No, Honey, You Can’t Have a Lizard

bearded dragon

When I was a kid, my father and I drove up to the mountains west of Denver for the day. On the way back, we stopped in the town of Dillon for some ice cream. There’s a lake by the highway there and, after eating my ice cream, I wandered around the water’s edge looking for critters. Within a few minutes, I had captured two sleek leopard frogs and asked my dad if I could keep them. At the time, I had a growing collection of reptiles and amphibians, so he acquiesced fairly quickly. I wish he hadn’t.

That fall, after having kept the two frogs pretty healthy, I foraged outside for some bugs to feed them. The frogs preferred earthworms, but I liked to mix things up for nutritional variety. Under a rock in the backyard I found some armadillo bugs, so called for the gray armor covering their tiny, oval bodies. I tossed a few of them into the frogs’ terrarium and was delighted to see Sherman and Trumpet (I have no idea why I named them that) devour them. I tossed in a few more. Then, about an hour later, both frogs began vomiting blood.

Within two hours they were dead.

The Sad Truth About Animal Survival Rates

I had no idea at the time that the sharp armor from the bugs would lacerate the insides of my beautiful frogs. Nor did I know what to do (other than call a clueless pet store owner) when the shit hit the fan. At the time, I was way better educated about “exotics” than most 10-year-old kids. But I didn’t know enough. And that is precisely why I had no business bringing those frogs home. The fact is, most Americans have no idea how to care for the millions of reptiles and amphibians we purchase at PetSmart and other retailers every year. Reading some random webpage (often authored by hobbyists or the pet trade) about your new bearded dragon isn’t likely to prepare you for its host of environmental, nutritional, and psychological needs.

The result of our being ill-informed is that, according to a 2017 report in the journal Veterinary Record, three of every four reptile pets die in the first year after purchase. And that’s after 72 percent of them die before ever making it to the pet store, according to the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. Back-of-the-napkin math tells us, then, that only seven of every 100 reptiles bred or captured for sale survives the first year as a pet. If that happened to puppies or kittens or ferrets, we’d be in an uproar.

For Biologists, Not Hobbyists

Now, I owned a big assortment of reptiles and amphibians when I was a kid. I did my research and worked hard to provide nutrition and environments in which they could thrive. Later, in my thirties, I built another collection of exotic reptiles, including two Amazon Basin Emerald Tree Boas, a Children’s python, and an eight-foot-long boa constrictor named Sheba. When I started my second collection, the Internet allowed me to order any animal I wanted online and have it delivered to my doorstep. I spent thousands of dollars on enclosures, heating pads, full-spectrum lights, misting systems, nutritional supplements, and frozen rodents. With that huge investment and endless hours of research, I managed to have a good track record with my pets. Still, it was a constant challenge. Tree boas require an appropriate perch, high humidity, and only eat at night. Bearded dragons need a variety of foods including fresh fruits and vegetables—as well as nutritional supplements like calcium. Kenyan Sand Boas require ample, clean substrate in which to burrow.

After 20 years, I found caring for my reptiles just too time-consuming. So I donated them to a local biologist who uses reptiles in his educational seminars on animals. He was happy to inherit the collection; and I was happy to see the animals cared for by an expert.

Anacondas grow to 17 feet long and can eat large mammals. They’re not suitable as pets.

But that’s the problem. Almost nobody who buys these pets is an expert. Yet that’s what most of these animals deserve for a decent life. Case in point: When I was working in a pet store during college, a young man brought a horribly emaciated seven-foot green anaconda into the store. The snake was nearly dead. Its desiccated skin was literally peeling off its body. The guy wanted to give the snake to us because he couldn’t get it to eat.

“What have you been feeding it?” I asked.

“Crickets,” he responded. “Just like the guy at the pet store told me.”

For the record, anacondas are some of the largest snakes in the world, reaching lengths of 17 feet or more. They require enormous enclosures, high levels of humidity, and prefer to soak in water most of the day. They eat lizards, birds, and small (or large) mammals. They most emphatically do not eat crickets. So this clueless fellow starved his snake to death. What was he thinking?

Yes, reptiles and amphibians are fascinating animals. But they aren’t suitable pets—no matter what the weird lady with the iguana or the rollerblading dickhead with the boa on his neck happen to say. My opinion on keeping exotics has arrived at this: I do not believe the general public should be allowed to own them. Educators and those with a legitimate role in conservation should, of course, be licensed to keep such animals, so long as they have sufficient credentials and training. The rest of us should stick to domesticated animals like cats and dogs. Period. If regulations move in this direction and some little girl is denied having a gecko for a pet, good. The gecko will likely be spared a terrible death and the girl will be spared watching her new friend slowly wither and die. That’s a win-win.

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