FEATURE ARTICLE BY CAROLITA McGEE
HOW TO CARE FOR HERPTILES (AMPHIBIANS AND REPTILES)
Note from Trees for Tigers: One of the most rewarding consequences of starting our company a year ago is the privilege of meeting some incredible people doing incredible things. One of these people is Carolita McGee. We met online while campaigning for a mutual cause and soon realized that our approach to improving animals’ lives was very similar—basically “taking action to effect change.”
Carolita is unique in that she has had a special connection with animals and nature starting at a very young age. Her lifelong connection to nature continues with her husband, an underwater photographer, who shares her curiosity and appreciation for ocean creatures as well as land dwellers.
At our request, Carolita offered to share her knowledge about the little-known and extremely important requirements in the care of captive herptiles (amphibians and reptiles). We have witnessed (as you have possibly as well) many distressing situations with these animals in captivity, mostly due to the animal growing too large for it’s cage. After many years of experience with these animals, Carolita believes that reptiles in general and snakes in particular should not be pets. Unlike domesticated animals like cats and dogs, reptiles cannot thrive in a captive environment such as a home or condo. So if you own one or more of these animals, or if you know someone who does, please read Carolita’s article describing the best possible care that a human can give to a pet reptile or amphibian.
HOW TO CARE FOR HERPTILES
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:
- Cry of the Kalahari (Part 1 of a Trilogy), by Mark and Delia Owens
“This is the story of the Owens’ travel and life in the Kalahari Desert. Here they met and studied unique animals and were confronted with danger and drought, fire, storms, and the animals they loved. A unique story by traditional researchers for both travelers and animal lovers alike.”
- The Eye of the Elephant (Part 2 of a Trilogy), by Mark and Delia Owens
“Expelled from Botswana for writing Cry of the Kalahari, the Owens’ set off across Africa. They settled in Zambia, where they soon found their peace shattered by the gunfire of elephant poachers. This is the story of the couple’s battle to save the elephants and their own lives.”
- The Secrets of the Savanna (Part 3 of a Trilogy), by Mark and Delia Owens
“In this riveting real-life adventure, Mark and Delia Owens tell the dramatic story of their last years in Africa, fighting to save elephants, villagers, and…in the end…themselves. The award-winning zoologist and pioneering conservationists describe their work in the remote and rugged beautiful Luangwa Valley in northeastern Zambia. There they studied the mysteries of the elephant population’s recovery after poaching, discovering remarkable similarities between humans and elephants. A young elephant named “Gift” provided the clue to help them crack the animals’ secret of survival. A stirring portrait of life in Africa, Secrets of the Savana is a remarkable record of the Owens’ unique passions.”
- Ranch of Dreams by Cleveland Armory
“The renowned animal lover shares the heartwarming stories of the various animals that inhabit the Black Beauty Ranch, animals that have been saved from death’s door, from chimpanzees and elephants to buffalo, prairie dogs, and cats.”
- Beyond Words – What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina
“I wanted to know what they were experiencing, and why to us they feel so compelling, and so close. This time I allowed myself to ask them the question that for a scientist was forbidden fruit: “Who are You?” “Weaving decades of field observations with exciting new discoveries about the brain, Carl Safina’s landmark book offers an intimate view of animal behavior to challenge the fixed boundary between humans and nonhuman animals. In “Beyond Words” readers travel to Amboseli National Park in the threatened landscape of Kenya and witness struggling elephant families work out how to survive poaching and drought, then to Yellowstone National Park to observe wolves sort out the aftermath of one pack’s personal tragedy, and finally plunge into the astonishingly peaceful society of killer whales living in the crystalline waters of the Pacific Northwest.”
- The Photo Ark – One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals by Joel Sartore and National Geographic
“The lush and unique photography in this book represents “National Geographic’s Photo Ark, a major initiative and lifelong project by photographer Joel Sartore to make portraits of the world’s animals – especially those that are endangered. His powerful message, conveyed with humor, compassion, and art: to know these animals is to save them.”
- Saving the White Lions by Linda Tucker
“In this captivating, suspenseful memoir, conservationist Linda Tucker describes her perilous struggle to protect the sacred White Lions of South Africa from the mafia-like trophy-hunting industry. The story begins with a heart-stopping vacation gone wrong: Tucker and her companions find themselves stranded on a dark night in the Timbavati bushveld, a pride of angry lions closing in. Miraculously, a local medicine woman appears, calming the lions and helping the group escape….Compellingly written in the intimate style of a journal, the book describes with unflinching honesty all of Tucker’s hopes, fears, and dreams, recounting an unforgettable tale of adventure, romance, spirituality, and most of all, justice.” See website at https://www.whitelions.org
- Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
“Named the best book of the year by multiple book reviewers. Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury and disease from harrowing to manageable. But, when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.” This transformative book appears to be transformational insofar as elaborating the “big three” threats to an again aging population and how they relate to confined, rescued animals throughout the world. Boredom, Loneliness, and Helplessness represent major potentially fatal physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological threats to both animals and humans alike.
- A Street Cat Named Bob – And How He Saved My Life by James Bowen
“This instant classic about the power of love between man and animal has taken the world by storm….When street musician James Bowen found an injured cat, whom he named Bob, curled up in the hallway of his apartment building, he had no idea how much his life was about to change. He slowly nursed Bob back to health and then sent the cat on his way, imagining that he would never see him again. But Bob had other ideas.’
10. THE BOND – Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, by Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States
In countless fascinating ways, our relationship with animals is an essential part of the human experience. Now, one of the world’s leading champions of animal welfare offers a dramatic examination of our age-old bond to all creatures. Pacelle reveals scientists’ newfound understanding of animals’ remarkable emotional and cognitive capacities as well as describing animal cruelty in its many varieties that still exists today.
11. THE HUMANE ECONOMY – Animal Protection 2.0, How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers are Transforming the Lives of Animals, by Wayne Pacelle
From the leader of the Humane Society of the United States comes an inspiring frontline account of how individuals’ conscience and creativity can address society’s widespread of mistreatment of animals by bringing our moral values in line with our business practices, the “humane economy” is driving a revolution that is changing forever how we create wealth and treat our fellow living creatures.
13. ELEPHANTS ON THE EDGE – What Animals Teach Us about Humanity by G. A. Bradshaw.
“Elephants on the Edge is a wide-ranging, passionate, well-researched, and urgent call to action. These magnificent, intelligent, and emotional giants
Are quintessential poster animals for the wounded world in which we live.
Read this book, share it widely, and please do something to increase our
compassion footprint before it’s too late. Healing demands collective cross-cultural action now.” Marc Bekoff.
14. CARNIVORE MINDS – Who These Fearsome Animals Really are by G. A.
“This exploration into the lives of carnivores offers two messages. First,
If conservation only preserves wildlife numbers and bodies without tending to wildlife minds and societies, then it will fail. If they survive, elephants,
grizzly bears, and orcas will exist as mere shells unless their souls are nurtured. The second message hits closer to home. For by vanquishing myths that mask the true identity of carnivores, neuroscience reveals a disconcerting truth; it is not the bear, shark, or crocodile who possesses the villainous qualities of which they are accused, but our own species. The terror does not lie without, but within.” G.A. Bradshaw
15. THE ELEPHANT LETTERS – The Story of Billy and Kani by G. A. Bradshaw
“Every child that reads the very moving story of little Billy and Kani will be
able to relate to the fact that “Elephants are just like us,” which is
something that Dr. Gay Bradshaw has publicly stated. To this I would add
“in fact, better than us,” for they can teach us Humans a great deal about caring and nurturing, and also about forgiveness.” Dr. Dame Daphne
- Blog by Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of Humane Society of the United States. To subscribe, go to https://blog.humanesociety.org
Pacelle writes a daily blog that will keep you informed of all that is happening in the world with animal welfare.
NOTE: Update February 2018: This blog is no longer written by Wayne Pacelle, as he has resigned as President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States due to accusations made against him. Unfortunately, the animals could not cast their votes, and they lost a friend and 30+ year advocate. Human ego (and it comes in all genders) again strikes a blow at any positive changes the animals on this earth desperately need. The blog is being continued by Kitty Block, Acting President of the HSUS.
In Jan. 2016 Tom Knudson published an article after an investigation for Reveal, the publishing arm of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. The article describes modern-day fur trappers, their methods, and the international market for our wildlife comprising more than 20 species and most recently– bobcat pelts. If you care about wildlife, please read this fascinating article at https:/www.revealnews.org/article/americas-trapping-boom-relies-on-cruel-and-grisly-tools.