When you walk into 19-year-old Vanessa Smoots' room, you’re entering her own habitat.
On the right, you’re immediately introduced to a wall of tanks.
In these tanks are her animals. There’s Roger the bearded dragon, who can be seen in his tank or somewhere in Smoots' room. One of the floor-level tanks holds Richard, her red-eared slider turtle, who’s about the size of a small puppy. Her ball python named Mac and Cheese rests on one of the top shelves, and can be a little shy, she said.
The rest of the tanks hold two other snakes, her amphibians, and fish. She also has a dog and cat that are with her mom, Amanda Flasch; a hamster whose cage is in her closet; and she breeds insects she uses as feed. All in all, the total number of animals Smoots owns is nearly 100, she said.
She spends hours every day taking care of them when she’s not working one of her two jobs. Whether she's waking up hours beforehand to care for them, forgetting to eat lunch between jobs to do it again, or staying up late with them, it’s a lot of work day in and day out to maintain her "ecosystem."
But for the Rochester teenager, taking care of the critters isn't a chore, it's a form of therapy that helps with her mental health issues.
“They mean everything to me,” she said. “They are my entire life, and they are what keeps me going with just everything I got going on.”
'It's my life'
Smoots' obsession with animals started at a young age. When she was a kid, she tried to bring any animal she found in the house. When they made trips to the pet store, she would point out to her mom how much she needed the chameleon or lizard she saw there.
Her parents gave in once they realized she was sneaking animals into the house anyway. Her mom offered little resistance to her newfound passion, while her dad, Terry, who didn’t grow up with pets, didn’t budge as easily.
He eventually accepted it once he saw how the animals made his daughter feel.
“He started to realize, ‘This is what makes Vanessa happy,’ ” Smoots said. “He used to tell me when I was younger that if I got a snake, he would never come over. Now he comes over … He realized when I was 13 that these animals were what I needed.”
Smoots' first passion was sports. She grew up playing everything she could, but soccer was her focus, and she wanted to go pro someday. When she was in eighth grade, she was already playing on the high school team, and she was told she would play on the junior varsity team soon.
“At that point, soccer was my entire life," she said.
Smoots suffered a concussion while playing soccer that year; another concussion two months later brought an end to her soccer career. The recovery process took nine months, during which she wasn’t supposed to even think about playing sports. She felt isolated and without purpose.
"The doctor told me I couldn’t play soccer ever again," she said. "Once the doctor said you can’t go back to the sport you love, it’s kind of hard to keep going, because back when I didn’t have all the animals, it was the thing that kept me busy.”
Smoots, then 14, was later diagnosed with ADHD and depression. Her life changed even more when her parents divorced a year later.
During that time in her life, she knew she could keep coming back to her animals, knowing they were there for her, and that she needed to be there for them.
“There was a lot going on in my life," she said. "But at the time, I knew I couldn’t act on the thoughts in my head, because I knew no one would take care of a snake, or a lizard, or a turtle."
Smoots works at Gage Elementary School as a general education paraprofessional and at Home Depot at night.
Between jobs, she comes home to feed her animals, and when she comes home for the night, she knows she’s not alone.
“Every night, one of these animals is with me. I don’t feel completely alone, and this is what I like to do,” Smoots said. “If I’m not working or I’m sleeping, then I’m hanging out with my animals. A lot of people are just like, ‘Oh, it’s just a hobby.’ For me, it’s my life.”