Beth Wagner and her family live above a zoo. Literally.
Every morning, Wagner, 53, wakes up to check on the menagerie that makes up her traveling zoo, adjusts heat lamps, and feeds the pigs first because "they'll drive you nuts, screaming at you," she says.
For more than 20 years, Wagner has brought Scales & Tales Traveling Zoo to schools, libraries and birthday parties. She educates children about the lifestyles and habitats of exotic animals and explains why it's important to be responsible pet owners.
Almost all of her animals came from owners who decided they didn't want them anymore.
During her interactive rainforest shows, children can shake hands with a tarantula, have a blue and gold macaw wrap its wings around them or meet an old sloth. Wagner's shows are customized for audiences, allowing for many choices among her eclectic mix of about 30 exotic creatures.
The creatures in her show "perform" what they do naturally.
Growing up across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo, Wagner visited the animals on a daily basis and always had exotic pets.
When she turned 30, a fortune-teller told her she already had something that could be a new career. She realized what that something was while feeding her hedgehog.
"Animals have always been in my life," says Wagner, who ran a catering business before switching careers. "Now they're my life, my love, my livelihood."
Wagner's husband, Willie, owns Honky Tonk BBQ in Chicago. Their three children help out with the zoo. Emilia, 24, works the shows. Willie, 15, builds cages and handles repairs. Tillie, 12, keeps the animals comfortable.
Chicago Parent recently spoke with Wagner about Scales & Tales Traveling Zoo.
Why is your work important?
From animals, we learn compassion.
Why do pets make terrible gifts? It's something that you can only pick or the animal can pick you. I had a favorite dog that died and somebody bought me another dog. It wasn't the same. I didn't even like that dog.
What are your guidelines for choosing a pet? Time and research need to go into it. Never get an animal you don't have space for, time for or you're not committed to taking care of.
What is the best exotic pet for children? Bearded dragon. It's interactive, knows its name and is easy to take care of.
What is the worst exotic pet for families? Turtle. You'll have it for 200 years.