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One student's home is a haven for all creatures fanged and scaled.


When he found his door open and the cages moved around, he realized that maybe, just maybe, it was time to find his pets a new home. So he gave them to Emily Monroe, the city's guardian of animals the SPCA won't touch.

The gift of the Death-stalker and Fat-tail scorpions was "one of those things I was really reluctant to take, just because I really don't enjoy having them," Monroe says. One touch from the tiny brown arachnids' elegantly curved stingers means death in two hours. But she agreed to adopt them, because no one else would.

Monroe, a biology major at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a slender 21-year-old with sleek, short dark hair and blue eyes. Watching her deftly handle sinuous snakes and bristly tarantulas, you might be tempted to call her the Crocodile Hunter of Richmond. But unlike many aficionados of creatures more deadly than cuddly, Monroe's passion has nothing to do with machismo.

As a child, she found she was allergic to animals with fur. "So my mom would get me snakes and frogs and stuff as pets when I was a little girl," she says. "And it just started that way." Now, she keeps a menagerie including snakes, fish, exotic insects, a tortoise, a cockatoo and enough tarantulas to populate several simultaneous nightmares.

Some specimens came from the pet store where Monroe works. Some came from friends. But about 90 percent were given to her by people who bought them as novelty pets and then decided they didn't want them anymore.

Those discards are now her treasures. "This is a Mexican bloodleg," Monroe says, uncovering one of the 11 small glass tanks stacked on shelves in the hallway. Cages occupy much of the Grace Street apartment she shares with three animal-tolerant roommates.

The dark tarantula in the tank has orange-banded legs that will grow to be pencil-thick when she reaches her full size of 5 to 6 inches. No tarantulas are venomous, Monroe explains, but Most will bite or flick irritating bristles if you try to pick them up.

She picks up a pair of steel forceps to introduce a Cobalt Blue Tarantula. "Not nice at all," she says. "In fact, they'll just about go out of their way to bite you if you come near them." She draws the silk curtain away from a delicate spider with bright blue legs and a tiger-patterned abdomen. "One of the prettiest things ever," she says.

An Usumbara Red Baboon tarantula has woven shrouds all over its small tank. Cautiously, Monroe unveils an eight-legged spider with a body the size of a domino, bright red and furry with iridescent blue feet.

Lightning quick, the tarantula strikes at a twig in the cage. She then rears up, revealing a glistening pink mouth guarded by two fangs. "They're beautiful, but, my gosh, you can't hardly go in her cage without getting struck at. .… You are so mean," Monroe says affectionately to the tarantula, which is casting about for something to strike.

You have to ask: How often does something escape? "Really, really rarely," she says. The lids are all snapped or locked down, and the only animal allowed to go roaming is the cockatoo, Pocket.

The tarantulas don't have names, but Monroe's recitation of their species sounds like poetry. Green Bottle Blues, Indian Ornamental, Brazilian Black and Whites. A Fort Hall Baboon, a Mexican Redknee, a baby Rosehair that walks on her hand.

She also keeps a red-headed, green-legged centipede, colonies of scarabs and hissing roaches, and a few giant pillbugs. In her hand, they lie curled tightly into amber-colored, segmented spheres the size of marbles.

In her bedroom, Monroe has a small saltwater tank with a clown-fish, a trunk-fish and creeping hermit crabs. A jar on the windowsill holds a flurry of brine shrimp. A black-and-white eastern king snake, a diamond-patterned carpet python and a Brazilian rainbow boa lie coiled in individual tanks, while a slender green vine snake studies visitors from its perch in a leafy terrarium.

Keeping this many creatures seems like a full-time job. But Monroe, while taking classes and working at Fin and Feather pet store and Red Dragon tattoo studio, takes scrupulous care of each one. Every week she buys 300 to 400 crickets, plus frozen mice and lizards, to feed the carnivores. Once a month she cleans and disinfects every cage.

Until recently, she had many more to care for. Monroe plans to move to Washington, D.C., in February to complete her degree at George Mason University. (She plans to become a zoologist.) So she's trying to sell many, if not almost all, of her pets.

Two companions she's definitely keeping. One is Pocket, a hyperactive Goffin's cockatoo Monroe raised by hand, that jabbers, pulls hair and pecks buttons off remote controls. The other is Rivers, a young Sulcata tortoise. Now the size of a box turtle, he may live 80 years and grow to 110 pounds or more.

The rest, however, must go. Several have already been adopted. "This was completely wall-to-wall animals," she says. "I've just reduced so much, from people coming over. It's been great. It's been so nice." Monroe smiles, surveying the empty tanks on the floor. But her voice betrays a little sorrow.

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