Going wild: Exotic animals take over the Underground for a day

By Jocelyn Cano

April 16, 2014

When Mark Szafran says his coworkers act like animals, it’s a compliment.

That’s because Szafran works for Animal Rentals, a Chicago company that rents out exotic animals for special events. What started as a summer job for Szafran 21 years ago has turned into a lifestyle.

“I’m very lucky to work with animals,” Szafran said. “Not everyone gets a chance to. I get to entertain people [and] I get to educate people.”

Szafran’s job starts as soon as the animals are born.

“[My favorite part about my job is] raising the animals. When they are first born I’m the one that helps raise them,” he said. “We trade around, with whoever wants to take them home and raise them.”

Szafran traveled to Dominican with his entourage of exotic animals on Tuesday, April 2 as a part of the Campus Activities Board’s “Fools for Animals” show in the Underground.

“We are a very unique company that provides our animals for any occasion,” Szafran said.

For the Dominican event, Szafran brought Sahara the Fennec fox, Pokey the porcupine, Casper the albino Burmese python and other exotic friends for students to enjoy.

Junior Michael Tinson was excited to see an exotic animal program on campus.

“I was most drawn to the porcupine,” Tinson said. “It’s something we don’t see everyday at a [petting zoo], but I was iffy being around the baby alligator [because] one snap and I would be stuck.”

Junior Julie Fenske also enjoyed her walk on the wild side.

“My favorite part of the exotic petting zoo was the exposure to animals that you rarely get to see,” she said. “It’s great seeing animals that are pets such as dogs or cats, but when you get to interact with a porcupine or a Fennec fox, it’s really exciting.”

While Fenske spent most of her time with the harmless, furry animals, such as the big-eared Chinchilla, other students decided to wear the 10-foot long, Burmese python around their necks.

Szafran enjoys dropping the massive snake over people’s shoulders as a way “to make people a little jumpy, a little scared and get their heart palpitations going.”

Animal Rentals owns about 25 animals and has raised them to be patient and calm in different situations. Once, when an accident with their van broke open a monkey’s cage, the monkey didn’t make a run for freedom. Instead, he sat patiently in his cage, waiting for Szafran’s boss to check on him.

Other animals have become stars in their own rights.  Pokey the Porcupine is regularly on TV in the Illinois Lottery commercial “Pick a Quill, Win a Mill.” The company also has had famous groundhogs that starred in the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.”

Szafran says that besides working with exotic animals, traveling is another perk of working such a peculiar job.

“There is no average week, “ Szafran said. “My hours over the years have fluctuated to whatever it takes, wherever we have to go, whatever time, whatever hour, whatever day, it [doesn’t] matter.”