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

Emergency Planning for Reptile and Amphibian Collections

Susan Donoghue VMD, Nutrition Support Services. Reptile & Amphibian Magazine, Jan/Feb 1995


Will you be ready when disaster strikes? I thought I was. I've even published articles on disaster preparedness for owners of dogs and cats, but a few days of the "Eastern United States 1993-1994 Winter-From-Hell" almost destroyed my reptile and amphibian collection. Perhaps my experience will help you to be ready when a Winter disaster knocks on your herp-room door.

Reptiles are a big part of both my passion for animals and my business in veterinary clinical nutrition. On our farm in the Appalachian Mountains, feeding trials are underway with 41 tortoises representing eight species (mostly Geochelone sp.), 19 iguanids (mainly Iguana iguana), eight juvenile Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps), and several day geckos (Phelsuma sp.). Plus, I have the odd assortment of herps that seem to find their way into collections. Most of my animals are diurnal, requiring light to function normally, and all require an external heat source.

Ensuring the well-being of a reptile and amphibian collection housed in a four-season climate occupies a fair share of my thoughts and time. This commitment became a nightmare last winter.


Disasters - Natural and Otherwise
Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, but I'm not talking here about an eggbound snake or runny-nosed tortoise; this article refers to floods, fires, hurricanes, and my own recent trial, a massive ice store. Few of us enjoy thinking about disasters, but animals suffer when people fail to plan. For example, scores of dogs and cats (and who knows how many herps) were let loose during evacuations following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Some died from trauma, others by disease, and an untold number from stress and starvation. Preparation would have helped to guide people into better decisions about leaving their pets inside at home with food and water, where they might have been cold and lonely but they would have been safe. Little herpetological data exist on the effects of emergency induced stressed and fasting.


Winter Emergency
When four inches of ice brought down trees and power lines, I lost lights, water, and heat at 1 a.m. on Friday, February 11, 1994. Regardless of personal hardship, my herps suffered more. Because of the dark and cold, the animals would not eat or drink. Their metabolism slowed, and if they stayed cold for a long enough time, death would follow.

After losing power, I checked temperatures every few hours in the herp room in the barn and my herp-laden office in the house. By 4 p.m., now 15 hours without power, temperatures inside were dropping below 55 F [12.8 C], so I fired up an electrical generator. It works for six hours on one tank of gasoline, so I had waited, rationing fuel until I could drive through the ice to buy more gas. An additional full can of gas would have provided another six hours of power.

Mechanical stuff is not my forte, and, although I had started the generator once during a practice run, I had not used the new machine when it was actually needed. I almost set fire to the barn by placing the generator so that it vented hot exhaust and sparks against the wood siding; the barn contained a loft filled with hay and, in a separate room, my herps. I turned off the machine while inhaling acrid smoke and pulled a hot tarpaulin away from the barn. The 200-pound generator needed to be moved and adjusted; I lacked the strength and expertise. I was shaken and, for the first time, aware that the lives of my reptiles might truly be in jeopardy.

It was a long night checking temperatures and animals. A young Cuban Rock Iguana (Cyclura nubila) stayed tucked inside my sweaters, but I had many more animals to care for. I laid awake between temperature checks, inventing survival plans in my mind. Were the roads passable or were they blocked with trees and downed wires? Where could I go with all these herps anyway? The storm had affected everyone I knew within hundreds of miles.

I came up with a plan: I'd warm up my car, then leave it idling with the animals inside until the power came back on. I ran to the car, euphoric with thoughts of warm herps. The car's battery was dead: the night temperatures dropped still lower.

By 2:00 a.m. (25 hours without power) temperatures in the reptile room began to drop below 50 F [10 C]. I evacuated everything I could carry. For the iguanas, I kept the experimental groups separated so there wouldn't be mix-ups identifying the animals. Baby Bearded Dragons went into individually numbered plastic drinking ups with lids fashioned from aluminum foil. My employees and I can usually identify each animal, but mistaken identification would destroy months of study. Most lizards went into pillow cases, with cagemates sharing the same bag; all were alive but had cold bodies and stiff limbs. Small tortoises went into boxes, while three almost-comatose Red-eyed Treefrogs (Agalychnis callidryas) were placed in a small plastic tank. All were moved to my office, which was holding at 52 F [11 C].

By first light, help arrived. My husband returned from a business trip after driving most of the night. Not only was it a noble gesture, but it meant we had a warm car with a good battery. We got to work. Seven African Spur Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata) soon filled the hatchback area, then bags and boxes were added to the seats and floors.

By 5:00 p.m. (40 hours without power) the car was still running although it was exhibiting occasional belches of exhaust, so we were concerned about its catalytic converter. As daylight waned and temperatures fell below freezing, the degree of widespread destruction throughout the area became evident. Hunched over the battery operated radio, we learned that the power might not be restored for six more days!

Most motels were either closed or booked full immediately following the storm, but we found one about 15 miles from home in a town that saw remarkably little damage. We booked a room and an hour later arrived with a credit card and 87 ectotherms ranging from a tiny Painted Mantella Frog (Mantella cowani) to a 75-pound tortoise. Deciding that these were desperate times, we didn't ask the night clerk about their pet policy and moved in under the cover of darkness.

We remained in the motel for about 40 hours. The African Spurs were barricaded on washable linoleum. All animals were kept off the shag carpeting to reduce the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals found in cleaners. Little tortoises lived in newspaper-lined bureau drawers. Two Veiled Chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) shared time on a Schefflera plant brought from home. The Rock Iguana had a tank of his own, but the other herps spent about 30 minutes each in rotating shifts inside a 10-gallon tank with food and water. Otherwise, they stayed in pillow cases, two or three to a sack. A few, such as a pair of crazed Basilisks (Basilicus plumifrons), stayed put in their bags because of the high risk of escape and injury.

Finally, 81 hours after the ordeal began, I stood in my lighted herp room, watching the thermometer climb above 70 F [22 C], and prepared for the move back home.


What Went Right
Before the storm began we had stocked 30 gallons of spring water stored in jugs, several flashlights and radios with spare batteries, two refrigerators filled with produce, and tanks full of crickets. This supply is our Winter routine - enough food to miss at least one delivery and enough water to last several days.

We kept on-hand cash and credit cards to cover emergency expenses such as the motel room and a new car battery. In retrospect, our total expenditures didn't equal the cost of even one valuable tortoise.

I kept planning, right down to the last moment. We knew that our days in a motel room with African Spurs were numbered - they're just too big for such refinements. The day our power returned, I vowed to call everyone I knew, trying to find a heated kennel or stall that we could rent for the larger animals. If that failed, we talked of loading the cars and driving south.

We took every precaution we could think of to lessen the stress on our herps. Stress depresses appetite, and fasting in warm reptiles immobilizes vital tissue proteins which weakens immune systems, enzyme activities, and organ function. The risk of disease and death grows more with each day off-feed. So, we kept the motel room warm but not hot (I didn't want my Spurs getting frisky), turned on a television softly to help block sudden startling noises, offered our own water from home to avoid chlorine and unfamiliar tastes and odors, and fed the freshest produce we could find. But few animals ate or drank.

When it was all over, we cleaned the motel room, including a thorough scrub of the linoleum. The room looked and smelled great, and no one complained. I want to be able to go there again if a problem develops, and I want the place there for other herpers as well.


What I Did Wrong
For months I meant to put fire extinguishers in the barn and the herp room but procrastinated. We now have fire extinguishers, and I bought extra gasoline for our now-smooth-running generator. I was not as familiar with the new generator as I should have been, and I underestimated the effects that stress from cold, lack of sleep, and anxiety would have on my already-feeble mechanical aptitude. Recognizing what I'm weakest at, I will compensate through practice until I get it right.

After a few days in a dark office and barn, I'd forgotten what lights and appliances had been on when the power when off. When the electricity returned we were at the motel. I walked into the house four hours later and found heat lamps on, as well as tank lights that had been piled on top of the other and pushed up against furniture in my haste to remove the animals. I realize now how fortunate I was when I watched that morning in horror as a neighbor's dwelling went up in flames. Next time, I'll unplug everything before leaving and arrange with a neighbor to call me as soon as the power returns, so I can check for lights that might start fires.

The Animals
During the disaster, I found that I practiced a form of triage, even though in good times I tend to treat all my animals as equals. Those perceived to be more vulnerable to stress and those of greater monetary value received more attention. Some were left behind when we evacuated. One chronically ill Yellow-foot Tortoise (Geochelone denticulata) stayed behind, along with two pen-mates; I wouldn't risk disease transmission to my other animals. After one day, however, I moved them into a second motel room booked by a relative, where they could be warm but isolated. They're doing as well as they were before the storm. Because I couldn't locate them, day geckos were left behind. Four lived free in my herp room: two Phelsuma standingi survived and two P. madagascariensis died. Four P. laticauda and P. guttata lived in the house in planted terraria, and all survived. I also left behind seven obese Australian Bell Frogs. They're fine, hungry as ever.

Of the animals evacuated, one Mantella Frog died. Some that I thought might be fragile, such as the newly hatched Paradoera pictus, seem fine today. The female Veiled Chameleon is due to lay eggs any day. She is not eating yet and is losing visible muscle (due to the mobilization of lean tissue) but is drinking water. Her mate is healthy and vigorous.

Each animal received an individual inspection upon return. No wounds or lacerations were found. All of the tortoises received warm water soaks.

Twelve iguanas on feeding trials had been weighed the morning that the storm struck. We weighed each one as it was unpacked from its pillow case and after three days of recovery. During the four days of fasting, daily weight loss averaged 0.18% of body weight. Following three days of recovery, daily weight gains were not statistically significant (paired t-test). The data suggest that nutritional intervention was not yet necessary by day four of the emergency, for the animals neither lost a significant amount of weight during the emergency nor gained a significant amount of weight during recovery.

Data is not available for reptiles, but for human nutrition support is recommended following acute weight loss of 10% of body weight. The large bowel of iguanas (and tortoises) is adapted for hindgut fermentation, so this carries much water and fiber (a source of calories), and may have helped to prevent weight loss and serious dehydration.

We were especially worried about the six-week old Bearded Dragons because of their relatively high activity, short digestive tracts with more hydrolytic than fermentative digestion, and low intakes of food and water while stressed. They had been weighed two days before the storm, one day after the emergency ended, and then two days later. Daily weight gain averaged 0.62% of body weight during the emergency, then 2.63% during recover. In contract, the daily gains during the previous six weeks averaged 3.29%. The difference between the pre-emergency gain and emergency gain in weight was significant (P=0.00043).

Most refused to eat or drink voluntarily during the first 81 hours of the emergency. The cold and darkness experienced during the first few days took a toll on the animals. Confinement in bags - sharing strange and close quarters with cagemates - was undoubtedly stressful. If the evacuation continued another day or two, we would have considered involuntary feeding and, more importantly, fluid administration.

Upon return, after four days of stress, all herps were rested for five to seven days. Feeding trials were suspended temporarily, and all were offered a wide variety of fresh foods with our rehabilitation premix added. The premix provides nutritional balance, with emphasis on high quality protein and those nutrients known to be affected by stress (such as zinc and vitamin C).

Much that I learned sounds like a cliché: we've heard it all year on news interviews following hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Don't underestimate the power of the weather. One cannot over-prepare for disasters. Aim for self-sufficiency, because others may not be able to reach you. Remember that you'll have other concerns on your mind, in addition to your herps. You may be responsible for young children or elderly neighbors and, I hate to say it, you may have to opt for your own survival and leave your herps behind.

Whether you evacuate with or without your collection, try to ensure the safety and comfort of your animals. Confinement helps to prevent injury from falls or wounds from fighting. Our data suggest that hindgut fermentors may tolerate several days of fasting. Individuals which are very young and growing rapidly, and those which digest food with relatively more hydrolysis (such as Bearded Dragons), may not be as tolerant. Water is critical for all species; provide access to drinking water or moist substrate at regular intervals. My experience suggests that a few days of food and water deprivation in previously healthy animals did little lasting harm and recovery is likely for most herps. For myself, I will be just a little bit longer recovering from the stress of this emergency.


Emergency Preparedness

Safety First.
The safety and well-being of your herps are your responsibility. Double-check all equipment. Do you keep a fire extinguisher nearby? Can you access an electrical generator?

Water and Food
Have enough water to last for several days, stored in non-breakable containers approved for food use; some plastics are unsuitable. If your herps are accustomed to eating daily or every few days, keep extra food on hand, too.

Keep a Kit
Maintain a waterproof emergency box filled with cloth bags, tape for sealing bags, marking pen for identification, flashlight and batteries, hand warmers, pocket knife, first-aid kit, and phone numbers for your veterinarian, emergency personnel, insurance agent, and attorney. Keep the box in a place where you can access it quickly.

Post a Note
Post a large, legible notice in a place in your home likely to be seen by emergency personnel or neighbors, such as a back porch. List your animals, stress their harmless nature if appropriate, and include the location of each animal and its needs. For example, for frogs, stress their need to be kept moist. For most reptiles, emphasize the need for gentle heat. Include phone numbers of relatives or others who could be contacted for help or further information. If you evacuate, leave a phone number and address where you can be reached.

Plan Ahead
Start planning now, so you will know what to do in an emergency. Where would you evacuate? What would you take? Discuss escape routes with your family. If you could not leave, how would you and your herps survive? If you travel with your herps or you must leave them behind, how would you secure, feed and water them? Plan for a disaster that strikes while you are away from home. Make plans for someone else to care for your herps, and keep simple written instructions handy.

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