Guidelines for Responsible Herptile Ownership: What everyone should know before buying or selling a reptile.
The popularity of herpetoculture, the keeping and breeding of amphibians and reptiles, has skyrocketed in the last 25 years, in part, because of the great accomplishments of hobbyists in determining the requirements for successfully keeping and breeding these species. Unfortunately, a side effect of this popularity has been increasing reports and criticisms of irresponsible behaviors and animal neglect by reptile owners. The following article addresses several topics related to successful reptile ownership. Their message can be summarized as follows: Think before you buy. Knowledge is power. Strive to do the very best. Take orders, both human and nonhuman, into consideration.
Before buying, Research and Read
Herptiles are ectotherms (cold-blooded), and to successfully keep them in captivity requires a certain base of knowledge. Being warm-blooded mammals, humans do not have a natural propensity for understanding the needs of reptiles. Fortunately, a great deal of information about the subject is now available.
In the last 25 years, herpetoculturalists have acquired and accumulated an extensive base of interdisciplinary knowledge on how to successfully keep and breed close to 200 species of reptiles and amphibians in captivity. This has resulted in many good books on the subject of reptile and amphibian care being offered in stores of through internet book sellers. Additional information can be found on various web sites, although some common sense may be required to sift through the mish mash of sites, many by overnight self-made “authorities” who spread a range of fallacies and myths (e.g., true chameleons should always be kept singly, any amount of animal protein is bad for green iguanas, unfounded statements regarding the UV requirements of different lizards, etc.)
In any case, there is no getting away from the fact that you will have to read up before you buy any animals. It may well turn out that after your initial research you will discover that the eventual size of the species you are considering, its behavioral propensities and/or its husbandry requirements may not make it suitable for the conditions you can provide.
Reptiles and the Law
An important aspect to selection is to be aware of state and local regulations with regards to owning various reptile and amphibian species.
If you have an interest in keeping native species, contact your state fish and game agency and request their regulations regarding the collecting and keeping of those species. If your interest is in exotic species, contact both your state fish and game agency and your county or local animal control agency to find out about any restrictions on reptile ownership. In many areas, this information can now be found by doing a search on the internet. Another good source for this kind of information is to contact a local herpetological society.
As a rule, stores of breeders that sell reptiles in your area will usually only offer species that are legal to own. A good general information source regarding regulations that restrict reptile and amphibian sales, ownership and transport is the latest addition of John Levell’s Reptiles and the Law.
The responsible selection of a species is the most important first step any reptile keeper will take. It will pretty much determine the rest of your obligations as a reptile keeper. Because improper selection is probably the number one cause of reptile-related problems, this is the factor I will emphasize most. It is also the area that requires the most forethought and research.
A herptile’s appearance is usually the first feature that attracts a prospective owner. Something about how they look appeals and generates a certain level of fascination. Reptiles and amphibians are just about the neatest, most beautiful things on earth; they’re like living art. But appearance alone should not dictate whether or not you should own a certain species. Other factors must be considered, such as the size a species may attain, its captive requirements and the difficulty of its care.
Probably one of the most important criteria for selecting a species is size. How big will it get? As a rule, small to medium sized reptiles are generally much easier and affordable to house and maintain than larger ones. Some species of lizards and snakes (e.g., anoles, leopard geckos, western hognose snakes) can be kept in enclosures as small as a 10-gallon aquarium (but a 20-gallon, at least, would be ideal.) Popular medium sized species, such as bearded dragons, Uromastyx, various skinks and most of the larger captive-bred colubrids, will require at least a 48-inch enclosure to be kept properly.
Turtles, as a rule, require large enclosures and can be labor intensive to maintain. Most of the popular water turtles sold in the pet trade, such as red-eared sliders, painted turtles and soft-shell turtles are among the most demanding and expensive of the reptiles to house properly indoors. Adult specimens will require at least a 48-inch tank, as well as filtration systems and/or water draining/replacement systems.
My advice when selecting an enclosure is to design an environment that will be a pleasing and aesthetic addition to you home, yet still provide the animals inside with a high quality of life.
It has become clear to me that most reptiles and amphibians, to be provided with a high quality of life, require larger enclosures than usually recommended, as well as more enriched environments. That’s the general rule; small to medium-sized aspecies are usually better suited as pets for many people, rather than larger species.
On Large Reptiles
There is a place for large reptiles in society and they are suitable pets for the right person, much like other large animals some of us keep as pets, such as certain breeds of dogs, pot-bellied pigs, horses, goats, large macaws, geese and emus.
The problems with large reptiles, however, can be summarized as follows: Although most start off small they will eventually grow to a hundred times or more their initial body weight by the time they are mature adults. This growth rate is difficult for people to imagine. After all, human babies raised under good conditions typically grow to between 20 and 25 times their initial body weight.
The adult size achieved by large reptiles such as green iguanas, Nile monitors or African spurred tortoises will require that you provide them with enclosures or pens the size of at least a small room. If you can not afford to provide a room-sized enclosure then you should not choose to own large reptiles.
Because of their size, larger reptiles have a low relative surface-to-volume ratio (relatively little skin area for their size/weight) compared to small reptiles. Keeping them adequately heated and lit under indoor conditions will require spotlights and heat pads often totaling several hundred watts. A primary cause of death of all large reptiles, whether green iguanas, monitor lizards, large constrictors or large tortoises, is inadequate heat. Many of these commonly die of respiratory or kidney disease after they reach a large size.
Most large reptiles eat and defecate amounts corresponding to their size. Performing water changes with species such as large monitors or large turtles that tend to defecate in their water containers may have to be done several times a week. In closed quarters, the amount of fecal matter and associated smell can generate another kind of problem.
Large reptiles can become difficult to handle and some species can present certain risks to the handler. When handling large lizards, untrimmed claws can inflict lacerations. Aggressive large lizards, such as some sexual-onset male green iguanas, can inflict serious bites that can require emergency medical treatment.
Adult giant snakes require the learning of certain procedures and the presence or assistance of one or more people during handling or maintenance. (See “Guidelines for the Responsible Sale and Ownership of Giant Snakes, located in separate thread.) Some large water turtles can inflict painful bites, and once they exceed 50 to 60 pounds can prove problematical to move without help or some type of dolly.
To put this in perspective, large reptiles present some of the same problems as other large mammals. They require space, eat and defecate large amounts, and like dogs, cats, large parrots, emus, farm animals and others, can inflict serious bites or lacerations. The heaviest species can also prove difficult to handle or move.