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Reptiles & Amphibians in general
Member Name: LittleEwok
Reptiles & Amphibians in general
Date: 29/12/04, updated on 02/02/05 (5099 review reads)
Advantages: very interesting, can be rewarding
Disadvantages: expensive outlay, animal welfare concerns.
Around the early to mid nineties there was a massive surge of interest in reptile and other unusual pets. Ordinary “pet superstores” like Pet City carried exotic creatures like iguanas, tarantulas and chipmunks.
A lot of kids (including me) longed to be part of this new ‘pet craze’ and begged their parents for snakes and lizards as new pets. At eleven years old, I got my wish (after ages of whining), my parents gave in and bought me Sampson, a gorgeous baby green iguana.
What people don’t often realise about reptile pets is that, when compared to mammals, the babies grow much larger proportionately to the size they are as infants. Baby iguanas are often no bigger than geckos, yet some grow to six feet long, and can be highly aggressive. The pet shop people didn’t tell us this, what they said was, reptiles are like fish, if you keep them in small tanks they wont grow, and full grown iguanas are only a couple of feet long. Apparently tales of deception like this were common in pet shops. Baby Indian pythons were sold as “ideal beginners snakes”, what the little tags on the tank forgot to mention is that these “beginners” snakes could reach eighteen foot in length, and whilst in expert hands could be as tame as puppies, in the wrong hands they could spell disaster. Boa constrictors which can reach 12 foot were re-named “red-tail boas” so unsuspecting parents would buy what they thought was a small boid snake for their kids or teens.
Worse still were the tales of neglect behind these stories. While the common species of reptile are now captive bred, two decades ago this was not the case, we didn’t know enough about most species to replicate their breeding requirements in most cases, so the majority were wild caught…causing devastation to wild populations and massive stress to creatures who were born in the wild and were, essentially, still wild. They were stuffed in crates with other of the same species, or possibly of predator and prey species, tonnes of them squashed into a box. Over 80% of all wild caught animals (this includes birds, tropical marine fish, and other animals) die on their way to the pet store, and the remaining ones often die of stress or stress-related illness. These reptiles were then sold to pet shops, who often had no idea how to care for them (we were told that green iguanas would live happily on a diet of all-bran, weetabix and pinkie mice, when in fact they need a very expensive array of fresh vegetables plus vitamin and calcium supplements), and often stuck different species in tanks together, or too many of the same species, causing fights between them which might result in the loss of limbs. Prospective owners were told that reptiles were easy to care for pets, were often given the wrong food and housing requirements for each species, and were told that reptiles could be kept in ordinary all-glass aquariums (when in fact, most reptiles don’t realise glass is there, and would frequently run into the glass walls of the tank).
Anyway, this is the tale of Sampson. Fortunately for Sampson, I hadn’t taken the advice of the pet shops “Weetabix and pink mice” diet and knew that green iguanas were entirely vegetarian. Unfortunately for me I didn’t know that green iguanas need very specialised diets, and I went on to feed Sampson a diet of ordinary salad ingredients plus fruit. After a few months I noticed that Sampson was growing rather big for his two-foot fish tank, so I invested in a four-foot one instead.
Imagine my consternation when Sampson KEPT growing, and more importantly, my parents consternation. Luckily for me, I had handled Sampson daily since I bought him, so he was very tame, because soon he was over four foot long, had a tail that could probably break a childs arm and a very painful bite. I purchased a book on green iguanas and found out, again to my dismay, that Sampson could grow another two feet, needed a much more specialised diet than I was offering him, and could become very aggressive during the breeding season as an adult, no matter how tame he was now. I also learned that, cared for properly, he could reach twenty years old…twice what the age the pet shop employee had quoted me.
My parents tried their hardest to make me get rid of Sampson, but despite all this disturbing new information about him, I refused to get rid of him. Despite the fact that I wasn’t caring for him the way I should, he had become very attached to me and often followed me around the house like a big dog and lay in the garden sunbathing on my lap.
They told me if I wouldn’t get rid of him then I’d have to start caring for him properly, spending the necessary money to provide for his needs properly, and doing it out of my own pocket money, and when I was older, my own part-time job. So I went about converting the unused garage in our garden into a suitable home for a full size green iguana. This involved weeks of carting all the crap out of the garage, lining it with waterproof sheeting, and creating huge shelves, and carting massive tree branches into the garage for him to climb on. I had to install (with the help of my dad), heating equipment, lighting for Sampson to bask, adequate ventilation, the whole shebang.
I also had to start forking out for proper food for him. Iguanas need specialist greens which are high in calcium and low in phosphorus such as kale, and weird stuff it was hard (and expensive) to get hold of. Still, I was determined to look after him properly, and it has paid off. A few years later, Sampson is fat, healthy and now quite old, and is now living in a spare bathroom in the shared flat I occupy…the cheeky bugger even has his own tub. Fortunately for me I learned early enough that my mistakes could cost Sampson his life…if I had continued to feed him on a diet of limp cabbage with no mineral supplementation he would probably have MBD…which is a sort of lizard form of osteoporosis.
A few years on from this huge reptile craze, there are now hundreds of abandoned reptiles, in particular big iguanas and large boid (boas and pythons) snakes, looking for people to take them on. Iguanas have fared particularly badly, and even worse in America, where up until a while ago you could win them at the fair like goldfish (I’m not sure if this is still legal). People seem to think that just because a particular animal isn’t cute and cuddly, we don’t have a duty to protect and care for it as best we can.
Fortunately things are much better these days. The fad is over and most reptile owners are experienced and responsible, they are serious hobbyists who know everything they can about their species requirements. The only reptiles that tend to be kept as ‘casual’ pets are the particularly friendly ones with easy care requirements like leopard geckos, corn snakes and bearded dragons, as opposed to complicated to look after species like iguanas. These day, you will not find reptiles for sale in your ordinary pet store, you have to go looking for specialist breeders and shops, who will usually advise you against keeping a reptile unless you are totally committed…this prevents the “nag” factor resulting in parents buying their children unsuitable pets.
Currently, because I now have knowledge of how to care for them, I often end up taking on unwanted reptiles…I currently keep bearded dragons, lacertas, geckos, chameleons and a few small boas and pythons. The amount of abandoned reptiles seems to be getting lower as people have realised they are not the pets for everyone, but unfortunately I still have too many people calling me and asking if I have the expertise to deal with an 18 foot python (which I don’t).
If you want a pet reptile, and you really are serious about it, then I will not give you any more discouragement…I will simply weight up the pros and cons and point you in the right direction.
Reptiles make good pets if you are interested in nature. They are, with notable exceptions, not very handle able pets, so they are more for watching and observing their interesting behaviour patterns. They make good pets if you live in a flat and arent allowed anything furry. They also tend to smell less than mammals, so long as they are cleaned out frequently. They are of course, always a talking point for visitors. Snakes in particular have lower metabolisms and require less feeding, so they often work out cheaper (however the initial set-up of tank and heating equipment is expensive). If you truly want an unusual pet, then some species of of reptile might just be right for you!
On the other hand, no matter how tame they become, they are not really pets for cuddling. With a few notable exceptions like the bearded dragon, they will only tolerate and not enjoy handling by their keeper, and even this tolerance will come after many months of being bitten by your new charge. They ALL have very specialised feeding requirements. Most snakes in captivity are fed on rats and mice. You cannot feed them live rats and mice, not only is this inhumane but your pet can get injured by a scared rodent. Rats and mice are bought frozen…this means you have to keep them in the freezer along with your chicken wings. A lot of people cant handle the idea of feeding cute, furry, frozen rodents to their charges, so they prefer a pet lizard.
Lizards, in my opinion, in general seem to get along with people better…snakes just learn to tolerate you. However, most lizards eat insects, and this is not very appealing either. This means you have to keep a tank of crickets and a tub of king mealworms at least, and if you want your lizard to have a varied diet, you may also need to feed it waxworms, silkworms and cutworms (moth larvae), unbleached maggots from the fishing shop, snails, any insects you find around the house, and even cockroaches (you can buy special feeder cockroaches from reptile shops. Unfortunately these are one of the most nutritious reptile foods…and the most likely to escape and take over your house). Feeding all these means you have to get used to the idea of handling and keeping creepy crawlies in your house, the inevitable odd escapee (usually crickets), and the very loud, irritating chirping sound adult crickets make (although you can get around this by only buying young crickets, by buying “quiet” crickets which don’t sing loudly, or, and I disagree with this because I think its rather cruel, tearing the crickets wings off). Large insect eating lizards will also be benefited by the occasional feeding of pinkie mice (day old mouse pups). There are vegetarian lizards, but they tend to be large and difficult to care for, like iguanas.
Aside from all this, in general reptiles have high care requirements. If you don’t get the heating, lighting and humidity in the cage just right, they will get very ill. Their food also needs to be spot on, otherwise they can get ill. Their slow metabolisms mean they can go on suffering with illnesses for many years without the owner realising they are in real pain. Some reptiles are also very reluctant feeders, as they may be used to different food in the wild (for example, ball pythons eat gerbils in the wild and may find it difficult to adapt to eating mice instead), and it is not uncommon to find “anorexic” reptiles who literally starve themselves to death instead of eating a food they are not used to.
Lastly, the setup for even the most common pet reptile is rather expensive. A shop-bought vivarium (fish tanks are NOT suitable) will cost anywhere from £60 up, and homemade ones will be cheaper but wood is still expensive. You will also need a way to heat the tank (either specialist incandescent reptile bulbs, heat mats or a ceramic heater), all of which are pricey, a thermostat for the heating equipment, specialist UV lighting if your species requires it, and furniture and substrate for the cage. Also, some reptiles will eat you out of house and home...a single baby bearded dragon will eat around 80 crickets a DAY. That is a lot of crickets and quite a lot of cash. if you use ceramic heaters, they use a lot of power and bump up the electric bill quite a bit.
If all THIS hasn’t put you off from wanting a pet reptile, here are a few good first reptile pets…
Corn snake- these snakes have been domesticated for some forty years now, and if there is a real “pet” reptile, this is probably it. They reach a maximum of six foot long, but are usually around four. Normal coloured corn snakes are beautiful animals, bright orange and black, but there are millions of different colour varieties available, from albinos and “snow” corns to “ghost” and “caramel corns”. The suggest tank size for an adult is three foot long by one foot wide by one foot deep, and they feed happily on mice from the local reptile shop.
Garter snakes- easy to care for but hate being handled…they have scent glands and will happily “musk” you like a skunk does or bite you when you handle them. They are very interesting to watch if you provide them with something to swim in though! They vary in size but are usually quite small. They will be happiest if you provide them with a semi-aquatic terrarium…that is, you give them something to swim in. This can either be done by making a “pool” out of a sturdy plastic receptacle, or literally building a river bank and submerging a part of the tank in water. Garter snakes will learn to take mice as food, but their natural food is fish, small lizards, small amphibians and earthworms.
Ball or royal pythons- These are beautiful snake which look like miniature versions of their giant cousins, Burmese pythons. They reach a maximum of five foot in length. They are quite easy to care for in captivity, but make sure you get a captive bred one. Sometimes they may be reluctant to feed, so you might want to get used to an easier species like a corn first. They are also very shy and prefer small tanks, or they will feel very exposed and refuse to feed or come out of hiding!
Certain king snakes or milk snakes- This is a big family of similar snakes. Good starters are Californian or Floridian king snakes. Milk snakes are tri-coloured king snakes, they are gorgeous, scarlet with bands of red and white along their bodies. They require a cage about three foot long, depending on which species you buy. They have to be kept one to a cage as they eat other snakes. In captivity they will learn to eat mice, although I believe their natural diet is snakes, lizards and amphibians.
The leopard gecko- Leopard geckos are pretty, easy to care for and handle, and nice and small. They will do well with a single gecko in a two foot tank, any more than two and you will need a three foot tank. They will dine on suitably sized crickets, locusts, king mealworms, other invertebrates and for larger individuals, day-old pink mice. They don’t require UV lighting as they are nocturnal, so a heat mat and a red incandescent bulb will do them fine.
Bearded dragons- Larger and friendlier than leos, they are a favourite in captivity. They are around eight inches long (from snout to base of tail), and very friendly and comical. They will eat the same as leopard geckos, but are omnivorous so need to be provided with vegetable matter as well. They are desert lizards which require lots of humidity, and a specialist fluorescent tube light that gives of both UVA and UVB rays. Adults need big cages, a single pet needs four foot of tank length, two or more will need a viv five or six foot long.
Blue tongued skinks- A particular favourite of mine, these are slow-moving, docile and ponderous lizards, they look sort of like very short, fat snakes with legs. An adult in captivity needs at least a three foot-by two foot long vivarium. They will eat insects, pinkie mice, vegetable matter, bits of cooked white meat, and even the odd bowl of low-fat cat food.
The above species are relatively easy to care for and friendly, with the exception of garter snakes. I must say, I really enjoy keeping lizards, but I don’t really agree they are “pet” animals. Dogs and cats are pets, exotic desert lizards are not. So if you are looking for something to sit in your lap and watch TV with you, I’d choose a cat, not a lizard. If the reason you want a reptile is to impress or scare people, you will soon learn there is nothing impressive about having an aggressive giant snake wrap itself around you, or having to clean up the considerable mess a green iguana makes. If you genuinely are interested in an exotic reptilian creature as a pet, then check out plenty of books and website on your chosen species, make sure it is suitable for beginners, and start by checking your local rescue centre (also the Proteus and Ark reptile rehoming sites), instead of adding your hard-earned funds to what is, in all reality, a rather questionable industry.