelma Boehmei.

Even at times when he was home, he would explore the garden outside. Armed with a magnifying glass, young Benson would observe animals in the vicinity for countless hours.

“There were spiders, insects, lizards, birds and others. I find them very fascinating. Each of them is very unique and colourful.”

Keeping his first crawly creature at seven, Benson said it was a jumping spider from the genus Hyllus of the spider family Salticidae. “Of all the species that I kept back then, jumping spiders from this genus were my favourite because they were big. Sized between 1.8 to 2.5 centimetres, I would keep them in plastic critter enclosures.”

He would also decorate the enclosure with plants to keep a more ‘natural’ home for his spider. He would feed his Hyllus with small grasshoppers which he caught from his backyard. “I miss those days. Can’t imagine it has been 28 years. I was happy that I got to bring a piece of nature closer to me, into my home.” Apart from the spider, Benson also reared scorpions.

His colony of Dubia roaches, breed to feed his reptiles.

Albeit his interest in animals, venomous and non-venomous, furry and scaly, there is one that he could not get used to in the beginning. “Worms! Especially maggots and earthworms! Throw a giant centipede at me, I’m not afraid at all. But worms? They freaked me out!”

However, things changed for him once he kept more reptiles as pets. “As my collection grew, I had to buy feeder worms to feed some of my pets. In those days, I bought them from the Sunday Market at Satok. I’m used to worms now. I’m fine even if I have to touch them.”

Asked about other people’s reaction towards his bizarre hobby, Benson said that there were lots of misunderstandings at first. “But once people understood their nature, they often realised that exotic animals are not as dangerous as portrayed.

“For example, tarantulas were often portrayed in movies as evil giant hairy spiders that kill people. But in reality, tarantulas never attack unless they are provoked. Spiders do not bite. Those we see in movies as fierce monsters, ironically are very docile in nature.”

The Birupes Simoroxigorum, taken in-situ by Benson during one of his adventures.

As a certified zoo consultant, Benson revealed that he had provided services to the Hollywood adaptation of James Brooke ‘Edge of the World’ in 2019. “I provided them with animal actors, designed animal set-ups as well as advising them on proper handling and safekeeping of those animals.” He also made sure that no animals were harmed during filming.

With more than 15 years of experience in handling exotic animals, he also shared his daily life with pets, together with his wife, via their YouTube channel ‘Josie King’. Through the channel, Benson he gained many new friends around the world, and many subscribers said that the couple’s vlog had changed their perception of exotic animals.

“Some of them even started keeping tarantulas and reptiles now. I’m very happy because we worked extremely hard to educate people about exotic pets and also how to take good care of them. We want to inspire others to love and care for animals the same way we do,” he said.

Life as an exotic pet keeper

The Bearded Dragons

Benson revealed that his love for exotic pets started in 2004, when he was selected for a student exchange programme to go to the USA. There, he began his collection of reptiles and tarantulas. In 2007, he fell in love with yet another exotic reptile, the Bearded Dragons. “I was extremely happy when my Bearded Dragons laid eggs. And watching baby dragons hatched for the first time reaffirmed my love for the reptiles.”

Bearded Dragons are quite costly to keep, as their diet consists of Dubia roaches, which cost RM28 each. To keep the cost to a minimum, Benson learned to breed the Dubia and Turkestan roaches. “Breeding reptiles and tarantulas require a large number of live insects as food. So I had to breed them myself. Now, I have many colonies of these roaches and they number in millions.”

Currently, Benson and his wife, Josie have countless tarantulas, cats, bearded dragons, sugar gliders, birds, fish, tortoises, scorpions, centipedes and isopods keeping the couple company.

Asked about his favourite among all the animals, Benson said that it is nearly impossible to choose one. “I can’t say which one is my favourite. I love them all. However, if I have to choose, based on sentimental values, it would be the Bearded Dragons and tarantulas.”

Benson said he initially imported these species and only started to breed them in 2007. “Once in a while, I would import new bloodlines to improve their genetics. Most of the ones I have now are all captive-bred by me for a few generations.”

Benson showing his Bearded Dragon’s eggs.

Even with an overwhelming number of pets on their hands, Benson and his wife always made sure that every one of them are well taken care of.

From grooming to nutrition, he explained that they have a specific routine set for their animal friends. With domestic pet like cats, the couple would groom and bathe them once a month. “We feed them holistic cat kibbles, grain-free canned food and my wife cooks homemade meals for them too.”

He disclosed that Bearded Dragons require special attention since they originate from central Australia. “They require the sun and very low humidity levels. They cannot survive in our rainforest weather. I keep them indoors in a large three- by five-feet Exo Terra enclosures equipped with UVB and heat lighting.”

Whenever he gets the chance, he would often bring the dragons out to sunbathe under the morning sun. Benson said the reptile is omnivorous, hence they are given farm-raised Dubia roaches, Turkestan roaches and green vegetables as meals. “I also give them calcium and multivitamin supplements to keep them healthy.”

The Bearded Dragons are Benson’s most favourite among his exotic pets.

Meanwhile, he said that tarantulas have their meals only twice a week, and they only require a small space. “Tarantulas are very low maintenance and generally have low metabolism rates. I would usually feed them farm-raised roaches and super worms, and they don’t need a bath.”

“For sugar gliders, some of them only require a bath once a month. But they do need daily cleaning and feeding. They get their protein from live insects, eggs and chicken meat. For fibre, I give them fruits,” he said.

All in all, Benson said that keeping exotic pets can be an incredible learning experience. Many exotic pets are an exciting and stimulating challenge; and caring for them invites a profound understanding of their behaviours.