Yesterday Gypsy and I spent several hours cleaning the cages of our reptile family and taking time to interact with each of them along the way. It was a lot of work but at the end of it, it was also incredibly rewarding and though it left us tired and ready for bed, it also left us with a sense of almost Zen like calm.
During the day, during one of our breaks for tea, I was perusing my wall on Facebook and noticed that someone had posted a video from an animal shelter somewhere. The video showed a Belgian Malinois joyfully celebrating the return of the family that had surrendered it there, only to switch to the dog’s utter dejection when it turned out that having only given up the Malinois a few days before, they were apparently there to adopt a different dog.
I swallowed my anger, my building rage, the bitter feeling in my stomach, I closed Facebook, put some music on through Pandora and did not look at social media again until much, much later.
Let me start by saying that the Belgian Malinois is not for most people, in fact it isn’t even a dog suitable for a large minority. The Malinois is a creature of intelligence, great will, strength, stamina and the relentless pursuit of its job, and if you are not capable of giving it a job, it will find one and I almost guarantee you that you will not be pleased by the choice it makes.
So, the be all and end all is that this family, with their young children and busy schedules were not the right fit for that particular dog, but the time to find that out should have been BEFORE they purchased the dog, before they allowed it to fall in love and gain trust in the family and before they betrayed that trust by abandoning it at a shelter.
A ten minute internet search would have yielded a dozen stern warnings of what dogs like that are like and what the requirements are to keep them happy, safe and out of trouble. The information is available to anyone, but some people think that the rules don’t apply to them, or worse, they don’t care, because it is “just a dog”.
But it isn’t just a dog, just as our little rescued leopard gecko Simone is not just a lizard, or our beautiful rescued Columbian red tail Usnavi is not just a Boa, no, these are commitments, living creatures that once you purchase them, rely on you for their welfare.
Are you failing them?
About half of our reptiles are rescues. Rescues from all manner of circumstances, but the most common one, is that they have been abandoned. They were purchased with the idea that they were neat, a novelty, something trendy or out of the ordinary to have as a pet and with the market such that many exotic animals can be had for a song, they are easy to view as disposable.
But these are living, feeling, thinking creatures.
I am going to repeat that.
They are living.
Let me hit you with some facts.
Ball pythons can live up to 30 years in captivity. As a matter of fact there is one documented male that is still living and thriving at 40.
Leopard geckos average 6-10 years but there is a male still living and breeding at 27.
Corn Snakes can easily live to nearly 20 years, some more than that.
Umbrella cockatoos can live 60 years and many large parrots can outlive us.
Sulcata tortoises average 50 to 150 years but can live much longer than that.
But all of these animals I have found available today on my local Craigslist.
So, they have been purchased, the shine has worn off and like a used car, an overplayed video game or an impulsive purchase like a purse or a motorcycle, the owners are now trying unload them and recoup some of their expense.
But for every one of the snakes, lizards, turtles, birds or what have you that ends up getting a second, third or fourth chance with different families, there are dozens, maybe hundreds that simply wither away, starving to death or dying of easily treated diseases because their owners didn’t want to spend money on vet bills.
And since snakes, lizards and what have you can be had so inexpensively, the attitude is that they are really not worth all that much, and so are by and large, disposable.
Life, isn’t disposable.
I am going to use one of my favorite kinds of animals as an example.
This is a picture of me holding an sub-adult male Savannah Monitor (Varanus exanthematicus). This particular monitor belongs to a local pet store and his name is Larry. As you can see, Larry is puppy dog tame, very sweet, and handsome and has already been through three owners, not counting the pet store.
Larry is a terrestrial monitor species from the plains of Africa, he will grow to between 3 and 5 feet in length, he requires a minimum enclosure of about 6×6 feet with enough sandy soil for him to dig, and burrow in, and will require heat in the form of uv bulbs that will five him basking spots in the 120 degree Fahrenheit range. He will eat pretty much anything offered him from rats and mice to fish, birds, raw poultry, snails, insects, I mean all kinds of things and if he is taken care of properly, he can live more than 20 years.
Baby Savannah Monitors are available at almost every reptile show we attend and they are seldom more than $20 to $30.
So every year, thousands of beautiful baby Savannah’s are purchased by people with little to no reptile experience. They are taken home, placed in the wrong kind of enclosure, fed the wrong diet, they aren’t given substrate that they can dig in, they are not kept warm enough, and when they are not worked with correctly they can become (or remain) fearful and aggressive and a bite from a monitor of Larry’s size could very easily remove a digit or put you in the hospital needing stitches.
Thousands are sold every year, but where are they all going? We know that there are not thousands of new ones growing to thrive as adults out there in people’s homes each year, so that leaves us with only one solution, they are dying because of improper care.
I adore Larry and would simply love to give him a home with us, but I don’t. I don’t because I cannot afford to do it properly. I do not have the space, the enclosure, the budget for food, nor to purchase additional specialty lighting that he would require, so I leave him, where he is, hoping that someone who CAN afford those things comes along and gives him a good, healthy, and happy home.
Here we sit, right before Christmas, right before the biggest commercial holiday in our country and I am asking you, no, I am begging you, that unless you are experienced, equipped and knowledgeable animal keepers, do not purchase any animals, or especially reptiles as gifts.
Our best guesses are that at least 80% of reptiles sold as pets are not living a full, healthy life and at least 50% of them aren’t making it through their first year without dying, being rehomed or becoming ill.
We have a beautiful Yellow Rat Snake. His name is Salazar and he is my familiar, my buddy and one of my biggest inspirations.
He was produced as a breeding animal, but he turned out as an adult to be an escape artist and spent much of his time with his owners (a petstore) as an escapee, wandering their shop where he acquired some nasty scars and some trust issues. His owners gave him up because he was relentless in trying to escape, he was too active and was just too much trouble.
Salazar has been with us over a year, has never escaped a single time. He is very intelligent, especially for a snake, he is charming, very docile, easy to handle and is easily one of the coolest snakes in our collection and all of those things made him intolerable to his previous owners.
It makes me angry and it makes me sad, it makes me frustrated, often to the point of tears that we cannot stop placing ourselves upon these pedestals where we think that our lives are so important but the lives of these other, beautiful and magical creatures are simply disposable entertainment.
These are not stocking stuffers, they, are, lives!
Take care of yourselves, and be kind…