The Iguana Next Door
Reptile mania has struck...but few lizards approve
Traci Watson, US New & World Report, July 28, 1997
The Animal Hut in Washington, D.C., is the kind of mom-and-pop pet store that a decade ago devoted itself mostly to cocker spaniel puppies and Siamese kittens. Today, few pets sold at the store are likely to curl up on anyone's lap. Walking in the door, customers are greeted by a 3-foot rough-neck monitor lizard glowering from a wire cage. Large chameleons with rotating eyes occupy a pen by the cash register. Tanks of boa constrictors, geckos, leopard tortoises, and bearded dragons line the back walls.
Like many pet-store owners, Michael Parrella, proprietor of the Animal Hut, has discovered that America is in the midst of a love affair with reptiles. Anole lizards and milk snakes are hot sellers. So are corn snakes and Russian tortoises. Reptile expositions, where animals are sold to the public, have jumped from a single show in 1990 to more than 60 this year. And increasingly, amateurs are breeding species--veiled chameleons and leopard geckos, for example--that 20 years ago even zoos would not coax to procreate.
By far the most popular reptilian pet is the green iguana--imports of the lizards to the United States rose from 92,000 in 1985 to more than 840,000 in 1995. But Parrella says he doesn't like to sell many of them. "They get big, they eat a lot, and they crap a lot," he says, and few people are prepared to spend the $250 to $300 it costs to buy the proper equipment. Recently, a customer came into the pet store seeking supplies for an iguana he'd been given. The man ignored a salesclerk's advice to buy a $60 ultraviolet lamp to keep the lizard's bones strong. A year later, says Parrella with disgust, "he brought me back a dead lizard that was all puffed up from metabolic bone disorder."
It was not an isolated case. Far too often, a passion for scaly creatures spells misery for the animals themselves. Poachers steal them from protected areas in the United States. Importers drain populations overseas. Millions of reptiles die in transit to pet stores, and ignorant owners starve, freeze, or fry to death millions more. A huge number of green iguanas, for example, perish as a result of improper care, and zoos and animal shelters are besieged with disenchanted owners eager to rid themselves of the lizards. "There's carnage out there," says Richard Bartlett, a Gainesville, Fla., reptile consultant. "People justify it by saying, `They're cold-blooded.' But they're alive, and they deserve better."
Yet people might not be so keen to acquire reptiles if they knew the ecological cost of their hobby. To feed collectors' hunger, forests and grasslands around the world--especially in Africa and Southeast Asia--are being stripped of reptiles. Pet traders are depleting rhinoceros iguanas in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and plowshare tortoises in Madagascar. It's too late for the Egyptian tortoise, until recently sold by the thousands in Europe and America. Collecting and habitat loss have all but wiped out the tortoise in Egypt. A small population still exists in Libya and is protected by a 1994 international treaty.
Reptiles in the United States also fall victim to collectors' greed--even if they live on protected land. A few years ago, poachers stole so many reptiles from Big Bend National Park in Texas that surrounding towns were overrun by rats. "Reptile collectors think of the national parks in the Southwest as their personal pantry," says one federal wildlife agent. "In some places near Death Valley on a good July weekend, you'll see cars lined up on the side of the road from people picking up snakes." Thieves looking for rosy boas and Arizona mountain kingsnakes tip over rocks and use crowbars to break open crevices in Arizona's deserts.
Reptiles collected overseas are shipped to the United States in conditions akin to a "wildlife slave trade," says one federal animal inspector. Inexpensive reptiles fare especially badly, because dealers are more nonchalant about their survival. Dehydrated turtles are stuffed into overcrowded boxes. Four-foot-long snakes are packed a dozen to a bag, so that "the bag is urine-soaked and the animals are all in a big knot," says Janine Marquardt, a supervisory inspector with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Miami. In winter, cargo handlers often leave legally imported tropical species on chilly runways or in unheated warehouses. Marquardt recalls a shipment of 200 ball pythons left outside in the cold--all but one died. More often, wildlife inspectors say, reptiles live for a few weeks, then die at the pet store or in homes, fatally weakened by their travels.
Once a reptile finds a new home, its troubles often worsen, because many new owners do not realize the size of the obligation they have taken on. Animal shelters see countless green iguanas so malformed from improper care that the animals must be euthanized. Pet iguanas require an intricate diet: one third chopped leafy greens, one third chopped other vegetables, and one third chopped fruit, plus a multivitamin, and some kind of protein. And though they're cute when they're little, they grow fast. Green iguanas "are only sold as babies," says Allen Salzberg, reptile trade consultant for the Humane Society of the United States. "No one is ever told they grow into 4-to-6-foot animals." In addition, males have nasty tempers during mating season, and the claws of both sexes can leave painful cuts.
Other reptilian pets can be dangerous. The Burmese python is popular in part because it costs only $50. What many buyers don't know is that the snakes grow to 12 feet in length. "As they grow, they become increasingly dangerous," says Bartlett. "Eight to 10 feet of powerful constrictor around your arm and neck is a very bad feeling." Last year, a 9-foot python with the run of a San Diego apartment entangled its owner and wrapped itself around the belly of the man's pregnant wife. Paramedics had to lop off the snake's head with a hacksaw to rescue the couple, who were shaken but unhurt. [No, they didn't have to lop the head off...please read the Open Letter to Emergency Responders.] Reptiles also harbor Salmonella, which in humans can cause intestinal distress and other more serious problems. Hand-washing helps prevent transmission, but researchers estimate that iguanas alone cause 50,000 to 80,000 cases of Salmonella per year nationwide.
Reptiles make good pets, say animal advocates, but you have to love them for their inner beauty. The scaly skin, unblinking eyes, and general creepiness that make reptiles so fascinating sometimes keep owners from bonding with them, as they would with a dog or a cat. This lack of cuddliness also makes it difficult to punish abusers. "Reptiles don't have a lot of jury appeal," says Marie Palladini, a Fish and Wildlife Service special agent. "It's getting better, but people used to say, `So what? It's just a Gila monster.' " True, but Gila monsters are protected by law. And even a venomous lizard can feel pain.
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