WALLA WALLA — Few people know of the existence of DaVine Herps reptile rescue service and breeding business here, said owner Makaiwi Wachter. “The important people know about me.”
Those would be the region’s veterinaria ns and pet shop employees, those most likely to come across situations requiring Wachter’s particular expertise.
A five-year resident of the area, Wachter is a chef and co-owner of Weinhard Cafe in Dayton in his day job. The rest of the clock gets filled with family and caring for a collection of rescued reptiles and those bred for sale.
Like the seven tiny crested geckos living in plastic shoeboxes on the Wachters’ dining room table, ranging in age from a month to a week old. About the size of the average pinkie finger, the New Caledonia natives scamper across their bedding of paper towels to peer out the sides of their temporary incubators.
He breeds less for the money than as a means to fund his rescue operation, Wachter said. “And we do a lot of rehoming.”
The “herps” in his business name comes from herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles, he explained. And “DaVine” is a nod to the area’s wine culture.
His 80-degree reptile room — formerly a garage now heavily insulated and properly humid — is where local celebrity tortoise Poppy Marie was brought after the Russian tortoise was discovered poking along on School Avenue last week. The tortoise, which had been missing since Easter, was reunited with owner Mary Bella Betts on Thursday, thanks to a community on “Poppy Marie watch” and Wachter’s care, the Betts family said.
That’s one of few happy endings in those kinds of cases, the herpetologist said. Often the animals he rescues are sick or injured, coming into his care “way too late.”
Others are like “Mama,” the Red Iguana found running around the streets of Pasco, he said, lifting the reptile from her roost, located in the iguana room. A Tri-Cities vet clinic asked if he could take the pregnant animal, who would eventually lay 45 infertile eggs.
It was an easy answer, Wachter said. “We don’t ever say ‘no.’”
Mama is a family favorite, he added, watching the iguana clamber quickly to his shoulder.
In the same pen are two surrendered iguanas. The male and smaller female close their eyes as Wachter scratches under their chins. “A couple of college kids in Spokane had them, and weren’t able to care for them.”
A not uncommon tale, he said. “They look cute until they are like 4 feet long. That takes about five years and suddenly mom and dad are like ‘This is not what I thought we were getting.’ Iguanas have to have heat, they have to have UV light.”
While the reptiles can be hand tamed, even walked on a leash, care has to be taken at all times, Wachter pointed out. “They are still a wild animal. If there is one thing I don’t want my hand in, it’s an iguana’s mouth. There’s a lot of teeth in there.”
DaVine Herps has a current inventory of five snakes needing homes, down from 15. “They were all rescues. Six came from a pet store in Spokane that closed down. They bred a lot, but they never really took care of their animals.”
He breeds no snakes — those are too abundant already, Wachter said. “And they’ll just end up back here, frankly.”
Reptile rescue can get “spun” inaccurately, since media tend to comes out only when something dangerous or “icky” is getting rescued, Wachter believes.
Pet stores can add to the image problem with a lack of staff training about the reptiles in their care. “They only know what they’ve read on their little flier and it’s usually wrong information.”
In the case of Poppy Marie, however, everything seems to have gone right, he said. “I knew somebody was missing her. I could tell she was a couple of years old, and they’re sold out of pet stores at about 6 months. One of my coworkers told me about seeing a story on a tortoise. The first thing I did was send it out on Facebook.”
Some people say tortoises — which are highly intelligent — can find their way home, Wachter said. “It’s very possible, but that street is busy enough something bad could have happened.”