LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Pregnancy and cannibalism: those are two words you really don't want to use together.
It's a tough topic that became reality for one local woman who said it could have been avoided if a local pet store would've been more careful.
With complaints piling up and restrictive new legislation pending, 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears takes a look inside the controversial world of exotic pets.
Doris, the African pygmy hedgehog, was Jordan Harper's Christmas gift from her husband--bought for nearly $200 at Exotic Pets on Decatur and Smoke Ranch.
But Jordan's joy was short-lived.
"She started bleeding and I heard a scream. So I held her and a baby fell out and so then I put her in the cage and another baby fell out."
She contacted her vet right away, "And then I went in to check on her and she had a baby in her mouth."
By the time she got Doris to the doctor, both babies were gone. Vet records from Lone Mountain Animal Jospital show Doris ate her young!
"It was really traumatic for me," Jordan recalled.
Exotic Pets owner Ken Foose initially saw the surprise pregnancy as good news.
"My first thought was congratulations! And then I said, 'I'll buy the babies back.' Well, the babies were gone. She didn't want to return the animal. I really didn't have any other option.I don't know what else I could have done."
Foose didn't know the hedgehog was pregnant. He does know why it cannibalized its babies.
"If you disturb these animals--especially hedgehogs when they have babies--they will choose to re-consume the babies rather than let a predator have them. And that's what happened here. We're just big predators to these hedgehogs."
He said if he'd known Doris was pregnant, he never would have sold her in the first place, but admits he didn't have one simple safeguard: keeping males and females separated.
Exotic Pets does not have a breeding permit. Keeping male and female animals together could be considered breeding, but they are making changes since what happened with Doris.
Two cages, though empty now, will be used to separate male and female hedgehogs once they get more in to sell.
And if he had known the hedgehog was about to have babies, Foose says, "We would have kept them and raised them up and sold them. That's just more money for us."
There's the key word: money. Emphasis on profit is a common criticism of Exotic Pets. Just ask Johnny Anderson and his son, Justin Hernandez.
"I felt like they just wanted my money and they just didn't care after that," said Johnny.
All Justin wanted for his ninth birthday was a tarantula.
"I had to have good grades. I had to be good in school."
His dad says he did all that and earned the pet spider they named Sprockette. But she died less than a month after he got her.
Justin said he was "Really sad and I didn't really know what to do at that point."
"He's in tears," Johnny recalls. "He definitely experienced his first personal loss. To see my kid like that was really hard."
When Johnny called the store, he says, "I got a very abrasive and rude response from who I was told was the manager and they hung up on me."
"Our policy on tarantulas is we have no warranty," Foose explained, saying many animals he sells end up dying due to stress or environmental factors once they leave the store.
"Deaths happen. It's unavoidable. We have 3,000 animals in this building. If you're going to deal with that many animals you're going to have something die on a daily basis."
To illustrate, he tells an unusual story about a customer who used to buy a rabbit every Sunday.
"He's an old man who takes a rabbit every Sunday, buys it from us, takes it home and he butchers it and he cooks it up and he eats it. And that's his Sunday dinner just like it was when his grandma and his parents raised him in Mississippi."
Foose says it's no different than selling rabbits for snake food, but it's the kind of thing that raises hackles in the animal welfare world.
"You have the animal rights issue and the animal welfare issue and they aren't the same thing. And they clash," Foose said.
"It's kind of a business that's loosely regulated. That's one of the problems," said Stacia Newman of Nevada Political Action for Animals. She's been trying to get authorities to take action against Exotic Pets for years.
Complaints to Animal Control have been ruled unsubstantiated and USDA inspection records over the past few years show very few violations. Federal authorities have cited problems with veterinary and animal inventory records; bedding that was subject to contamination and dirty cages. But the most recent USDA inspection from May, 2018 found no issues.
Yelp reviews paint a different picture including complaints about poor conditions, sick animals and minimal care.
One customer who sent us a video said she witnessed outright abuse of a red Tegu lizard by a store employee.
"Someone videotaped that?" Foose said when Darcy Spears showed him the footage. "That's horrible!"
"She hits it on the head and then she picks it up kind of by the neck like that. Is that okay?" Spears asked.
"I don't know what she was doing there but I also fired her," Foose answered. "And I'm not saying she should have smacked it but we have to let them know that we're humans and not food."
Foose says his employee picked the big lizard up by the neck so it wouldn't bite her. He then demonstrates how hard Tegus are to handle.
Our cameras watch as Foose yanks his hand out of a Tegu's cage as it comes after him after he slides open the glass, then struggles mightily with the lizard as it tries to avoid being handled.
"He doesn't want to be held," Spears observed.
"No," Foose agreed, "but that's okay. He's got to be held because sooner or later someone will buy him."
That's been his business for 27 years and Foose is prepared to fight to keep it going.
A new state law being debated right now would further restrict exotic pet sales, but likely would have little impact on the type of animals he sells because they aren't considered dangerous under Nevada's legal definition.