There’s nothing wrong with a cuddly cat or dog, but these animal lovers are raising some unusual pets. From a quill-encased hedgehog to a charming chameleon to a parrot that has saved the lives of several fellow birds, follow along as we discover some of Westchester’s most astounding animals.
Bearded Dragon, Yonkers
For Brayden Giordano, a bearded dragon was a must-have pet. “I would see them on YouTube videos and thought they were pretty cool, and also a lot of my friends have them,” says Brayden, the 13-year-old son of Danielle and Robert Giordano of Yonkers. “So eventually, I became really interested in them and finally got one.”
In October of 2022, Rocky (named after a TV character, not the punchy film protagonist) crawled into Brayden’s life. “When I came home I was super excited,” says Brayden. “I didn’t expect him to be there and we were playing with him the whole night. The next morning I had to go to school and I was so sad.”
Nowadays, Rocky sleeps in a tank right next to Brayden, who watches over him day and night. “He gets excited but he likes to cuddle too,” Brayden says. “So when I play video games he cuddles with me on my lap. He’s a very trustful and calm bearded dragon.”
Danielle agrees the two have a special bond. “He’s cuddlier than we thought. [Rocky] seems so calm when he lies on Brayden,” she says. “Brayden will have him on his chest and the bearded dragon will just sit there and even fall asleep sometimes.”
Brahma Chicken, Scarsdale
“I am a frustrated veterinarian,” says Leonardo Kestelman, with a laugh. “I have always loved animals. I’ve worked with cows, turkeys, dogs.” But it wasn’t until a trip to San Francisco with his son that Kestelman was inspired to raise a few chickens himself.
In June 2022, Kestelman and his wife, Simone, purchased four chicks. Two passed away, but the duo that lived on just happened to sport monikers that harkened back to Kestelman’s prior home in South America. “Sarah Lee and Mary Lou’s names were based on a Brazilian rock and roll song,” he says.
Kestelman lets them out around 6 a.m., and Mary Lou* and Sarah Lee each produce about one egg a day. However, unlike many chicken owners, Kestelman is quite close to his. “We have a way of talking to them,” says Kestelman, uttering a trilling, chirping sound. “Then they come running, they eat out of my hand, and they sit and I hold them on my lap. I even bring them inside and sit on my couch with them.”
And even with the early mornings and feedings, Kestelman is thankful for his two feathered friends. “You never need to take a chicken for a walk in the middle of the night,” he says, “To tell you the truth, having a chicken is way easier than having a dog.”
Hedgehog, White Plains
Melissa Tomlin and her daughters Leila and Mila are prolific pet owners. They are the proud parents of two birds, a dog, a crested gecko, a bearded dragon, a chameleon, a Pac-Man frog, and more; their hamster recently passed (rest in peace, Snuggles). But one of their most interesting creatures is undoubtedly their hedgehog, Mabel.
“It was the beginning of COVID,” says Mila, “and we were really into getting pets at the time.” When Mila noticed that a New Jersey pet store sold hedgehogs, she began researching, and did chores for two straight years to earn enough money to buy a quill-encased cutie. “We chose the one that really worked with us well and was really snuggly — for a hedgehog,” says Leila.
This doesn’t mean that the family’s guests are as versed on these singular mammals. “A common misconception is that every time someone comes to our house they say, ‘Wow, you have a porcupine,’” says Mila. “It’s always funny.” Yet due to this spiny exterior, it’s true that hedgehogs aren’t exactly puppies. “They are not very cuddly pets, but more than you think,” says Melissa. “She’s really sweet and has her own personality,” says Leila. “You can tell if she likes you or not.”
Veiled Chameleon, Eastchester
It was a fifth grade teacher that instilled in Camilo A. Samayoa an enduring love for lizards. “Mr. O’Neil enlisted him to feed and clean out the enclosures of the different reptiles, and that triggered his interest,” says Camilo C. of his son, who goes by the name Cam. After Mr. O’Neil suggested the father and son attend an annual reptile convention in White Plains, Camilo finally pulled the trigger when Cam was dealing with a bad bout of appendicitis.
Searching for a male veiled chameleon at the convention in 2017, the duo nearly gave up. “Finally, I came across these guys who had a tank full of them,” recalls Cam. “They all looked really unhappy and were darkly colored. Then this one little dude ran up to me and he turned a bright green. I asked if I could hold him, they said ‘yes,’ and I just decided to get him. He kind of chose me.”
It was a smart choice on Carmelo the chameleon’s part, as he is now the member of a family that absolutely adores him. “He’s a pretty involved part of the family,” says Cam. “He even has his own stockings at Christmas.”
Congo African Grey Parrot, Bedford Hills
Dr. Laurie Hess of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills remembers the Mount Kisco Police calling her for a very unusual reason one day. “The police said there was a very big bird flying around the Target store and they were panicked,” says Hess. “They caught it, and this big burly cop came roaring into the veterinary parking lot, pointed to a car and said, ‘It’s in there!’”
What Hess found was a gentle Congo African grey parrot just a few months old. “She came right up onto my hand and was very friendly.” After being unable to find the owner, Hess gave the bird — dubbed Target, after the store in which she was found — a new home in the veterinary center’s waiting room.
Yet, Target is much more than a pet. “She has been a wonderful asset because she has donated blood to anemic birds and she has saved more than a dozen lives,” says Hess, a board-certified bird specialist. “She is kind of our mascot here.” Additionally, Target helps Hess model proper bird care for other veterinarians.
Target’s home is about to get a whole lot nicer. “We are undergoing a huge renovation and are doubling the size of the hospital,” says Hess. “The staff has specialized training in all these animals, so it is all we do.”
Miniature Pig, Yonkers
After one of Danielle Dourmashkin’s three daughters began asking for a teacup pig (also known as a mini pig), the Yonkers resident embarked on a journey of reading, research, and querying breeders. “I got all that information and then realized, okay, we can do this,” says Dourmashkin. “After a lot of convincing, [my husband] agreed.”
Dourmashkin and her family finally picked up baby Kevi at LaGuardia Airport in 2017, only after the attendant realized the family wasn’t waiting for a puppy. Yet once they got their piggy home, the family began a long tutelage in porcine care.
“We made a gated area like one would for a puppy,” says Dourmashkin, “but the pig could lift the entire gate with her snout.” Dourmashkin soon learned she also had to childproof her kitchen so Kevi couldn’t get into the food.
Yet despite any early setbacks, Kevi has become a beloved member of the family. “These pigs are very social; they don’t want to be alone,” says Dourmashkin. “They want to be with you, like a dog.” In fact, Dourmashkin says Kevi sits with her adoring family on their couch, laps, and even sometimes beds. “She has her own bed in the living room,” says Dourmashkin, “but most of the time she will jump in the bed of whosever door is open.”
*Mary Lou was molting (a bad feather day…) and unable to make it to the photo shoot.