Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Meet Melissa Kaplan: Educator and Animal Welfare Activist

Dolly Ellerbrock. Reptile and Amphibian Hobbyist, January 2000, 5(5):72-75


"My firm belief is that if humans are going to keep animals in captivity; despite where or for what reason, we are obligated to care for them properly, and that means providing for their physical and social/psychological needs."

Too many people purchase animals on impulse only to ask afterward "What did I get myself into?" or "How do I get rid of it?". Melissa is a firm believer that if you are going to keep an animal in captivity you are responsible for that animal. I personally wish we had more people like Melissa.

"Most people think that I am a veterinarian," Melissa said, "but I really haven't been at this as long as a lot of people out there. Being ill left me plenty of time to read, observe my herps, talk to others about their experiences. I try to figure out why people are having problems with their animals, and think about things. I've always had an inquisitive mind, and my experience in wildlife rehab, animal behavior observation, and veterinary clinical nursing that I could do before I was forced to quit all served as a strong foundation for all the herp research that came later:'

Melissa went back to school and earned her master's in education, focusing on curriculum, teaching, and learning. She did her master's project on classroom reptiles, surveying teachers in her county who kept reptiles in their classrooms. "This resulted in my writing a 300-plus-page teacher's guide to classroom reptiles-an attempt to fill the holes that I found existed in their knowledge of reptiles generally, and the care, health, handling, and the special concerns associated with reptiles in classrooms," she said. The teacher's guide is currently being beta-tested in a biology lab course by a professor who is teaching a practical lab to biology teachers.

I asked Melissa how she got started with herps. "I started working with the oiled birds taken in after the American Trader oil spill in Huntington Beach, California, in February 1990. By November, my immune system crashed, limbic system dysregulated, and, among other resulting problems, I became radically allergic to everything with fur and feathers. Between those months, I had started working for a wildlife educator, doing vertebrate taxonomy programs in classrooms."

Several months before Melissa started working there, the USFWS had dumped five wild-caught Burmese Pythons confiscated from a smuggler on the educator. The pythons were truly wild, hissing and biting and generally making themselves incredibly unpleasant to everyone who so much as tried to clean their enclosure. "My boss asked if I wanted to try taming a couple of them. One thing I'd been doing for her involved socializing several different mammals and birds for her. I thought, 'How different could this be, working with snakes?' so I said, 'Sure!'"

"Christened Bertram and Lillian, both tamed and socialized very nicely. Dummy me, I didn't realize that it was a way for the educator to get rid of two wild and nasty snakes. That was fine, though, as Bert and Lil became great education snakes. Lillian had to be euthanized a couple of years ago, but Bertram is still going strong - big and strong."

Raising two growing pythons led Melissa to want a snake that would stay a more reasonable size. She settled on a Sonoran kingsnake. "I then decided I'd like to include something with legs in my education group. I had been working with an adult iguana that, as a rescue taken in by the educator, needed some extra TLC. I took him home and fostered him over the summer. It gave me an opportunity to live with what seemed to me to be a big iguana - 9-inches from snout to vent."

In the fall of that year, at the monthly herp society meeting. Melissa met someone who was selling two hatchling iguanas. Holding one hatchling throughout the lecture, "that sleepy little thing no longer than my thumb won my heart as he periodically awoke and tested my thumb to see if it had turned into a leafy green yet. J managed to go two days before calling the fellow to see if he still had that baby, which he did. Some of your readers may be familiar with or have even met him. I named him The Flying Wallenda, or Wally for short. By the end of his first year, he was bigger than the iguana I had been fostering."

Overcoming Adversity
They diagnosed Melissa's husband with inoperable lung cancer the same day they diagnosed her with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) and Fibromyalgia (FM). He died three weeks later. "He was more of a mammal and bird person, as reflected in our being owned by nine cats, two dogs, two parrots, and whatever birds and mammals I was rehabbing for the wildlife facility I was doing volunteer work for. He was not thrilled when I started bringing reptiles home. Eventually he went from not wanting to be home when I fed the pythons to wanting to watch me feeding the hatchling kingsnake." As Melissa began volunteering for the herp society, doing educational outreach and giving lectures, people started calling her with questions and animals in need of homes. Within a short time, her three snakes and an iguana became more snakes, more iguanas, chameleons, other lizards, amphibians, and invertebrates.

By this time, Melissa's immune system had become seriously hyperactive, forcing her to stop working with wildlife rehabilitation, performing behavior observation at the zoo, and going to vet tech school. "I shifted my interest in biology, health, and behavior from the furred and feathered to the scaled and began researching herp natural history, ecology, and health."

When kids complain that their folks won't let them have herps, joke that I had to wait until my mom died before I could have any. I didn't really, it just happened that way. She couldn't stand to be around anything that wasn't spelled d-o-g. I can only imagine how she would not have handled well my having herps. My dad is sort of getting it - "Oh, er, people are interested in reading about this stuff?' My brother still doesn't."

When I asked Melissa about her health, she said, "I have highly variable functional capacity; and when I overdo it, I collapse physically with high levels of pain. Unfortunately, it doesn't rake a lot to overdo it. So, I have to he very careful in setting priorities so that I can finish the things I need to do for myself, then for others. Thus, it is a better use of my energies to put things up at my website where lots of people can access and use them, rather than answering questions by e-mail or phone. That's also why I urge people to do more research and contact others who are knowledgeable about herps, especially species I know less about than others do.

"Due to my worsening allergies to mammals, birds, and, especially, fumes and chemicals, I have been very limited in being able to go out. This also means I can't visit friends who have mammals and birds and that they have to be very careful about what they are wearing when they visit me. I can become very ill when I do go out, even when wearing a filtration mask and taking allergy medications. As a result, I've been forced to keep a very low profile, which is a major reason why I don't go to the various hemp events around the country."

When asked how many animals she has, Melissa said, "I am currently down to only seven: an iguana, blue-tongued skink, Ball Python, two Desert Tortoises, a Chaco Tortoise, and Vietnamese Leaf Turtle. When I became too ill to care for my colony of education herps, I began adopting them out to others, most of whom do many education programs. It was very hard for me to do, as I strongly believe that when you take in an animal of any kind, you commit yourself to it for its entire life. At my worst/highest point. I had 53 herps, including 22 iguanas at one time - 17 of them being sexually mature males. Of course, breeding season lasted a long time around here!"

On the Web
In the computer world, Melissa has been noted for her website. I asked her when and how she got started. "I started in 1993 on Prodigy, then AOL and CompuServe, and later in rec.pets.herp. Soon I realized that they were asking the same questions repeatedly. I was spending time typing the same responses again and again, so l got smart and started keeping copies of my answers in files on my computer. Eventually I started formatting them like short articles, with some growing into longer articles. I wrote a few articles for herp society newsletters. I started writing many articles in my role as newsletter editor for the local society, with the longest single article becoming the kernel of what is now my 43-page iguana care, feeding, and socialization article. Before I got my own website going, several very kind herpers out there put some of my articles up at their websites. The articles I wrote appeared in herp society newsletters both in and outside the U.S. and uploaded into BBS and websites.

"My first website started in 1994 at Sonoma State University. I ran into a slight problem as, at that time, they allowed students only 1 Mb of space. My initial upload of well more than 150 articles far exceeded that. The SSU Department of Education kindly gave me permission to store all my pages on their server. The Biology Department at SSU got wind of my site and asked me to migrate it to their server. By that time I had started developing my present location. The new site went online in late 1995 and has been growing almost monthly, with more than 9,000 hits a week visiting my Herp Care Information Collection since they set up my visit counter in June 1996. To make it easier to communicate the web address, I recently got a domain name,, and created a sort of container page for all my main pages. Those who don't know what 'anapsid' is can find out by going to that page:'

Melissa's website and all the information that she provides for free remain her primary "defense" against excessive e- mail loads. "Reading the articles or using the referrals there can answer 99 percent of the e-mail I get at my site. I hope that the huge volume of e-mail is a sign of excessive zeal and a wish for instant information gratification, rather than an indication of how poorly some people read and research information. To me, researching and digging is half the fun of keeping and learning anything new."

As her health permits, Melissa will continue the site, following the same eclectic pattern of subject matter she has since its inception. "My article collection is as much a reflection of my herp, humane, and environmental interests as it is a reflection of what I know or feel is important about herps and herp-keeping."

Looking Forward
Talking with Melissa, I had to ask her what kind of changes she wants to see in the herp world. Melissa said, "I am so disgusted at what I see in the pet trade and increasingly in the herp trade: cheap, disposable reptiles, sold without regard to whether the buyer has any clue about caring for them or even being able to afford them. They directly relate in that many lack the time or interest in providing what the herps need or are unable to financially provide what their animals require. So we get reptiles starved, sick, hypothermic, stressed, injured, and deformed.

"I would also like to see a mammoth shift in the way the various animal and humane agencies view reptiles. Too many of them still react like the public: 'Ewwww... it's just a reptile! Why do you care how they are kept! It's not like they can feel pain or fear or anything.' We live in a country where they can haul you up on charges for abusing prey animals but not the pet predators. There is still a disturbing tendency to buy animals such as iguanas, large monitors, boids, and chameleons knowing that one probably cannot keep them. Unfortunately, most buyers don't realize just how large these animals can grow. Rescues, herp societies, and animal shelters are euthanizing them because there is no room for all of them. There is something inherently wrong with this picture. So many herpers justify their herp keeping on the basis that they are conserving species that would otherwise be destroyed in the wild, hut if they are killing them through neglect, avarice, or ignorance in captivity; what's the difference? Unnecessarily dead is still unnecessarily dead.

"Herpers, especially many old timers, are a free-wheeling bunch. The average herper today hardly falls within the stereotyped bearded-biker-with-beer-belly-and-tattoos image (though many of us are tattooed) still widely held by the public. There remains in many an unwillingness to address the complicated issues involved in taking herps out of the wild or breeding and keeping herps in captivity. Ultimately, changes may affect their ability to keep what they want and where they want. Thus, we continue to see the right-to-own being placed above the fates of the crates of crushed chameleons, feces-flooded iguanas, and stressed out, sick, and injured herps that are passing through customs week after week for sale."

"Other animal hobby/breeding interests eventually realized that self-regulation had to come about or the government(s) would do it to them. How long until enough herpers realize that protecting the herps, educating the public and lawmakers, and keeping herps are not mutually exclusive?"

I asked Melissa what her plans for the future are: "Taking care of myself is at the top of my list, along with enjoying my critters. Trying to keep covered the word 'sucker' that apparently is tattooed on my forehead is another goal, at least for now. I am working on a book on iguana care and will eventually see if there is any interest in getting my teacher's guide to classroom reptiles published. Writing has become far more difficult for me as the neurocognitive disorder scrambles my gray matter, so I've learned not to impose time limits on myself I try to take life one day after the other."

Dolly Ellerbrock has been a herpetoculturalist over 20 years and co-founded the Pittsburgh Herpetological Society. She and her husband, Herb, reside in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and share a mutual interest in snakes, iguanas, and Komodo dragons

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