Curious critters on campus — Hawkeyes and their unique pets

While the typical Hawkeye’s pet might include the usual furry friends like cats or dogs, there are also students who branch out into the world of peculiar pets.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

University of Iowa student Katie Pribyl pets her horse Milo at the 7A Ranch in Oxford, Iowa, on Feb. 18, 2023.

Parker Jones, Arts Editor

Tortoises, snakes, lizards, geckos, horses, and more.  As an owner of an unusual pet myself, I’m always on the lookout for other people with kooky creatures, bizarre beasts, or other atypical animals.

I have a pet tortoise — a Russian tortoise also known as a Hermann’s tortoise. His name is Angelo, which has no meaning other than being distantly inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character. I bought him in September 2022 after only a few weeks of research. Tortoises are typically low-maintenance pets — the best kind for a busy college student.

When I tell people about Angelo, it usually draws some strange reactions or curiosity about what a tortoise is like as a pet. Although there are multitudes of students with cats or dogs, there aren’t many with reptiles or other unusual animals on campus.

Katie Pribyl also owns what one may call an unusual pet. Pribyl is a second-year speech and hearing science major with a minor in Spanish at the University of Iowa. She owns a horse named Milo and boards him at the 7A Ranch and Boarding Stable in Oxford, Iowa.

While Pribyl said Milo is a pet in the technical sense, she considers him more than just an animal she owns.

“I see us more as like a team where we’re equals,” Pribyl said. “Just because we do, like, train and compete together, I do see us more as a team — like we’re working together towards a goal for our future. We both have bad days, and we kind of build off of each other.”

Milo is an American Paint, which is a breed of horse associated with a pinto coloration noted for its large splotches of color. She is originally from Glenview, Illinois, and took lessons at a local barn despite lacking a larger agricultural environment.

Pribyl started horseback riding when she was 6 years old and bought Milo in August 2020.

“Milo had been at the barn for sale for a couple of months, and when I first saw his sale video, I just fell in love with him and, you know, kind of the rest is history,” Pribyl said.

She said that although it’s time-consuming to own a horse, Pribyl is the type of person who always has to have something to do. She said she usually spends an hour or two every day at the boarding stable after classes. She said her horse duties rarely conflict too much with her classes or workload as a student.

“It’s also a great stress reliever and just a great way to get away from campus and away from school and just out of an academic mindset,” Pribyl said. “But because I’m spending like three hours on a time commitment for [classes], if I do head out to the barn, it can get exhausting some days if I’ve had a really busy day or just are feeling overwhelmed.”

Pribyl said Milo is a “big people horse” and loves attention and spending time with any other folks around the barn. He loves scratches and will try to make friends with any other person or animal he meets — including the barn cat or the farm dog.

“One of his best friends is a cat, and he’ll kind of nibble at the cat’s head and stuff to groom him, and the cat just loves it,” Pribyl said.

Although my tortoise isn’t quite as outgoing as Milo, he is still surprisingly social for a cold-blooded creature. When I pass by his crate or call out to him, he lifts his head to see what’s going on — I like to think of it as his way of greeting me.

As other students will share, reptiles can make just as good of pets as any conventional cuddler. Jennifer DeVries and Mitchell Smith are third-year students at the UI and own over 40 geckos, lizards, and snakes between the two of them.

The couple lives in an apartment in downtown Iowa City and has a passion for all things scaly. Specifically, they collect unique morphs — or colored patterns — of crested geckos. The species is native to New Caledonia and was considered extinct until 1994 when it was rediscovered and imported to the U.S. to sell as pets.

DeVries and Smith began their reptile collections during their freshman years when they lived in the campus dorms. DeVries — who has always liked geckos but never had any in her youth — initially owned a leachianus gecko, the largest species in the world that can grow as long as 16 inches.

“When we got together freshman year, she wanted to get one, and I was pretty reluctant,” Smith said. “But once we got one, it just grew.”

Now, DeVries and Smith mainly focus on their crested geckos, even breeding them to combine certain patterns of geckos with others to create unique morphs. One crested gecko they are particularly fond of is Clyde, a lily-white morph.

RELATED: Iowa City Animal Shelter helps pet owners take care of pets during COVID-19

They also have a few other species, including a gargoyle gecko and a chahoua gecko. The couple also has a ball python named Hazel, a Kenyan sand boa named Pumpkin, and a tri-color hognose snake named Margot. They also have a blue-tongue skink named Jörmungandr, which is their biggest lizard.

The couple’s entire apartment is decorated with gecko decor, complete with a sign labeled, “Home is where the gecko is.” Although they breed their crested geckos, the couple only keeps reptiles as a hobby.

“The main reason we have so many animals is because we enjoy them and think they are so, so cute,” DeVries said. “Not for breeding necessarily; that’s more of just a thing on the side.”

DeVries and Smith hope to attend a reptile convention this summer, where they will be on the lookout for more unique crested gecko morphs as well as a male leachianus gecko to breed with their three females of the same species.

All the unique pets on campus must require unique care, Greg Zimmerman, head veterinarian at All Pets Veterinary Clinic on Kirkwood Avenue, said. He added he has seen some incredible animals in his 40-year career, including unique pets and wild animals in need of care.

“I used to be the only veterinarian in town that would do reptiles, so I saw all the snakes and the ball pythons and albino pythons and that type of thing,” Zimmerman said. “I also used to see the regular birds, you know, parrots and macaws and parakeets and cockatiels.”

In the past, Zimmerman worked at the RARE Group — the raptor rehabilitation center in Iowa City. The animals he worked on weren’t “pets” per se; instead, they were bald eagles, owls, ospreys, and other birds of prey. He said he even saw animals like black bears and cougars in his younger years.

Although Zimmerman no longer takes exotic pets at his location, his daughter, Cheryl Zimmerman, does. She works as the head vet at Tender Care Animal Hospital in Coralville, which services all sorts of “pocket pets” like hamsters, guinea pigs, snakes, turtles, geckos, and all other unique critters.