By Carolita McGee

My love for reptiles started with a snake bite. I know that seems a bit odd, but when I was a child, I lived surrounded by the forests of the Appalachian Mountains in Poconos, PA. Almost daily I would meet these critters, especially when playing in the woods. One day, my father surprised me with my first interaction with a garter snake, (aka garden snake). When I was ready to handle it, the snake bit my hand, startling my dad since I bled & it hurt a bit. After releasing the snake back to its forested home, my dad turned to comfort me, but instead of crying, I was laughing. Is that strange? All I know is from that moment on, I had a particular soft spot for snakes. Today it’s still my most favorite land animal. It was love at first bite.

After 7 years of working in the pet shop industry, I learned that most animals, especially reptiles & amphibians (aka herps), shouldn’t be pets. But the industry is unfortunately still thriving. I won’t get into too much detail on my opinion of the pet industry, but if you’re still jonesing for a herp as a pet, adopt, adopt, adopt! Don’t shop! There are countless reptiles & amphibians that are under the care of sanctuaries, shelters & foster parents that need good homes.

The most important thing you must do before taking the adoption step is to do your research. Do some reading on the animal you’re interested in adopting. Will this companion fit your lifestyle? Do you have the time to care & yes, even give attention to these scaly or slimy critters? Can you provide the space required? Can you financially support their appetite? Would you be able to feed the carnivores live animals or even help kill their meal? Once adopted, he/she is your child to care for, for the rest of his/her life. Herps should be cared for much like a furry critter should.

These magnificent animals deserve the very best care, since most that are in shelters or sanctuaries cannot live life in the wild. Therefore, their habitats must be comfortable, at the very least. Even the smallest herp should have enough room to roam comfortably & their habitats should match their native environment as much as possible.

In the past, I’ve helped pet shops become quite successful in selling their reptiles & amphibians, but meeting the quota wasn’t my secret. It was putting the animals’ lives first, above everything else. This, in turn, made customers very happy & loyal to shopping at the stores I worked at. Happy, healthy & a long living animal = a happy customer. Living in a cage or terrarium is not ideal for any animal, but I made sure each critter went home with the very best set up & care sheet. I even gave my personal phone number, just in case the customer changed their mind. This led to me adopting 31 pets of my own & finding homes for many others. Most were reptiles. I hope, with this information I’m providing, I can help minimize this problem.

Below is a basic, but intricate list to follow:

*Their habitats should resemble their natural surroundings as closely as possible. So a desert reptile shouldn’t be housed in a habitat that is tropical & vice versa. Once I had to set up a terrarium for these tiny, tropical frogs called mantellas. I was so proud of my finished product. It was as if I took the tropical rainforest & shrunk it to fit the glass case. There was moss covering the sides & back of the terrarium, which they loved to hang out on or hide in. I created a constant mist with a fish pump, tubing, etc. A UV light was placed on top of the mesh lid for day time light & vitamin D. They had a pond with rocks to chill on, etc. This is just one example of how I first read up on the natural habitat of these animals & tried my best to recreate it for them while living in a confined environment.

*Heat lamps & pads should be positioned at a safe distance from the animal. Keep an eye out for possible burns on top & the bellies of animals. I’m not a fan of heat rocks since there’s really no way to adjust it so that the animal doesn’t burn itself.

*If you witness your pet(s) rubbing their noses or scratching on their cages/terrariums, it’s simple communication. It wants out! It’s not a happy pet. You have to make changes to their habitat &/or take them out to stretch & roam a bit. This must be done with precaution. You must make sure wherever you take them is secure & safe from escape, or from other animals that may attack them. Make sure you keep them safe from hiding in dangerous, hard to reach spots. When I had reptiles as pets, they went out for daily walks/stretches. Even my smaller critters were let out, like my 12” (with tail) bearded dragon. She lived in a 2 story ferret cage, but she still couldn’t wait to get out to roam the yard, where she would run through the grass blades catching wasps & munching on dandelions.

*Provide your pet with a sufficient amount of vitamin D via their meals & sunlight. Another way is using a lamp that provides the necessary UVs. When taking them out to sunbathe, again if out of their cages, make sure the area is reptile proofed. Do NOT ever have them sunbathe in their glass terrariums or plastic containers. You’re pretty much putting them in a hot oven. A wire cage is fine, as long as they have access to shade & fresh cool water to escape the heat every once in a while. Of course, never leave them unattended as they can burn &/or overheat causing severe injuries, even fatality.

* Many collectors & breeders house their snakes in drawers set up in columns & rows. This is not how a snake should be kept. Whoops, I probably stepped on some toes, I know it. Many species of snakes, like pythons & boas, can reach incredible lengths & weight. Some snakes only reach 4-6 feet in length. It doesn’t matter. They all require much more space than a drawer. Yes, there are those that have snakes housed in smaller set ups & they’re healthy, but that doesn’t mean it is the correct way to keep a living being. Again, a snake shouldn’t be a pet, but if you adopt one, get ready to give them some room. Some species may require you to sleep on the couch while it takes over your room! I’m not exaggerating, I knew someone who kept his enormous albino reticulated python in 1 of the rooms of his house! Do your homework & make sure you can provide a snake with all that it deserves & more.

*There are lizards that can grow to considerable size, such as monitors & iguanas. The same as snakes, these big babies require a lot of space & care. My 4 foot, disabled green iguana had a section of the yard to himself. We built a fence with a gate, he had his own tent which included a heated mattress pad, lots of blankets that I had to wash often, specific plants that he could eat & hide in, a bathtub, a big shallow bowl of water, & was fed like a king. Even with all this provided to him, he had his moments when he wanted out of his “room”. This is why I feel these animals belong in the wild to roam freely. Granted, he wouldn’t have survived as a wild animal, but his instincts were to roam freely. When it was safe, he was allowed to roam the rest of the yard & also inside our apartment, which satisfied him. We’d also go for walks in the park, which was quite the treat for him. Finally, I gave him warm baths to help him shed & poop when needed. My iguana was spoiled til his last day & he deserved every bit of it.

*Those reptiles that are more aquatic than others should always have a large platform where they can take a break from swimming & bask under their heat lamp & UV light. Again, the heat lamp should be positioned at a safe distance. A couple of examples of these types of reptiles are slider turtles and basilisk lizards. They also require a lot of room to swim. An ideal setup is an enclosed pond with lush surroundings. Yup, I only do elaborate set ups for these critters.

*Reptiles that require a vegetarian diet should be fed a wide variety of vegetables & dark greens. Many owners think reptiles, like some tortoises & iguanas, just need some sort of lettuce & 1 fruit, if that. They require way more than that, such as a shallow bowl (easier to get to their morsels) filled with kale, collard greens, bananas, apples, carrots & squashes. There are exceptions – desert tortoises require way more grass, dark greens (kale, collard greens, spinach) & weeds, less of some of the hard veggies & moist fruit. There are some carnivores that also require a salad to go with their meals.

*Many of these critters are carnivores. This can be a tough one for potential herp parents. Some require live food such as mealworms, fish, & rodents of different sizes. There may be times you will have to help your critter & kill its meal first before wiggling it in front of him/her to snatch up & grub. Make sure this is a job you can handle.

*Always do a thorough check up of your herp pet(s). Look for any type of scale, mouth or nose rot (white pus, scales look dull, dry). Look out for weight loss, loss of appetite, discoloration. Snakes sometimes have trouble shedding, especially their eyes. Some soft skinned lizards, like leopard geckos, may have skin hanging around their toes or tails. Do not attempt to help pull the skin off. You can easily make things worse by pulling off their toes or tails or cause permanent damage to a snake’s eyes. Amphibians may spend too much time in the water or even struggle swimming.They may also show skin blotches. It’s always best to take them to a veterinarian if you see anything unusual, rather than trying to figure it out yourself if you don’t have the experience.

In closing, always do your homework to see which herp would work with your lifestyle. Take the time to visit the sanctuaries or shelters to get some one on one experiences & ask any questions you may have about their care. Take your time & remember, adopting a pet is for its entire life. If you find yourself in a situation where you will not be able to care for the pet anymore, contact the sanctuary or shelter you adopted it from first. Usually, they take the pet back. Otherwise, contact other sanctuaries or shelters. Do not post free ads where anyone can take this pet, not understanding its full care, & provide it with a miserable life. Also, be aware of people who would want to use animals to do more harm than good. Otherwise, I do hope for a long, happy, slimy, hard shelled, &/or scaly relationship for both you & your new companion(s).

Carolita McGee’s (aka CrtrGrl) bio: