Thursday, August 30, 2001

Reptiles create pet peeves

Experts warn that when you bring these creatures home, they can grow into a big problem

By Rekha Sharma
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Damien Oxier, herpetologist at Arrowhead Reptile Rescue, handles an albino Burmese python.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        CJ Chase's green iguana, Juana, likes to give her kisses and understands a few simple commands in sign language. It defends her children from aggressive dogs and enjoys pizza as an occasional treat.

        For her, Juana is an ideal pet. But Ms. Chase, who trains the iguanas at Arrowhead Reptile Rescue in Cincinnati, says too many of the animals at the facility have been neglected, abandoned or mistreated by people who didn't know how to properly care for a reptilian pet.

        Arrowhead's director, Damien Oxier, says his office handled 110 cases of reptile abandonment last year and even more this year. The number is often higher in the late summer because fairs sometimes give reptiles away as prizes or because kids going back to school can no longer care for their pets.

        More commonly, reptiles are abandoned because people are unaware that a reptile that could fit in a person's hand as a baby can grow to be as large as an adult human. An 8-year-old Pittsburgh girl who was strangled by a 10-foot Burmese python — one of five pet snakes found in the family's home — died Friday after two days in a coma.

        People have no idea how large snakes, iguanas and alligators can get, says Mr. Oxier.

        “They go into the pet store and they see this tiny, itty-bitty, cute iguana for 10 bucks,” Mr. Oxier says.

        He says American alligators can grow to be 15 feet long, weigh a ton and live for 30 years. (Tortoises can live for 150 years.) Other species exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning that the animal's size can depend on whether it is a male or female. An adult female caiman is usually 4 feet long, whereas a male can be twice that size. The problem: When buying a baby reptile, there's no easy way to determine its sex.

        Dr. Nick Saint-Erne, director of quality assurance at PETsMART Inc., says the Phoenix-based chain no longer sells green iguanas, monitor lizards or other animals that can grow to be bigger than a foot. He says most reptiles they sell can fit in a 20-gallon tank.

        “We reviewed different species of all pets,” he says. “We have chosen pets we feel do make good pets and are easy to take care of and do not grow into Jurassic Park size animals.”

        People often buy reptiles on a whim because of their uniqueness, says Jan Dietrich, school services coordinator at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

        “If that's the only reason they got it, it's not going to work out because it's an ego thing,” she says. “Impulse buys are just awful.”

        She says parents sometimes buy reptiles for their children because the kids like the way the animals look or because they have seen them on television.

        In the early '90s, Ms. Dietrich says, turtles became popular with children because of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, cartoons and merchandise. Since then, educational shows have given kids a better understanding of animals' true behavior.

        “We had kids holding their turtles up on their hind legs and making them walk,” she says. “I'm hoping that with all the TV programs that show animals as they really are, kids are seeing what's real.”

        Reptiles also require less attention than many other pets do, which is another reason for their popularity.

        “Reptiles, compared to cats or dogs, are actually lower maintenance pets that don't require as much space or time,” Dr. Saint-Erne says.

The finer points

        While they don't make much noise and live for a long time, reptiles do have specific diet and habitat requirements.

        Reptiles aren't expensive to maintain, Mr. Oxier says, but start-up costs can be high for a first-time owner.

        Because they are cold-blooded, reptiles must have a carefully controlled environment. Heat lights or heat rocks are needed to keep many reptiles warm. Tropical reptiles need a highly humid habitat, while those from the desert should not have too much moisture.

        Many reptiles need natural sunlight to process vitamin D , so UV bulbs set on timers are also important. An appropriate enclosure is also necessary to the safety and comfort of the animal, and owners should consider whether there is enough space to move, climb and grow.

        Reptiles have specific nutritional requirements as well. Some snakes need to eat live mice; others eat toads, fish or insects. People often try to feed lettuce to their pets, but Ms. Chase cautions that iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value. She says iguanas, for example, need a varied diet consisting of collard greens, mustard greens and other calcium-rich vegetables to prevent a bone disease similar to osteoporosis.

        Owners should also make sure their veterinarian knows how to care for exotic reptiles. Dr. Saint-Erne, who used to practice veterinary medicine, says most veterinarians can only treat dogs and cats.

        “You can't even take a hamster to most vets,” he says.

Get facts straight

        Sometimes a snake or other reptile can escape from an enclosure that isn't secure, says Andy Mahlman, office manager for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Northside. But whether the case is one of neglect or escape, educating the owners is the first step, he says.

        In Pittsburgh last week, Amber Mountain was found on her family's kitchen floor with the pet Burmese python wrapped around her neck, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The snake apparently escaped from its tank. The attack happened Aug. 22.

        Dr. Saint-Erne says people should research any pet before purchasing it. He says PETsMART has information sheets customers can study to learn how to care for their pet or to consult when deciding which reptile to buy.

        But many reptile owners say pet stores are not the best place to start when researching the animals.

        Walter Williams, president of the Greater Cincinnati Herpetological Society, says pet shops don't supply enough information and usually misinform people.

        Mr. Williams says he gives 40-50 lectures a year to church groups, schools, libraries, and police and fire stations. He says he has offered to lead free seminars at pet stores, but no one seemed interested.

Sales people don't know

        Most of the employees at pet stores, he adds, don't know enough about reptiles to educate customers.

        “Half of the stuff that leaves the pet stores ends up coming to me anyway,” he says, noting that he has to rescue two or three snakes a week as well as alligators and caimans.

        Mr. Oxier suggests that prospective reptile owners talk to experts, read books and look for reliable information on the Internet. He recommends Melissa Kaplan's Web site at or Ms. Kaplan's book Iguanas for Dummies (Hungry Minds Inc.; $21.99).

        Reptile owners should also be aware that federal law prohibits the buying or selling of turtles under 4 inches long due to problems in the 1970s with children swallowing them and contracting salmonella. Mr. Oxier says they are still being sold, however, because there are no agencies to enforce the law.

        Cincinnati has a dangerous and deadly animals law, but Mr. Williams says the policy is vague because the determination of what animals it applies to is subjective. He says even venomous snakes can be harmless when handled properly, but animals without venom can become aggressive, too.

        He says he often is called by police departments and zoos to pick up reptiles and says he is encouraged “to keep things hush-hush” to prevent people from panicking.

        “A lot of times it really upsets me because the public needs to know some of that,” he says.


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