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Weighing in on the Scales

When it comes to reptiles, placement isn’t always the best option

When it comes to reptiles, placement isn’t always the best option

Fads like piercing, platform shoes, and sideburns may be hard to look at, but they generally do no harm. But the passing popularity of certain pets—unless they’re of the Chia variety—can have major consequences for the animals involved and the shelters forced to care for them once their owners give up.

This is nowhere more true than for the thousands of lizards, snakes, and turtles languishing in ten-gallon aquariums across the country. The average retailer selling reptiles knows little about the care requirements of these animals; it follows that the average buyer is equally uninformed. The sad result is that more and more of these animals are finding their way into shelters, presenting those who work there with unfamiliar challenges in care and placement.

Most shelters are not prepared for the four-foot iguana or the ten-foot python; even a twelve-inch long hatchling reptile can be a housing problem when your entire facility is configured for lovable mammals that bark or meow and eat food that’s available at every supermarket in the U.S. The strangeness of the cold-blooded and scaly forces most shelters to manage as best they can: the python ends up on a towel in a bank of cages, with a heat lamp clipped to the front bars, and the staff rushes to find somewhere to send him before he gets hungry and locks himself in the rabbit and guinea pig room.

Believe me, I’m not being critical of the dedicated people in shelters, or of the ACOs, SPCAs, or other catchy combinations of letters that form the alphabet of animal protection groups. But the animal care and control community is realizing that nontraditional animals kept as pets are a growing problem. Whether it is reptiles, parrots, sugar gliders, monkeys, or prairie dogs, these critters bring with them special needs that most pet owners can’t meet.

One serious consequence of the reptiles-as-pets fad is the accompanying rise in cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), during 1994 and 1995, health departments in 13 states reported cases of unusual strains of salmonella bacteria where people had direct or indirect contact with a pet reptile. More than 93,000 cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis occur each year.

More than 20 years ago, the importation of aquatic turtles with shells less than four inches in length—and their subsequent sale as pets—was prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration. This step was taken to reduce young children’s risk of exposure to salmonella through handling and caring for mass-marketed baby red-eared sliders sold at local five-and dime stores. But with almost 800,000 iguanas imported in 1993 for the pet trade, the scenario is unfortunately repeating itself.

The symptoms of salmonella infections can be as simple as diarrhea. But infections can be more serious, even life-threatening. In October of 1995, a three-week-old Indiana boy died of salmonella that was eventually traced to an iguana in his home. In January 1996, 50 visitors to the Denver Zoo who touched Komodo dragons or their enclosure were stricken with a virulent strain of salmonella; eight people were hospitalized.

The great majority of reptiles sold in the pet trade are captured in the wild and imported into the United States. In 1997, for instance, 1.7 million live reptiles were imported—and all reptiles carry salmonella, as it is a naturally occurring intestinal bacterium in their bodies. Therefore, not only direct contact (such as handling an animal) but indirect contact (such as cleaning a cage or handling food and water containers) is a potential point of exposure to salmonella. The risk does not disappear with captive-bred animals either; salmonella is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate in any reptile.

The CDC has urged veterinarians and pet-store operators to advise potential and current reptile owners of the dangers, and of the importance of strict sanitation and hygiene procedures when dealing with iguanas and other reptiles. Anyone working in a setting where the public and reptiles come together should be helping to get the word out. As advocates of responsible care for animals, shelters are ideal purveyors of critical information that helps the public make safe choices.

For staff caring for sheltered reptiles, careful hygiene and cleaning is crucial. Whenever you handle an iguana or its cage, always wash your hands afterward. Keep the animals and their cages and equipment out of food preparation areas; do not soak a shedding animal in the kitchen sink; do not clean cages or other equipment there either. Keep reptiles away from people who have increased risks for salmonella infection, such as pregnant women, children under five, and people whose immune systems aren’t working at full capacity. Remember that after contact with any reptile, the handler is capable of spreading bacteria to other people. Use materials for caging and bedding that can be effectively washed and disinfected. Handle materials contaminated with reptile feces carefully, and dispose of dirty bedding or fouled water.

Education and training may help avoid problems with salmonella and reptiles. And although keeping a reptile as a pet requires the same foundation of owner commitment and responsibility that is necessary for more traditional companion animal species, the specialized needs of reptiles as a group can prove difficult to meet in the average household. Nutrition requirements, temperature range, behavior patterns, adult size, veterinary care, disease and parasite problems, enclosures or cages—all are very different from those of a cat or dog, combining to create a frustrating and troublesome mix for owner and animal alike.

Unfortunately, I have seen over and over again that the majority of people who acquire the exotic, the odd, and the novel as a pet find themselves unable to care for that animal. Just as with dogs and cats, there are unwanted reptiles. And for shelters, the difficulties of proper care require serious consideration when it comes to reptile placement: How can shelters ensure that placement won’t just continue the cycle of suffering? Should shelters even attempt to adopt them out? Should they place them with or through a reptile specialist? Should they search for a sanctuary? Should they euthanize them?

Shelters need to consider the history that led the animal to end up where he is. He was sold in a store, bred in a backyard, or otherwise traded; in order to ensure that placement doesn’t just put the animal back into the position of being a “commodity,” he can’t be placed with a breeder, or with someone who will sell or give him away later. Sanctuaries that exist only to provide a haven for animals to live are few and far between. Though everyone knows someone who can do this well, when you add all those people up, you still get only a handful of genuine experts who are truly capable of providing proper care. Unfortunately, when it comes to reptiles, placement is often not the best solution; there are simply too many reptiles and not enough people who know how to humanely house, feed, and nurture them. And organizations that try to educate the public about reptile care by using live animals in teaching programs can unwittingly be part of the problem, providing an image of reptiles that is hard to resist.

It’s always difficult to decide to euthanize an animal who is suffering only because of human stupidity, who’s in a strange and uncomfortable place because his own unique beauty made him momentarily attractive to a culture obsessed with newness and coolness. But after many years of taking care of animals, all I know is this: I’m responsible for their lives. I’m the one who has to make the decisions for them. And so I cannot rule out euthanasia as a tool in dealing with the final disposition of any animal. If I cannot provide or ensure a life of humane and appropriate care, euthanasia may be the only way to ensure that a reptile doesn’t endure years of suffering due to my actions—and doesn’t encourage more people to carelessly select a pet that was never meant for captivity.

Richard Farinato is The HSUS’s director of captive wildlife protection.


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