These days it seems folks are in a shopping frenzy making up for the muted holiday season last year. But it’s important to keep a thoughtful eye on what we’re buying and how it will affect us and this big blue (well, kind of gray now) planet. I spoke this week with Franco Urban from ILLExotic, a Flora and Fauna store where you can find some truly unique gifts from captive bred exotic pets and healthy houseplants for yourself and/or that person who already has everything.
You deal with plants and animals from all over the world. Where are you from?
I grew up in Hammonton, NJ. It’s in the Pine Barrens, I graduated from high school, went to Stockton University where I studied biology and got my minors in herpetology and horticulture, and that led me to what I do today.
So as a kid, were you the little nerd who wanted a microscope for Christmas?
Oh yeah, definitely, I didn’t grow up watching all of the iconic kid’s movies, and to this day I haven’t seen “Snow White” or “The Little Mermaid.” I was sucked into documentaries by David Attenborough. All I watched were nature documentaries, [laughs] and maybe Finding Nemo! But outside of that, I’ve always been super immersed in this.
What did your parents do? Were they in the sciences?
No, growing up, they had their own business cleaning houses, and that’s what they’ve done since I was super young. Prior to that my dad worked on a boatyard after coming here from Sicily when he was young.
What were some of the things that you studied?
It was nice because at Stockton, I didn’t have to take a lot of unrelated courses like Chem 4 and physics, I was able to focus on my fields of interest and classes like zoology and botany.
What was a favorite class?
There were so many good ones. I guess a favorite class was Extinct and Threatened Life. We studied everything from plants to mammals to reptiles to amphibians to birds, and studied about the fate of the passenger pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet as well as the species that are being threatened now. And most of the reasons are human related.
So, what was an early sign that you were gay, or how did you figure it out?
I never really felt that I fit the norm, you know, being straight. Ooh, I hate that I just referenced that as “the norm.” But anyway, I’ve always kept to myself, kind of secluded. For as long as I can remember, I always knew that I wasn’t like everyone else but I didn’t come to terms with it until I was 17 or 18. I was curious, had an iPhone, downloaded Grindr [laughs] and just took it from there! The first time I interacted with a guy, I was like, okay, this is what is fitting for me.
Grindr huh? I think I went to the yellow pages!
Yeah, I just remember it coming about and being, “Oh, okay! Let’s see what this is?” I hate that my introduction to the community was on an app, but that’s the truth of it so what can I say?
Hey, it worked and here you are a married man. How did you meet your husband and business partner Chris Urban?
I met Chris through a mutual friend. We were out Thanksgiving eve almost 8 years ago now. I was at Voyeur and Chris had just finished working a shift at his job, when we were introduced to each other. We started dancing, got a little flirty and the rest was history. At the end of the night I gave him my phone number and said, “Hit me up some time and let’s go to dinner. Let’s do this thing right.” I don’t know what made me say that, normally I would have just been, “Okay, let’s have a good time” but I saw something in him that was unique and special and knew that I wanted it to be more than a one night stand. And now I have his last name! It’s pretty amazing.
Tell me about the wedding.
We got married in P-Town last August. It was super low-key, maybe 6 or 7 of our closest friends. We would have loved a big wedding, with tons of flowers and friends, but because of the pandemic it wasn’t feasible both from the financial aspect of it. Running a small business during a pandemic is tough and just the thought of bringing a large crowd together at this time didn’t seem like a smart idea. So we got married on the porch of The Anchor Inn and it was cool because all of the guests at the hotel had also gotten married there. Some of them were couples in their 70’s so it was good inspiration. At some point we’ll do a big, family filled wedding, but I couldn’t be happier with the way ours went.
How did ILLExotics come about?
I had my degree but I was waiting tables and bartending around the city in addition to working at some of the big corporate pet stores and some small privately owned pet shops. I experienced a lot of the horror that goes on, especially with the reptiles. No one advocates properly for their care or sustainability or asks about the ethics behind owning them. I experienced wild caught animals being sold to uneducated consumers and that’s a recipe for an animal to die in a short amount of time.
I enjoyed my jobs but they weighed really heavy on me. I knew I wanted to do better and Chris really pushed me and encouraged me to open my own place. He said, “Franco, I think you’re really special and that you have a message to share. I think we should open our own retail store and show people the way it should be done,” to have a place where you educate the consumers and make sure that you screen potential pet owners and make sure they are educated before handing over a living creature. Because these pets are really amazing, many reptiles live for 20+ years. That’s more than your average dog or cat. So many of the pet places don’t teach people how to properly take care of these living creatures which shows that they only care about exploiting them for a dollar. We care more about the welfare of the animal and concentrate on the educational aspect. You need to set people up for success.
The same thing goes for the plants! There are plant ethics to be considered, especially when it comes to some of the weird and unique plants we work with. You have to make sure that they’re sourced properly and not from someone pulling them up in a jungle, putting them in a box and sending them to a different country! That’s so not okay, but people do it on the internet all the time. Someone will join a facebook plant group or go on a site like Etsy and order a plant from someone in Indonesia. It gets thrown in a box and shipped through UPS. Yet it’s an agricultural, living entity which is supposed to be regulated. It causes so much damage to our planet, look at the Lantern Fly, how did it get here? People either don’t know or turn a blind eye. I feel like people have lost a connection with nature and I like to think that in small ways we try to restore that by showing people the proper, sustainable way to enjoy these things. Especially during the pandemic where people were trapped indoors and many people got into caring for their plants or took the plunge and indulged their interest in reptiles.
Wow, good points, that’s a lot to think about.
Yeah, so we’re trying to raise awareness, not just with individuals, but hopefully we can start changing the industry itself. For instance, there are reptile shows that happen right here in PA, in big convention centers where people bring thousands of animals packed in deli containers and put them on display for hobbyists to purchase. You can go in and say, “Yeah, I’ll take that venomous cobra for $200” because PA has no regulations; it’s bullshit. There’s no background screening, there’s no education, there’s no paperwork to tell you if the animal was captive bred or taken out of the wild. It’s disgusting! In my opinion… It kills me that that’s where people go to get their pets when there are reputable establishments around. I pride myself in being one of them.
What are some of the things people will find at ILLExotic?
We have reptiles, everything from chameleons, to ball pythons, dart frogs to geckos, all animals that are suited for urban sustainability. We also sell appropriately sized enclosures and all the things that you’ll need to keep the animal happy and healthy. What you won’t find are things like iguanas that are invasive and get huge. Same with turtles, everyone falls in love with that tiny creature that they bought on the off ramp of 95 until it grows up or they get bored and neglect it. If someone really wants one, we refer them to adoption agencies. There are always some available that have been given away or neglected that need homes.
And you also have plants…
Yes, we have common houseplants from beginner level to expert level. I also try to bring in weird, obscure and in some cases rare plants from all over the world, places like Malaysia and Borneo, all sustainably sourced. I work closely with the Dept. of Agriculture and other organizations so that I’m properly licensed. I love what I do and I have a collection of plants that I raised myself that I offer, so I can tell people they come from right here in Philly.
What’s the most exotic thing here at the store?
I think the panther chameleons are cool. They come from Madagascar and have bright rainbow colors ranging from blues to yellows to reds. They’re the reptile that Chris and I first fell in love with. They’re so beautiful and majestic and mesmerizing, how could someone not love and admire them? When it comes to plants I’d say the Aroids, they’ve gotten really popular during the pandemic because they’re easy to grow and propagate. Don’t get me started on orchids, there are thousands of species and they’re all so different.
Have you ever read any of the Nero Wolf mysteries? He’s a detective who grows orchids and a lot of the stories contain all sorts of information about them.
No, I’ll have to look into it. I have read “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean about the lengths that people went to poach some of these plants and bring them home, including some who even died trying to get rare flowers.
What was the first reptile you had?
In New Jersey, reptiles need a permit and my parents refused to get one for me, so when I turned 18 I got my own and that was historic. I got my first 3 leopard geckos and from there it was a slippery slope! I named the first one Leo, Leo the leopard gecko. I’m a July baby, a Leo, so it felt appropriate. My favorite reptile of all time is a Panther chameleon named Blaze. He’s the store mascot and an instagram favorite. He’s bright blue and used to hang out in the front window at our old location and would greet everyone that walked by. I hatched him from an egg 8 years ago. Panther chameleons typically live for 6 years so he’s exceeded his life expectancy, he’s an old lizard.
[Laughing] Aren’t we all.
Ha ha! Yeah, he’s really something special.
So no fear of snakes I’d guess.
Well, at first yeah, but I think that was projected onto me because of my mother’s fear. So I went out and got a green tree python. They’re known to have a sassy attitude but I was determined to make him my best friend, which I did with a lot of patience and research. The snake that I was told was mean and not to be touched became a friend. When it was shedding, he even allowed me to give him a bath!
Cool. I asked because it seems that more men than women have a fear of snakes. My father, who was a big guy, was so terrified of them that he wouldn’t even let us have a fake cartoon snake in the house.
They’re not often portrayed very well in the media; movies like Snakes on a Plane and Anaconda don’t help.
I think it’s more visceral, I googled it and there’s a whole lot about men screaming and flipping out around snakes. [Laughing] Maybe there’s something phallic that’s challenging.
Okay, I can see that. Interesting that you bring that up because now that you mention it, looking at the orchids and aroids, the two groups of plant that I gravitate to, they both have… well, the iconic aroid is an amorphophallus which translates to obscure penis! Similar to orchids which translated means testicles in some instances.
[In a German accent] So vat does your therapist think about zis Franco?
[Laughing] As a gay man who loves orchids and aroids, maybe there’s a correlation!
And I think we found the first sign that you were gay! So let’s do a few random questions. Favorite piece of clothing?
I’m not a big fashion guy, I’d say the tee shirts that I pick up at different conventions like my International Aroids Show shirt. They bring back memories of places I’ve been and people I’ve met.
Last or best concert?
Prior to Covid we saw Madonna at the Met which was pretty epic, but the best concert was Lady Gaga. I got tickets 15 minutes before the show started, darted over to the venue and it ended up being one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen!
Yes, I have a few. An anchor on my arm that symbolizes strength and roots and my love for things aquatic even though I’m terrified of the water. Which probably led me to my interest in reptiles and plants that are land based! I also have a triangle on my right arm; you know the Delta in mathematics, that signifies change. And an equal sign on my left arm, which is for equality and also the idea of pressing pause instead of play sometimes. To take some time to reflect on things instead of going non-stop all the time.
I think that’s a good place to stop. Thanks!