The Internet's exotic pets and the people who love them

YouTubers Tomas Pasiecznik, with his reticulated python, and Marlene McCohen, with her galah cockatoo.
YouTubers Tomas Pasiecznik, with his reticulated python, and Marlene McCohen, with her galah cockatoo.PHOTOS: NYTIMES, SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE
YouTuber Tomas Pasiecznik with his English bull terrier, Zed, at his parents' home in New Jersey, on June 5, 2021.
YouTuber Tomas Pasiecznik with his English bull terrier, Zed, at his parents' home in New Jersey, on June 5, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES
YouTuber Tomas Pasiecznik with his Argentine black and white tegu, Rambo, at his parents' home in New Jersey, on June 8, 2021.
YouTuber Tomas Pasiecznik with his Argentine black and white tegu, Rambo, at his parents' home in New Jersey, on June 8, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Mr Tomas Pasiecznik lives in New Jersey with his parents, his dog and 26 other species of animals, including a reticulated python, a Chilean rose hair tarantula, a colony of Central American giant cave cockroaches and an African pygmy hedgehog named Chloe. That count does not include all the animals that Pasiecznik acquires to feed to his other animals. When we spoke on a recent afternoon, over Zoom, Mr Pasiecznik dipped out of view for a moment and returned with two electric blue hornworms wriggling in his palm - dinner for his scorpions and tarantulas.

"They're supercool," he said. "I have a hard time feeding these. I'd rather just, like, watch them turn into moths and stuff."

Mr Pasiecznik is 22, with a slight frame and a confusingly appealing fashion sense. He can wear a voluminous logo T-shirt and tight checkered pants - basically what I wore in middle school in the 1990s, except I looked like a freak and he looks incredible. He is the kind of young person who speaks earnestly about his passions: "My two main passions are animals and technology," he said. On Instagram and YouTube, he posts as Tomas Pasie, and he is a denizen of an Internet niche known as Pet Tube: a community of people who film their numerous and exotic animals.

There are several reasons a person might come to own a large number of unusual pets. For instance, because they are passionate about animals. But also, because YouTube is passionate about animals - the more, the better.

"A large number of pets is not my goal, but a large number of pets gets views on YouTube," Mr Pasiecznik said.

At the moment, he has 31 animals and his most popular videos get millions of views.

Mr Pasiecznik grew up watching YouTube, and his content is attuned to satisfy the platform's impulses: It marries the demands for eye-popping oddities and hyperpractical how-tos.

Pet Tube is a funny little scene. Its personalities include Emzotic, a British former zookeeper turned YouTuber; Taylor Nicole Dean, a gothy reptile enthusiast who just returned to YouTube after pausing her channel for more than a year to focus on her sobriety; Marlene Mc'Cohen, an actress and bird person who crafts little personas for each of her dozen parrots; and Thmpsn, a classical violinist and influencer who surrounds himself with a coterie of snakes, one enormous rabbit and various women with enormous breast implants.

On its surface, the content can seem to emphasise the exotic nature of the animal "collection" and the domestication of the wild inside the suburban home.

Part of its appeal is the pure sight gag of a parrot soaring over a taupe carpetscape or a pile of snakes slithering on a piano. But seen another way, its figures represent a radical commitment to caretaking, often for animals that most people have not considered applying care to. They are people who love animals, even strange animals, even potentially revolting swarms of animals.

In his videos and Instagram posts, Mr Pasiecznik's performance of expertise can tend to obscure the emotional depths of pet stewardship.

When we spoke, his seven-year-old chameleon Rango had just died (after an appropriate amount of time for a domesticated chameleon to be alive). Rango was, at the moment, in Pasiecznik's freezer, awaiting Pasiecznik's determination of how to properly send him off; he is considering preserving the bodies of his deceased pets in the hopes of donating them to some kind of museum. I asked him whether he learned about death as a child from owning so many animals, and for a moment he was silent. "I'm really emotional when it comes to all the animals," he said. "I'm getting emotional right now."