Zoe Sullivan has always had an affinity for reptiles. Then again, the 7-year-old aspiring zoo veterinarian has never met an animal she doesn’t like. So when the classroom critters in SoHo’s Little Red Schoolhouse need caretaking during breaks, there’s always one hand that goes up.
“We’re known as ‘that family,’” says Alison Lynn, Zoe’s mom. “She always volunteers us. The holidays are easy because they’re for a shorter period of time. Summer’s a real commitment.”
After the “serial sitter” spent last summer caring for a leopard gecko, she asked and received the school’s blessing to double-down on that responsibility and turn the reptile’s summer vacation spot into a permanent residence.
“I named her Roxie because she feels like little pebbles when you hold her,” says the second-grader. “You know it’s a girl if there aren’t any dots when you turn the gecko over.”
When Zoe’s around, the toothless Roxie knows it means chow time — mealworms followed by protein-rich Dubia roaches.
“I’m the only one who touches them because they’re gross!” Sullivan says, happily dipping the worms in dried calcium and vitamins for the extra nutrients.
When Roxie’s not climbing up a pile of laundry — or Zoe’s face — you can find her in her hanging out in her 75-80 degree glass tank decorated with wood, as well as various hides that serve to shelter her and aid in shedding her entire skin — a process signaled by her turning gray.
“And then she eats it!” says Zoe.
Roxie is the most low maintenance animal the family has ever had, says Lynn of the gecko who only requires food every two or three days — which is saying a lot. Their SoHo home has had its share of hairy visitors and then some.
Over the years, they’ve welcomed the usual household companion animals like cats and dogs, in addition to several classroom critters. Pee Wee, a guinea pig was Zoe’s BFF, loyally by her side throughout the transition into kindergarten, and, of course, there were the ducklings that needed to be taken to the farm.
“The kindergarten teacher told me they were notoriously difficult to raise — not like chickens — and to expect four or five max. It sounded manageable for a long weekend,” says Lynn. “But when I looked in the incubator the next day, I saw all these eggs cracking.”
To Lynn’s surprise — and Zoe’s delight — they were about to host a total of seventeen ducklings for a four-day weekend.
“Fortunately, we’d just purchased the upstairs apartment. It was the perfect pied-a-terre. I ran to Janovic Plaza and bought 25 feet of plastic sheeting and duct tape ... ”
“Quack, quack, quack.” Zoe interrupts her mom, laughing.
“I put newspapers down, I set up heat lamps. They swam in our bathtub. I created a little duck heaven.”
And in return, the ducks created a little havoc.
Lynn was at the Bronx Zoo with Zoe and her older sister, Mia, when their father called in a panic.
“He’s yelling, ‘The ducks escaped! They escaped! They chased me!’ He was hiding in the bathroom. The kids tell me I said, ‘Man up! Get out there and put them back in their enclosure.’ I’ve lived with him for twenty years not knowing he’s terrified of small animals,” says Lynn.
“He won’t even pick Roxie up, but he says she’s best dog we’ve ever had,” Zoe adds.
Thus far, there hasn’t been a need for volunteers to watch Chub Chub, the twice-monthly-cricket-eating resident tarantula of Zoe’s second-grade class. But come summertime, one guess whose hand will be raised.
“Do you want to take Chub Chub for the summer?” Lynn asks her daughter.
“Sure!” Zoe smiles.