Central Kenai Peninsula residents take to more creative side of pet ownership

Warm fuzzies

Posted: Sunday, October 22, 2000

Not so

Drive down the quiet streets of most neighborhoods in the central Kenai Peninsula and you will probably see much the same thing: a few kids' toys in the yard, maybe a dog or cat patrolling its turf.

However, around some corners, especially in the rural setting that makes the peninsula special, a closer look in many yards reveals not only dogs and cats, but turkeys, chickens, goats and geese.

It's inside some of these residences where you'll find the subjects of coffee table conversation -- exotic animals from around the world transplanted to Alaska.

One of these residences is off Kalifornsky Beach Road just outside the Soldotna city limits, where an acre of land holds an assortment of more than 50 animals cared for by the Nusunginya family.

Madagascan hissing roaches, a tarantula, an iguana -- along with an impressive assortment of birds -- share the house, while the back yard is home to 12 chickens, five ducks, two geese and two turkeys. And, yes, there are three dogs and a cat, too.


Tess, a stump-tailed macaque, sits in te yard of her owner, Niki Baier of nikiski. Tess especially likes to watch traffic go by.

Photo courtesy of Nicki Baier

"Animals have always been a part of my life," said Sharon Nusunginya. "And I want my children and grandchildren to fully comprehend the many differences in God's creation."

The collection of most of the animals has a purpose, Nusunginya said. Twin brothers Justin and Bryan, 15, are home schooled, so when they want an animal, there's some homework involved.

"Most people wouldn't have near this many animals," Nusunginya said. "But since we home school, when the boys want something new, they have to research and find out everything they can about it, like where the different animals come from -- the countries and geography. Then they have to sell it to me."

One choice, a dwarf cayman, didn't make the cut.

"They're alligators," she said. "They don't have the temperament. I'm not going to have this foot-long set of teeth that's not happy. Whatever the boys get, it has to fit.

"I have one rule -- it can't be big, it can't be aggressive and it can't eat fuzzy stuff," she said of feeding smaller animals to members farther up the food chain.


Justin Nusunginya and his brother Bryan stand with Iggy the iguana and Heeyaugie the chicken in a room that is occupied with some of the family's many interesting critters.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The sprawling ranch home is deceiving considering the number of animals that call it home.

The family room is home to two African greys named Divi and Gizmo along with Muppet the house dog (a cross between a poodle and Pomeranian) and Katie the cat.

Divi is a unique bird.

"We call her Divi because a dividend is what it cost me to get her," Nusunginya said as the African grey cheerfully tugged at the frame of Nusunginya's glasses while perched on her shoulder. "And she's a plucker."

Nusunginya referred to Divi's current appearance -- a body devoid of feathers the bird plucked from herself after the furniture was rearranged in the house.

"Grey's are very neurotic," Nusunginya said. "And it upset her when we moved things around. She has more feathers now than she had.

"We just have a whole mess of unusual things here," she added.

"We also have a very understanding husband and father," Nusunginya said of her husband, Vern. "He is very patient."

A terrarium case near the family room holds the hissing roaches, 2 1/2-inch-long creatures that make a hissing sound when agitated.

"The roaches are big and slow and they like to be held," Nusunginya said. "Katie the cat also likes to sit on top of the screened case and watch."

The animal room contains 25 animals, including an iguana named Iggy and a rose-hair tarantula named Rosie. Birds include a pair of white-fronted Amazons named Roto and Rooter, six cockatiels, a lovebird named Peaches, two budgies and a ring-necked dove named Jimmie. The room erupted with a cacophony of sounds when Nusunginya entered.

"Some birds we've had for over 10 years, and some I'm keeping for other people," Nusunginya said. "Each has its own personality."

See UNUSUAL PETS, back page

The animal room is filled with a variety of plants, including a banana tree, palm trees, ferns and aloes. The room also contains full-spectrum lights on timers. A set of French doors open into a greenhouse.

"We want to provide somewhat of a natural feel," Nusunginya said of the environment, "to make them feel at home."

A task sheet is posted on the door of the animal room, highlighting feeding schedules and special needs of some animals.

"The boys are required to help take care of the animals with feeding and attention," Nusunginya said. "Attention is important. The animals enjoy the interaction and we love giving it to them.

"And the boys are so good with all the animals," she added. "It's so wonderful to see them kneel down in the yard and have all the animals come to them."

Rosie the tarantula leads a somewhat reclusive life, but may soon be joined by the family's latest acquisition, a goliath bird-eating tarantula -- the world's largest at nearly a foot in diameter.

"The boys are excited about it," Nusunginya said. "They've done their research -- so we'll see what happens. We're definitely going to have to get a bigger case."

Nikiski monkey business

Nicki Baier has surely gotten a few looks at the supermarket when her banana purchase hits the counter. The 23-year resident of Nikiski has owned Tess, a stump-tailed macaque monkey, for 16 years.

"I've had monkeys since 1958, and I like working with stump tails," Baier said. "They don't swing from things as much."

Baier said after she and her husband, Ed, had been in Nikiski for a few years, they decided it was time for another monkey.

"After we moved here, Ed wanted to buy another one," Baier said. "I was going to school in elementary education at the time and all the kids were grown and gone. We ordered it, but it didn't come in time -- Ed got heart disease and died," she said. "Tess came 11 months after his death."

Baier said Tess is the third macaque she has owned. She said she originally wanted to raise Tess to work with children with developmental problems, as she had done with other monkeys while she lived in the Lower 48.

"I used to do a lot of volunteer work and worked with kids with mental and psychological problems. A lot of the kids were autistic or had Down's syndrome and they would talk to me because I had a monkey."

Tess has been a popular visitor at Nikiski Elementary for many years, said Baier, who retired in 1994 from the Learning Resource Center at Wildwood Correctional Center.

Baier said she became interested in monkeys in 1958 after a visit to a pet store in Roswell, N.M.

"Her name was Ruby, and she was a red spider monkey. My boys and I saw her in the pet store holding out her hands toward us. We though about it and went back and bought her."

Baier said she later got a black spider monkey that she took fishing in her native Louisiana.

"They've always been a part of my life," she said. "Our three sons always had dogs, but we always had monkeys, too."

She said Tess is definitely part of the family.

"You can't housebreak them, though. Sometimes I forget that. When we have birthday parties in the yard, I put pants on her.

"She likes to sit out front and watch the traffic go by," Baier added. "She loves people. She also likes to pick strawberries."

Baier said macaques are intelligent and learn quickly what they are permitted to do.

"They like to test you from time to time," she said. "Tess is a smart one."

Spiders and snakes

At 15-year-old Holley Cote's Nikiski home, Sylvester the bearded dragon shares unique-animal status with an unnamed 3-foot long python and two tarantulas. Throw in two parakeets, two crows, a parrot, a billy goat, a mouse, four gerbils, five turkeys, 25 ducks, 40 chickens, 18 geese and two Arabian horses and elbow room on the family's 10-acre spread could seem a bit tighter.

"We've got plenty of room, though," said Cote. "But it stays pretty busy around here."

Many of the animals under the family's are late-night castoffs that appear in the yard the next morning.

"A lot of people just drop animals off during the night or when we're not home," Cote said. "So we just take care of them."

Two animals that recently got off the injured list include two crows.

"They've just kept on hanging out here," Cote said, "and they eat everything they can get into."

Cote said the task of day-to-day care for many of the animals is split between brothers A.J., 12, and Brian, 16.

"Mom takes care of things while we're at school, but we take over when we get home," Cote said. "We all have different things to do."

Cote said she got the bearded dragon lizard -- now almost a foot long -- this summer on a trip to Arizona to see her father.

A.J. also made the trip and got a leopard gecko, which got loose on the plane and was lost on the trip back to Alaska.

"We're looking to get a couple more leopard geckos," Cote said. "They're fun."

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