I frequently get letters and phone calls from parents whose kids, and adults whose
partners or spouses, want a reptile. I get even more letters and phone calls from
parents whose kids (or spouses) went ahead and got a reptile without realizing
the full implications what they were getting into. In many cases, the reptile
they got was unsuitable for them; in too many cases, a reptile was unsuitable,
period. These owners found, often too late, that the choosing and caring for reptiles
is not as simple as it may appear.
With most reptiles, we are attempting to keep an animal
with very specific environmental and dietary needs in an environment very much
unlike its native habitat. Owners must spend a great deal of time-and money-working
to keep their reptile's enclosure warm enough or cool enough, and dry enough or
humid enough, or the reptile will sicken and die. What works to provide the right
temperatures and humidity during the summer may not be enough during the winter.
During the spring and fall, the great disparity between ambient day time and night
time temperatures makes almost daily fiddling with heating equipment a must. If
you don't have the money to invest in the extensive heating and lighting equipment
(and increased power bills) or the time to be monitoring temperatures day and
night during much of the year that is a basic requirement of keeping most reptiles,
then a less "alien" reptile should be considered.
Whether the child is six or sixteen, most lose
interest in their reptile after the initial thrill has worn off. This is true
of many adults, especially those who acquire reptiles that are more work than
they bargained for. The daily grind of food preparation, cleaning and disinfecting
the enclosure, checking the water, the temperatures, making sure it is shedding
properly, taming it, getting pooped on, remembering to close and secure the enclosure,
spending the allowance or limited budget on lighting and heating and food supplies
(or begging parents or family for the same), blowing the savings on emergency
veterinary care because one or more of the above weren't provided or done, all
conspire to make even the best intentioned, most avid child (and spouse) find
other things to take their time. This leaves the animal to languish in its enclosure,
often for years, as one parent or the other tries to guilt the child (or spouse)
into caring for it. Too often, these animals end up severely ill before anyone
does anything about it (usually giving it away when they find that no one wants
to buy it). Too many of these animals die from the neglect.
The cooler-looking the reptile, the more it is likely
to cost you, in time and money and space, to set up properly, quite apart from
the cost of the reptile itself. The trick for a parent who is working to get their
child redirected to a more appropriate reptile is to learn as much as possible
about the suitable reptiles. This usually means heading to the local herpetological
society, World Wide Web, and herpetological booksellers
to get information on how the animal lives and has adapted to its environment,
as the books and information available in most pet stores will not cover this
Richard O'Barry, founder of the
Dolphin Project, has said "Teaching
a child not to step on a caterpillar is as important to the child as it is the
caterpillar." Teaching your child why she can't have that lizard or frog
or snake is just as important to you and the child as it is to the animal itself.
Keeping animals of any sort is a major responsibility. It is a life-long commitment
(the life of the animal, which may well exceed your child's middle school, high
school and college years). It is not something to be done lightly, nor with the
thought that if it doesn't work out, or the child gets bored, you can just give
it to a zoo or sell it. The increasing number of reptiles being given away for
whom no homes can be found tells just how unrealistic this attitude is. Being
tired of the whining and begging is simply not a good enough reason to potentially
put the life of an animal at risk.
As discussed in the Finding A Reptile Vet article,
not all vets are knowledgeable about reptile medicine. If you cannot find a reptile
vet in your area, be prepared to widen your search, geographically. Unfortunately,
just as there are no laws mandating that pet stores must know anything about the
animals they sell, there is no law mandating that pet stores sell only those species
for whom there are competent vets in the area who can examine and treat them.
Compounding the problem are the people who buy exotics without first finding out
if there are vets capable of treating them, and who then try to pass their sick
animals off to other unsuspecting people once they realize that finding a qualified
vet is going to take some effort - not to speak of money. If you live in a rural
or otherwise less metropolitan area and decide to buy any type of exotic pet,
you must commit to traveling the distances required to get your exotics to a vet
trained in their treatment. Depending on where you live, that may entail trips
of one or more hours. In some parts of Canada and the U.S., some herp keepers
drive 5 or more hours - one way - to see their vet. If you aren't prepared to
go the distance, don't get the pet.
Okay. You have successfully dealt with the above
factors and have decided that a reptile will be suitable for your family. But,
which one is best for you?
are not all alike and, as prospective owners, we need to understand some things
about ourselves before we can even think about what reptile to get. Ask yourself
the following questions, and then we can narrow the field down:
much money can you spend?
Remember that the cost of the reptile is generally
the cheapest part of getting a reptile. On top of the cost of the reptile itself
is the enclosure (and despite all cautions, most people still start off with ones
that are too small and so have to buy a new one within a year or so), the furnishings,
the substrate, the lighting equipment and supplies, the heating equipment and
supplies, cleaning equipment and supplies, food, housing and food for the food
(when you have to supply crickets and worms and things), and initial veterinary
care. For example, that $10 iguana will actually cost you $250 or more (depending
on where you live and the availability of the necessary lighting and heating equipment,
foods, and veterinarians); that $6 anole will cost you $75-100. Lizards, on the
whole, are much more expensive than snakes when everything is taken into consideration.
And then there's the monthly costs of heating the herp (see Calculating
the Cost of Electricity).
much room can you spare for an enclosure?
One of the most common mistakes
is that people buy enclosures that are too small. While the enclosure may fit
the animal at the time of purchase, reptiles grow, often reaching adult size within
a year or two. It is cruel and inhumane to house an animal in an enclosure that
is too small. It not only causes severe stress which leads to illness and behavioral
problems - it also makes taming and working with territorial species that much
more difficult. Such animals spend most of their time trying to break out of their
enclosure, often injuring themselves severely enough to require veterinary care.
For some reptiles, such as iguanas and large pythons and boas, there are no commercially
made enclosures big enough for these animals, and much of what is available is
not the right shape for them. This means that you must build, or have built, an
enclosure that may ultimately take up a good portion of your living space.
Can you feed one animal
Most snakes and lizards that eat rodents will cheerfully take
killed prey, and for their own safety and for the humane treatment of the prey,
should be fed killed prey. That means, however, that if you cannot find a pet
store that will kill it humanely for you, you will have to kill the prey humanely
yourself, or buy prey in bulk from breeders who will ship it to you already killed
and frozen. Which means that the family needs to accept the fact that, in the
freezer, amongst the chicken and ice cream, is a bag or two of mousicles...
Mealworms and crickets need to
be fed live; the large Zoophobas ("kingworms") should be killed by quickly
crushing their heads before being fed out...can you do this?
housing and caring for insects, keeping containers of worms and beetle larvae
in the refrigerator isn't appealing, or keeping baggies of prekilled mice, rats
or rabbits (whole rabbits, not the neatly butchered ones from your meat market)
in the freezer isn't something you or your family can deal with (or have room
for), and if you can't kill them humanely yourself, then a carnivorous or omnivorous
reptile is not for you. The commercial foods and dried insects available at pet
stores are not appropriate replacements for fresh, whole prey, and in many cases
the reptiles will not even touch them.
you prepare fresh foods on a regular basis?
Americans have a strange conception
of what 'vegetables' are. They are not the things you find on top of a fast food
burger, nor even what you will find at most salad bars. When you have an herbivorous
lizard or tortoise, or an omnivorous lizard or turtle, you must be prepared to
buy a variety of healthy vegetables, greens, and fruits, and prepare them in such
a way as to enable the reptile to maximize its intake and digestion. You may have
to hit a couple of grocery stores, or convince the produce manager at your regular
store, to get what you need, and then spend an hour or two a week preparing the
countries in which green iguanas, desert iguanas, Uromastyx, and prehensile-tailed
skinks (all herbivorous lizards) are sold, the foods they need to be fed regularly
are difficult, or impossible, to find. As with carnivore food products, the commercially
available foods for herbivores are not appropriate replacements for a properly
constructed fresh food diet.
an herbivore still sound good to you? Unfortunately, there are no herbivorous
snakes, and the herbivorous lizards are amongst the hardest and most demanding
of all to keep.
you afford the upkeep?
This includes regular changes of substrate, cleaning
supplies (including separate sponges, disinfectant, rubber gloves, etc., just
for the reptile), appropriate and sufficient food, and veterinary care, as well
as lighting and heating equipment and supplies, often including special (and expensive)
UVB-producing fluorescent tubes that need to be replaced every 6-12 months.
cost generally not taken into consideration is the cost of providing heating and
lighting to all reptiles, but especially for desert and tropical species. While
there is some respite during the winter for desert species owners, tropical species
must be maintained at tropical temperatures all year round. To get an idea of
what your prospective reptile may cost you, see the information on Calculating
the Cost of Electricity. Keep in mind that as it gets colder outside, it may
take more heating equipment just to maintain the temperatures they need (see Heating:
Watts it all about for more information).
What criteria do I use in deciding what is a suitable
starter reptile? I look at the ease of keeping it (note: this may still entail
more work, time, money or space than you personally are willing to devote to it),
moderate size (8 in - 4 ft), and ease in taming (note: parents must do the taming--not
the child--and must oversee all interactions between child and reptile even when
the reptile is very tame.)
matter what you are told by someone trying to sell you a reptile or what you read
in the too many outdated books still being sold in stores and stocked on library
shelves, no reptile is easy enough to care for to be left strictly to a child
to care for. Your child cannot be expected to get himself to the pet store or
hardware store for food and supplies, nor to place orders with mail-order suppliers.
Too many reptiles die because the light went out or got unplugged, or it was forced
to go "just one more day" without water or food.
reptiles are skittish when you first get them (even species recommended as good
starter reptiles) and need to be handled carefully. Handlers are likely to get
pooped on or musked, or the animal quickly escapes their grasp. Kids are prone
to just drop the animal who starts thrashing or entwining around their fingers
or arm, and they tend to squeal and throw an animal that poops on them--teenagers
as well as young children have exhibited this reaction, so the age of your child
is not necessarily a good determinant. An adult must always do the initial handling,
giving close supervision until they are satisfied that the child is capable of
not being freaked out and the animal exhibits a degree of comfort being held by
the child. Retiles can be seriously, even fatally injured (or otherwise traumatized)
by being clutched too hard by an eager youngster, so if your child can't be hold
the reptile gently enough, they should not be allowed to hold the reptile until
the child matures enough to being able to control how tightly they hold onto the
These small nocturnal insectivores (who get big enough to feed on
pinkie mice) can do well in a 20 gallon aquarium with several inches of clean
playground-type sand, an undertank heating pad, an overhead nocturnal heat source,
hollow log and bark slab, and water bowl. Maximum size is 8 inches. Temperament
is very sweet though may be skittish at first. Have been popular captive-bred
lizards for decades.
Diurnal desert dwellers that can be set up as the leopard gecko,
but must be in a larger enclosure, at least a 55-60 gallon. They also need much
higher heat during the day, and a special fluorescent bulb that produces UVB (290-320
nm wavelengths - something that only specially made, and rather expensive - fluorescents
can do). Largely carnivorous, adults will eat some plant matter. Most in stores
are wild-caught. To 10-12 inches.
Diurnal desert dweller, to be set up as the collared. Babies are
cheap but that's because they have a lower survival rate. Buy one at least 6 inches
long - big enough to start eating mouse pinks. Smaller beardeds are more difficult
to feed, with intestinal impaction from insect exoskeletons and paralysis and
seizures-even death-from being fed prey that is too big, all too common. These
guys need the least amount of work in terms of taming - they are pretty much big
lazy slugs. They do go into a winter slowdown, a period of long inactivity (sleeping
for days or weeks) interspersed with a bit of wakefulness, eat a bit, drink a
bit, then down again for several weeks. To 20 inches.
These low-slung, wide-bodied lizards look like a giant alligator
lizard with skin like your kitchen floor. Like the bearded dragon, these Australian
natives are strictly available as captive bred lizards here in the US. Blue-tongue
skinks are omnivores, requiring a temperate woodland type of environment, with
temperatures in the mid-70s to mid-80s. They need some access to UVB which can
be easily supplied by taking them outside with you for awhile during clement weather,
and by providing a UVB fluorescent during the winter months. To 24 inches. They
like to move about and wander, so a larger than expected enclosure is a must.
These strictly wild-caught, strictly carnivorous lizards are one
of the most common of the small monitor lizards. They also have one of the nicest
temperaments-when you get them tamed. They are masters of scrabbling backwards
in your arms and hands, leaving trails of scratches in their wake. You do need
to be careful when feeding them their mice, however-they get extremely eager and
easily mistake your fingers for the mouse, so always use tongs. Temperatures from
mid-70s to mid-80s with a slightly higher basking area. UVB occasionally. Hissy
and thrashy initially, lots of bluff but rarely a bite. Once tamed by an adult,
are usually suitable for handling by middle childhood age kids. To 4 feet. Good
climbers, they need large, well secured enclosures.
Corns are the easily the most domesticated of all snakes and widely available
as captive bred. They also come in a remarkably wide variety of colors. Hatchlings
are barely bigger than a pencil but are active feeders (and poopers). They be
a little skitty at this size, and certainly not appropriate for young children
to handle at this age, but they rapidly put on mass and length, maxing out at
4 feet with a head no bigger than a small adult thumb. Sweet, inquisitive and
gentle snakes, they are easily kept, singly or in pairs, in a 20 gallon enclosure
as adults. Temperatures in the mid 70s-mid 80s, no special lighting, easily feed
on killed mice.
Most kings are also great starter snakes. They may be
a little skittish at first, and may musk you during the first month, but once
they realize you mean no harm and are, in fact, a nice warm place on which to
hang out, they are calm and relaxed being handled. Captive bred kings are generally
great eaters and can be easily converted to feeding on defrosted prey. Temperatures
need to range from the-70s to mid-80s. They should be kept singly due to their
propensity to eat other snakes, including other kings. Depending on species, may
be kept in 20-30 gallon enclosure as adults.
Bred Ball Pythons
I cannot stress enough the importance of only, only,
only, ONLY buying a captive bred, by the person from whom you are buying, ball
python. Most stores are selling imports - whether they were wild caught snakes
or hatched from wild collected eggs is immaterial: they do not recognize mice
as being food, they are heavily parasitized and stressed, and an increasing number
are infected and dying from inclusion body disease. Since beginners (and even
many intermediate) herpers cannot tell a good store from a bad one, and even herp
specialty stores are selling sick and wild caught ball pythons, I recommend you
do not buy them from a store, period. Buy only from a breeder to whom you can
go back to for assistance. This means not buying one from those folks selling
cheap ones at expos. If you buy a healthy captive bred one who is feeding well
(ask to see it being fed - too many people have ended up with non-feeding ball
pythons after being assured by the store or expo vendor that "it just ate"),
then you will have a wonderful snake - all the fun of the large pythons without
the bulk or size or potential for harm.
I consider these unsuitable for children-and
many adults-for a variety of reasons. This is not to say that they are not suitable
for some people. Some are not handlable, some have very complex needs, some rarely
become tame, many are available only as wild caught specimens which means that
they are not in great health to start with...
those who eat nothing but vegetation, on the whole get very large, ranging from
3-6 feet with in the first 1-3 years, depending upon species. It is because of
their large body size and the temperatures found in their native habitat (all
are desert, neotropical or tropical lizards) that they have been able to succeed
as herbivores. Due to their size and environmental needs, not to speak of the
power in their bites and tails, herbivores are more difficult to care for than
omnivorous lizards. Some are only available if you catch them in the wild: chuckawallas
and desert iguanas are not being bred much in captivity. Green
iguanas rapidly reach 5-6 feet in overall length and take a great deal of
work to tame - so much so that they often defeat adults and should never be left
to children to care for and tame. The Uromastyx,
also called spiny-tailed, or dab lizards, currently available in pet stores are
for the most part wild-caught imports and are highly parasitized and stressed.
Until such time as captive breeding is up to speed (or unless you can find a captive
breeder now) these should be passed on for now.
unsuitable lizards, given the degree of care, hardiness, tame-ability, aggressiveness
- there are many different species being imported - getting accurate species identification
and finding proper care information is often difficult
aka Junglerunners, Dwarf Tegus
often miscalled "chameleons," they lack the prehensile tail and turret
eyes of the true chameleons
Day Geckos (Phelsuma species)
Dwarf Tegu (see Ameiva)
Iguanas and other iguanids such as spiny-tailed iguanas,
crested or helmeted iguanas, "forest chameleons"
other than Savannahs
Iguanas (aka black iguanas)
* See Note
Note: Since this article was written, Uromastyx breeders have, well, multiplied
like their lizards. If you buy from a good captive breeder and if you will commit
to maintaining these lizards at the hot desert temperatures they require, and
if you don't mind the scratching or poking of the claws and the spiked tail, then
this lizard may be worth a try for some beginners.
Generally speaking, any snake that requires two or more people to handle it when
it is barely half grown isn't a good idea for beginners. That elimiates all boas
and pythons but the very small one ones (those that are less than six feet when
- combine huge size and nasty temperament in a powerful body
pythons - huge and generally nice, but involved in increasing numbers of human
fatalities due to owner stupidity
- while generally nice and docile, they are rear fanged and mildly venomous; the
easterns only eat toads
boa - a sweet moderately sized boa with very critical humidity requirements
- not as huge as anacondas, Burmese or reticulated pythons, but, based on the
increasing numbers being dumped on rescues, even 10 feet is too much for some
pythons - see anaconda
tree boa or python - many tend to have very specific humidity and dietary needs,
and with their testy temperament and very long, bird-snagging teeth, can deliver
a painful bite
snakes (exception: some garters are okay, but require live fish) - tend to be
testy and finding and maintaining the proper water pH can be a problem
Wild caught garter, kings, gophers,
etc. - many are difficult to feed on what we have to offer them in captivity,
and in most places it is illegal to capture wild birds and mammals to feed them
Turtles And Tortoises (Chelonians)
All of them. Chelonians are not good handling animals and are much more complicated
in their set up and care then pet stores will tell you. Different species have
very specific environmental and dietary requirements that must be met. Most sold
in the pet trade are wild caught and so are suffering from internal and external
parasites, respiratory and shell infections.
If I sound negative at times, it is because I am.
Experts estimate that between 50-90% of reptiles die their first year in captivity,
on top of the 10-50% that died during the importation process. The reasons for
their dying once they reach the importing country are primarily due to people
not knowing what they are getting into, relying on inaccurate care information
(including that provided by most pet stores), and not being able to afford the
necessary equipment, upkeep and veterinary care (assuming that the basic equipment
required is actually available in the country in which the reptile is sold).
Of all the animals kept in captivity,
reptiles are the only ones who do not typically reach their normal lifespan. In
captivity, most animals should live to-or exceed-their expected natural life span
due to the improved conditions (regular feeding, veterinary care, etc.) and lack
of predators. That this doesn't happen with reptiles is a tragic commentary on
how poorly we understand and provide for these animals. If the pet trade were
itself fully knowledgeable, if the people selling reptiles were honest about what
it takes to properly house and maintain reptiles they sell and about the reptiles'
eventual size and temperament, the reptile trade would not be the multi-million
dollar business it currently is...
reptiles were as cool and easy to care for as too many people think they are,
then reptile rescue groups, herpetological and humane societies wouldn't be getting
literally dozens of calls a week from people trying to give away their reptiles.
Yes, give away. Besides the 20-40 calls every month from iguana owners who no
longer want their lizards, I take calls from people trying to get rid many different
types of reptiles (most common: Burmese pythons, red-tailed boas, large monitor
lizards, aquatic turtles, box turtles). They generally call me after they have
found that no one has beat down their doors trying to buy their reptile, and that
the pet stores or breeders from whom they originally bought their animal, and
zoos and wildlife educators and refuges don't have any more room for cast-off
pets. Others are shocked by not being able to find a vet who will treat their
severely ill reptile for free, or that there isn't anyone else out there who will
pay for the necessary care for them. Besides the 20-30 iguanas a year I take in
and try to find homes for (something that has become increasingly difficult as
there are more people buying them than are actually capable of and willing to
care for them properly), I have taken in or otherwise rescued: gopher snakes,
ball pythons, Burmese pythons, red-tail boas and corn snakes; savannah monitors,
gold tegus; bearded dragons, leopard geckos, tokay geckos, water dragons, and
sailfin lizards; box turtles, tortoises, and aquatic turtles; and assorted amphibians.
Most are suffering from some form of neglect and many are moderately to severely
ill. Most come from people who never thought beyond merely buying the animal and
sticking it in a (generally too small) enclosure.
are not things. They are living, breathing, feeling (yes, they do feel pain and
suffer from the effects of stress) animals, with the same basic emotions, nerve
structure and needs that the so-called higher animals have. Whether they live
only a couple of years or 150 years, they require the same commitment to their
care and well-being as does any animal.
are not stuffed toy animals you can just stick away in a garage because someone
in the family thinks reptiles are icky, or because everyone's lost interest in
it. Reptiles do not belong in garages, just as cars don't belong in the bedroom
or family room. Sticking an intelligent reptile, such as a green iguana, in a
garage is nothing less than cruel and inhumane. For some idea of what it is like
being shunted away from family activities, or forced to spend your life in a cage
way too small just because the humans refuse to provide you the space you need
to ensure your health, please read my article, Imagine:
A Visualization Exercise.
a reptile properly can provide a wonderful learning experience for the family.
But so, too, can choosing not to keep one.
you take away nothing else from this article, please consider this: do not get,
nor agree to letting your child (or spouse or significant other) get, any animal
that you are not willing to care for, provide for and support entirely for the
rest of its natural life. Because all too often, that is exactly what you will
be faced with...
thinking about it...?
Before buying a reptile from a pet store,
expo, or breeder, be sure to check out the lists of herp
societies and reptile rescue groups for information on reptiles that may be
available for adoption and to meet and talk to keepers of species you may be interested
in getting. The various herp email discussion lists
are also a good place to get the views and experiences of other keepers before
you get a reptile. Whenever possible, select previously owned animals who need
a new home, or buy a captive bred one.
PDF version of this article is available for easy printing.
Enclosures: Size, Dimension and Lifestyle
the Cost of Electricity
Age & Expected Sizes
A Visualization Exercise
are not "things"
to kill your iguana
College Students Speaks
Out About Iguana Ownership
your folks won't let you have a reptile...
Gifting: Pets Aren't Proper Presents