Chico’s lizard king

Paul Benson

Photo by Vic Cantu

“My entire life has been based upon play.” So says Paul Benson, now 73, who back in his 20s regularly rode his motorcycle in the desert near Cal State Northridge, where he attended college. He’d ride out in search of snakes and lizards, which often brought him a week’s worth of pay from local pet stores. He channeled this knack for turning play into business into Animal Specialties, a multimillion-dollar business located near the Chico Municipal Airport. What’s more, Benson became America’s largest breeder of the most popular pet lizard in the U.S.: the dinosaur-like, Australian bearded dragon. While not a retail store (Benson sells exclusively as a wholesaler), Animal Specialties also offers snakes, frogs and even insects as pet food. Find Animal Specialties at

How many bearded dragons do you have?

We produce 1,200 to 1,500 juveniles per week, and make our own cages and terrariums. We also have a 4,000-square-foot incubation room with 15,000 eggs.

Why are bearded dragons so popular?

They come in a variety of colors, are not aggressive and are easy to care for. The only equipment you need is a heat lamp. They also have a striking appearance with their spiny-looking heads and bodies. Their throat, which flares out when they get excited, has multiple layers of soft spikes. Mothers like them because they are easy to feed with greens or prepared food. You can also feed them crickets and worms if you want.

How did you your business get so large?

We’re one of only two U.S. companies that breed year-round. That’s because, unlike most others, we breed indoors under environmental control. If you start breeding 12 lizards, in two years you’ll have 100. Then in a couple more years you’ll have 800, and pretty soon 2,000. We also had funding help from my other company, Nature Zone, which sells food, supplements and other herp products.

What are the challenges of breeding so many lizards?

I was one of the first to breed them indoors, but it’s expensive. It costs $7,000 a month. Also, bearded dragons hibernate for two months during the winter, so if we have a power outage of three days, they will think it’s winter and fall asleep for two months.

What other animals do you sell besides lizards?

We breed a variety of popular pet herps, which are reptiles and amphibians, that are easy to feed and house, like leopard geckos, tree frogs and corn snakes. The corn snakes are one of our most popular breeds. They come in many colors, are friendly and modest-size. We also sell herp food, like beetle larva and roaches.

What does your family think of your business?

They are very enthusiastic about it. My wife and eldest son are my business partners. My kids are all grown, but as children they got to go on many behind-the-scenes tours of zoos and also loved collecting reptiles in the desert.