A Cold-Blooded Business
America's newest pet craze leaves millions of animals misunderstood and mistreated right from the gecko
Melissa Kaplan, Animal Watch, 20(1):22-29. ASPCA
Reptiles! The very word conjures up a variety of responses, ranging from "Eeeeww, gross!" to "Way cool!" Fueled in part by changes in international wildlife importation laws, the resurgence of interest in dinosaurs and increasing numbers of two-paycheck families that have less time and live in smaller spaces, reptiles have been the fastest-growing segment of the pet market. But popularity has its price.
According to the World Wildlife Fund-US, imports of reptiles into the United States exceeded 2.5 million in 1996. Add to this the tens of thousands of captive-bred reptiles sold at reptile expos around the country and at local herpetological society meetings, and you begin to understand why this fast-growing market is not likely to dry up anytime soon.
What does this mean to the person who wanders into the pet store for another bag of dog food and comes out with a snake and 10-gallon tank? Trouble.
The biggest problem with reptiles is that most people think of them as disposable. Sadly, being cheap only tends to reinforce the "disposable" misconception.
There is no generic reptile. Reptiles have adapted over time to an amazing range of habitats and lifestyles, from underground to the tops of trees, from below sea level (and in the sea) to high up in the mountains. They are endlessly fascinating.
As the guardian of a reptile, you get to learn about everything from adaptation, behavior and the environment, to nutrition, camouflage and reproductive strategies. Learning about the natural history and proper captive care of these animals just might change your world outlook and get you thinking more about the environment as a whole.
As with other pets, the cost of a reptile is usually the least expensive part of keeping one. The initial outlay includes an enclosure, special heating and lighting, substrate, essential furnishings, food and water supplies, nutritional supplements, housing and food for prey insects and veterinary visits with parasite testing and treatment. Ongoing monthly expenses include cleaning and disinfecting supplies, new substrate, food and electricity. How does this affect your wallet? The initial habitat setup for a $10 green iguana hatchling will cost from $250 to $300, including an enclosure he will outgrow by the end of his first year. An anole, which retails for about $4, has less-extensive requirements than a green iguana. Nevertheless, a basic anole habitat setup includes a 20-gallon enclosure, a UVB-producing fluorescent Vita-Lite®, a basking light, a nocturnal heat light, an undertank heating pad, thermometers, soil and gravel, potted plants, a log or branch for basking and sundry other items such as crickets, a tank for the crickets and cricket calcium supplements and food. Total cost, exclusive of monthly expenses: $236.
The most common reasons for getting rid of a reptile include not realizing how large or fast the species grows, nor how much work is involved in taming, feeding or overall maintenance. Many who do research after the fact are unwilling to commit the financial, time and space resources needed. The highly efficient metabolism of these animals means that they can conserve energy resources by staying cool and eating less food, which also means that it can take them a very long time to die. This misleads people into believing that they are providing adequate care. Unfortunately, treatment that would kill a mammal or bird in a matter of weeks or months may take years to kill a reptile.
Is a Reptile the
Right Pet for You?
Do you really want the reptile in question? If you are considering buying one because your children have been begging for one, keep in mind that you are ultimately responsible for the animal's daily care, including training, feeding, cleaning up, buying supplies and providing proper veterinary care. Even if your child is a teenager, all primary care and financial responsibilities are yours. Just saying "No, you can't have one" is not a bad thing. While we all want to indulge our children, teaching them why they can't have that reptile is just as important.
Can you feed one animal to another? Omnivores and carnivores need to be fed properly. That means you need to be able to feed out animals that many people consider too cute and cuddly to be food. Mammalian and avian prey should be pre-killed before feeding to your reptiles; it is more humane to the prey and protects your reptile from bite and scratch injuries. Can you humanely kill mice, rats, rabbits and chicks before feeding them to your pet? Fortunately, there are many sources of frozen prey that you can buy in bulk and store in your freezer and defrost as needed, assuming your family is up to having "mousicles" next to the Popsicles. Your prey-eating reptile won't be healthy as a vegetarian, nor can it be fed piecemeal - pieces of beef and chicken from the supermarket will cause malnutrition.
There are no herbivorous snakes and no small herbivorous lizards. Herbivorous tortoises require a great deal of indoor and outdoor space to move around in, as well as lots of grasses on which to forage. Herbivorous diets are more complicated and time-consuming to shop for and prepare than carnivorous diets. They are almost impossible to provide if you do not have access to markets with a wide and year-round selection of leafy greens and other nutrient-loaded vegetables. The pet store employee who told you to feed your herbivore just lettuce might as well have recommended styrofoam.
Giving away a reptile that doesn't suit you for whatever reason is still disposing of him or her. And disposing of reptiles, whether by letting them die from lack of proper care or giving them away to anyone who will take them, sends the same message to our children or students: it's okay to get rid of living things when they're inconvenient or unpleasant. Instead, we should be teaching that keeping a reptile is a lifelong commitment to a living, sentient being a commitment that will last a long, long time. Depending on the species, lizards may live five to 20 years, snakes more than 40 years and turtles and tortoises 40 to 100 years or more.
Where to Learn About
There is a tremendous amount of reptile care information on the World Wide Web, ranging from comprehensive and accurate to dangerously inaccurate. You will need to evaluate the Web site material, as well as the author: that fancy site you found may have been written by a fourteen-year-old who knows more about computer graphics than she does about that iguana she's had for all of two weeks!
Another excellent place to learn about reptiles is through your local herpetological society. Reptile veterinarians, wildlife rescue organizations and animal shelters often know who the savvy "herpers" are in your community. The more you learn about the care of your selected species, the better you'll be able to sift through the available information and find that which is topical and accurate.
Where To Get Reptiles
Support responsible captive breeding by buying directly from private breeders. You can find them through local herp society meetings and newsletters, and on the Internet in herp newsgroups and email lists. Some can be found selling their stock at regional herp expos and bazaars. Herp societies can be found on the Internet, as well as through your local wildlife rehabilitation center, humane society or animal shelter, exotics veterinarian, university biology department or the research librarian at your public library.
Caveat emptor applies to buying at expos; as many sellers and show organizers push quantity over quality and frequently sell sick imported animals. If you don't personally know the breeder or vendor, ask around before you buy. Some have been known to sell reptiles they know are sick, such as boas and pythons carrying fatal inclusion body disease. Others try to pass off imports as captive-bred.
Wherever you buy, learn first how to pick out healthy animals and resist impulse buys of species about which you have not done sufficient research. If a store or reseller tells you the animal is captive-bred - as opposed to wild-caught - ask for documentation in the form of sales receipts. Wholesalers and importers do not buy captive-bred animals from domestic breeders. If you aren't familiar with the name, ask the local herp people or Internet herp groups, or check the ads in herp magazines first.
It is your responsibility to make sure that keeping a reptile, or the type of reptile you want, is legal. Many cities and counties do not permit certain species or sizes. This doesn't mean stores can't sell them, so just because you see them for sale doesn't mean it's legal where you live. Go to the source: contact the department of animal regulation to find out what restrictions, if any, exist. If you rent an apartment or live in a dorm, check your lease and housing agreement: being caught with a reptile by your landlord or residential advisor could result in a quick eviction.
Finally, before bringing your new reptile home, be sure that you have already set up an enclosure for it, complete with appropriate substrate, lighting, heating and furnishings. Don't make your reptile wait until you have time to get everything together or can afford to get what he needs.
Healthy and Happy
Providing thorough reptile care information is outside the scope of this article. What follows is some basic information on common pet species:
The Future of Reptiles
But rather than ignore them, animal regulatory agencies, humane organizations and the Secretary of Agriculture, who is responsible for the Animal Welfare Act and the exclusion of reptile pets from this act, must begin to accord reptiles (and amphibians) the same protection under the local, state and federal laws granted to avian and mammalian pets. As long as "herps" are not afforded these protections, those individuals and organizations will be fighting an uphill battle to change the public's consciousness and moral response to the often horrendous conditions that these animals encounter in stores, warehouses, expos and homes.
Although no animal is truly easy to care for, few are so hard to find good information on or require as much work as reptiles. But keeping them properly opens the door to a whole new world. If that's what you are looking for in a pet, you won't be disappointed.
How much is that reptile in the window?
You wanna iguana?
Seven reasons to just say NO!
For starters, there's Mango, a Southeast Asian monitor lizard and the shop's mascot. The reptile was brought into the city's Center for Animal Care and Control six months ago with a large wound - origin unknown - on his right side. Today, thanks to Shapiro, he's healed and healthy.
Mango isn't the only critter to benefit from Shapiro's tender loving lizard care. As the city's official---and volunteer---reptile rescuer for the past four years, Shapiro has set up a safe haven in his shop's back room for New York's abused and abandoned snakes, lizards and turtles. About 3,000 animals come through Shapiro's doors annually, and they're cared for until ready to be placed with experienced, licensed owners.
"Last month, park rangers brought me ball pythons, iguanas and an African spur tortoise that someone had let loose in Central Park," says Shapiro. He also takes in giant constrictors surrendered to the New York Herpetological Society and illegally imported animals confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As a crusader for critters low on cuddle factor, Shapiro knows reptiles are underdogs when it comes to public sympathy. "There's no such thing as a mean snake, just a frightened one," says Shapiro. Half the battle, he explains, is understanding how reptiles think; the other half is ensuring that anyone who chooses a pet reptile also chooses to be responsible about it. "That means somebody who reads a good book and sets up a proper environment before they buy the animal," says Shapiro. "Even one good care sheet can save a life."
For more information, call Robert Shapiro at (212) 614-9653.
When it just isn't working out?
For more information
Melissa Kaplan is a reptile expert and rescuer who maintains an encyclopedic Web site on their care and other issues related to reptiles at www.anapsid.org.
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