AN article in the New York Times in October, 2020, headlined ‘The Pandemic Pet is a Snail’, signalled their arrival as the fashionable household animal of choice.
But back in the 1950s, American novelist Patricia Highsmith, known for her novels The Talented Mr Ripley and Carol, was ahead of the curve.
Known as a major snail obsessive who kept them by the hundreds, her biographer noted that Patricia once brought 100 snails, with a head of lettuce, in her purse to a party.
Of course, these were garden variety snails – much smaller than the 201 gram Giant African Land Snail with a 14cm shell, that lives on the outskirts of Youghal with its loving owner Nikki Bray. She features in this week's 'My Pet and Me Series'.
After procuring three-month-old Giant African Land Snail, ironically named Tiny, at a Waterford Reptile Expo in 2019 - “and he was tiny, but of course I knew he would grow” - Nikki brought him home to his new abode. Over the next year, she took monthly photographs of her gastropod.
“Snails’ growth slows down after their first year, but never stops,” she says.
It was here that the pair would end up cocooning together during the lockdowns that were to come, and Tiny would become an unsuspecting Zoom star.
“Tiny has changed my life in many ways,” says Nikki, “but during lockdown, Tiny was my buddy. A snail isn’t an animal you can bring with you on days out like a dog, but because of Zoom and other video calls, I have been able to introduce Tiny to my friends and family, and it’s given me something to focus on.”
Although Nikki has had Tiny only three years, she has been fascinated by snails since her primary school days.
“We did a project studying snails collected from the school field, and I always wanted a Giant African Land Snail after that. But the time was never right.
"It’s not that they need much looking after, they don’t. But like any animal, once you take them into your family, you must look after them properly,” she says.
Tiny now lives in a plastic tub in Nikki’s front room, as she finds that plastic keeps the humidity better than a glass tank.
Like other snails, giant African Land Snails are prone to something called ‘estivation’, which happens when their enclosure is too dry. When this happens, the snail forms a membrane over the opening of its shell and seals itself inside.
“Tiny needs his temperature and humidity checked daily. They’re fed every 2-3 days, and they get a protein feed once a week. For this, I use tropical fish flakes, watered down.”
Apart from sleep, Tiny’s favourite thing is food – courgettes, baby carrots and strawberries. Oh, and dandelions.
“Tiny holds onto dandelions to stop them moving to eat them,” says Nikki.
So, what do we know about snails? Tiny is an Achatina Fulica or what’s better known as Fulica Normalis, the most common species of Giant African Snail.
Snails are almost completely blind. Although they have a lens on their eye, they have no muscles to focus images. They can sense light but not colour. Therefore, they use feel, taste and vibration to experience their surroundings.
Snails have something called a ‘radula’ in their mouths, which is like a file with rows made up of about 25,000 tiny teeth.
Giant African Land Snails live eight to ten years when domesticated, but their lives are shorter in the wild.
Fascinatingly, snails are hermaphrodites and possess both the male and female reproductive organs.
Although dubbed ‘The Pandemic Pet’ in New York, they are an unusual pet here in Ireland. This may be due to the many misconceptions people have about them.
“The main preconception is that they’re slimy. But they are not slimy,” says Nikki.
“They produce slime to help them move, which of course can get messy, but they are not slimy.
“Snails are very interesting animals. They have a reputation for being horrible, but they are far from it in my eyes. As pets they don’t bark, bite, scratch furniture, or leave hairs everywhere - all bonuses to me.
“Most people think snails are horrible, but I personally think Tiny is beautiful with all his beautiful patterns and markings on his shell,” said Nicky.