Valerie Says, "If You Can't Have Cats, Get Bearded Dragons!"
Cats and dogs aren't the only pets that offer calming cuddles and have distinct personalities. Reptiles also feature these friendly attributes.
Valerie Nikitenko discovered this and adopted three bearded dragons and a leopard gecko! This Manassas, Virginia, woman spends her days raising her four-legged children and making handcrafted harnesses, car pillows, teepees, knitted hats, and other reptile accessories to sell in her HikingLizard Etsy shop.
But she wasn't always reptile-obsessed. Nikitenko is a self-proclaimed cat lover. She used to dream of a home full of furry kittens to spoil and snuggle, but that's not possible.
"My husband, Sasha, is allergic to cats, so I found the perfect reptile — bearded dragons! They resemble cats," Nikitenko explained. She says the gentle cuddles, tiny paws, and bright eyes of her beardies are much like the features of felines.
When she discovered one of her new desert-dwelling pets had an odd hobby, she knew she had to document it online. Now Percy the Bearded Dragon is Instagram-famous for... swimming! "He works his little legs like flippers," she added.
In less than two years, she's racked up over 37K followers and attracts more reptile lovers each day who can't wait to see what her crew of reptile kids are up to. Nikitenko posts comical video shorts of her beardies and gecko dressed up in silly outfits, running around the house, going on outdoor adventures, and just being goofy lizards. Her feed is a great place to go if you need a smile!
Scotty the Gecko at tea time.
Let's Meet the Insta-Famous Reptile Kids
Nikitenko and her husband like to support reptile shelters and rescue groups, so all their pets come from those organizations. They've grown fond of helping pets that need a second chance at a good life.
Their current crew consists of four reptiles, including the aforementioned fish-like beardie, Percy. In addition to swimming in the sink, he enjoys exploring outside, jumping on ferns, soaking up natural UV light, and munching on natural forest dandelions that are not sprayed.
"Percy also goes hiking with us and sleeps in a tent. He even has a small tent of his own, but only for cute pictures, of course," Nikitenko shared. "He hikes on my husband's or my shoulder, sitting there and observing what's going on. I'd say Percy is a very intelligent creature with celebrity behavior."
And then there's Laurie. When adopted, Nikitenko was told this bearded dragon was female, but they discovered it was, in fact, male. But the name Laurie stuck, so Laurie it is! He was severely neglected by his previous owner, so Nikitenko has worked hard to treat him for parasites and a respiratory infection and is now providing him with proper lighting and nutrition. Laurie is a shy guy, but he enjoys climbing furniture and is slowly learning to embrace his new life.
Nikitenko's third bearded dragon is Casper. She traveled 200 miles to rescue this baby because he was severely neglected and suffering several medical issues while being used for breeding. After she adopted him, Casper required tail surgery and lots of TLC to get healthy.
"Casper is part of me; Casper is my soul. He has a hunger for life in his eyes and in every movement. He is always in a good mood, always ready to stomp clumsily around and zoom," she explained. "Casper likes to take part in every event happening on the floor, like a cat. Sorting luggage? He is here. Cleaning? Yes, please! He is always trying to help and to climb on you or your stuff."
And last but not least is Scotty, the leopard gecko. He also came from a home without proper care, but Nikitenko quickly introduced him to reptile lighting, vitamin supplementation, and what all pets need — love! She shares that Scotty is now healthy and loves to run, jump, and even gets to sprint (supervised) across the bedroom floor before watching movies with his humans.
How Reptiles Let Valerie #RepYourself
Discovering reptiles as pets has been an eye-opening experience for Nikitenko. She says she never realized there could be so much character and personality in something small and scaly.
"Reptiles teach us how to stop running, take a breath, and observe — observe and watch," she reflected. "I have the phrase 'Have courage and be kind' tattooed on my leg, which gives me strength when enduring bad times. This also reminds me that Casper stayed strong and survived after being mistreated all his life."
"Casper is an example of the power of spirit. Every time I feel upset, I look at this brave lil' dragon on his thin legs who survived cruelty and neglect, and he still trusts people and loves them! That's incredible," Nikitenko continued. "I think my life wasn't full without him. Casper brings so much joy and happiness to our family."
Nikitenko bonds with her pets by hand-feeding them treats, having playtime outside their terrariums, and creating special moments with each pet.
"The best part of the day is evening cuddles. At 6:30 pm, Casper cuddles with me, scratches my neck with his tiny paw, and pushes himself as close to my neck as he can. It's the sweetest evening routine. I take him back into his terrarium a bit later. This sweet baby 100% trusts me," she shared.
Percy Gets a New Zilla QuickBuild Terrarium Home
There was a bit of excitement in this reptile-loving household recently when Percy got to swap out his homemade habitat for a Zilla Quickbuild Terrarium. His new digs measure 48" x 18" x 18", offering ample room for basking, climbing, lounging, and just doing dragon things.
This terrarium also comes in a few smaller sizes, and some offer a removable bedding tray option for easy cleaning.
"I'd say many reptile owners will like that it has side ventilation so it provides ample airflow, which is essential for reptiles," Nikitenko explained of the Zilla Quickbuild Terrarium. "The locks work great, and the doors slide very easily. I also like that it was so easy to build, is sturdy, and can be moved anywhere as many times as needed."
Percy is slowly adjusting to his new habitat and exploring all the features for himself — especially how the doors work so that he can get to his mama for supervised swimming time in the sink. Oh, Percy! Are we sure you aren't a fish?
Read about more amazing reptile pet parents in the #RepYourself series: