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There was a time, not so long ago, when very little was known about keeping reptiles in captivity. Only recently have we begun to understand their needs well enough to allow them to be kept as pets by the average hobbyist. As this revolution has occurred, said reptiles have gone from being mere captives (as the early literature referred to them) to being pets. For many people, categorizing reptiles with cockatiels and goldfish may be hard to accept. One only needs to spend a few minutes in a reptile store to see that the patrons really do derive great pleasure from their reptilian family members.
One of the main reasons for having pets is to gain a sense of companionship from the animal. When it comes to reptiles, the keeper already has the cards stacked against them in this department. Most reptiles have no way of expressing affection in the same way as a dog or cat. However, this does not mean that they do not learn to recognize individuals, and gain some sort of behavioral enrichment from regular handling.
If you own a reptile, chances are that you got the animal with handling in mind. As a reptile shop employee, I can attest that the vast majority of first time buyers are looking for a friendly, handleable pet more than anything else. Although there are some situations in which certain animals are purchased purely for breeding or as display animals, the goal of this article is to introduce the reader to the basics involved in handling reptiles that are maintained primarily as pets, for which the goal is to foram a keeper-pet relationship.
All Herps are Not Created Equal
Remember that reptiles, just like any other live animal, have individual personalities. Although there are, in general, some species that take better to human contact than others, there is still some variability between individual animals, even of the same species.
Nile Monitors Varanus niloticus, are notoriously feisty animals that seldom tame down to an acceptable level for most people. In my opinion, these are animals whose natural beauty and mystique are best enjoyed from a distance. However, I have seen one or two specimens that have been absolute puppy dogs, allowing their owners and strangers alike to handle them casually. Likewise, I have seen a number of bearded dragons, often toted as the world's tamest lizard, that have had nightmarish temperaments. I still think beardeds make great pets, but it just goes to show that with animals, there are exceptions to every rule.
One must also remember that temperament varies from each individual animal. When you see a person walking their dog on the street, you usually ask first if it is friendly before reaching down to pet it. Just because the dog you see is a golden retriever much like the one you had growing up, does not ensure it's placidity. There are nice golden retrievers and there are those that are not so nice. Likewise, there are some ball pythons that are calm, cool, and collected straight out of the egg, and others who will even as adults be reluctant to relax around people.
Some individual animals are better suited as companion animals than others. Depend on your reptile dealer for help in determining the pet potential of a given animal. Remember, they've seen many more of these animals than you probably have, and they are pros at reading their behavior.
Thinking Like a Reptile
Unlike dogs, cats, or even hamsters, reptiles are not domesticated animals. For the most part, they still have a lot of the "wild" in them. The best thing that we as keepers can do is to understand the instincts and behaviors of reptiles, and use this information to help us interpret their actions.
Most hatchling and young reptiles have a distinct fight or flight response, with very little middle ground. In the wild, these small animals are prey for a variety of larger creatures, and have little in the way of actively defending themselves. They depend mostly on keeping a low profile in order to survive. So what happens when you lift up the hide box from on top of your baby carpet python? Well, for starters, the animal is going to immediately realize that another organism has discovered it. Upon sensing you large size and unfamiliar scent, the baby will assume a defensive posture, tightly coiled with its mouth agape and head raised, following your every movement. If you still haven't been frightened off by a few lunging bluff strikes, then the snake will resort from fighting to flight. It will quickly slither off to find a new, more secure hide out.
This and similar behaviors have been ingrained into these animals for millions of years. The reality is that a few generations of captive breeding are simply not going to eliminate these behaviors. So, instead, we must learn to work around them, as opposed to trying to eliminate them.
Snakes and lizards are primitive animals when compared to your rottweiler or house cat. However, they still have the capacity to learn routines, recognize specific sights, sounds, and odors, and become accustomed to human contact. One just needs to be patient and keep a few simple concepts in mind.
How Much to Handle?
Regardless of whether you keep reptiles as parts of the family, or simply as naturally beautiful displays, at one point or another, you will have to come in contact with your reptile or amphibian. In general, handling of any reptile will elicit a stress response. This may be mild, as in the case of your long time pet, or severe, in the case of a newly acquired flighty species. Patience and repetition will desensitize your pets to your presence and contact, but remember that no amount of handling will entirely eliminate millions of years of behavioral evolution.
So, am I saying that reptiles shouldn't be handled? Not at all. In fact, I think having a pet reptile that trusts you and that you can trust back is among the most rewarding situation in animal keeping. Simply keep in mind that reptiles don't get handled in nature. If you choose to make your reptile a pet, just don't overdo it. If your reptile begins to act differently, loose it's appetite, or hide a lot, it may be stressed. In captivity, one major cause of stress is over handling.
Despite being primitive beings, reptiles are certainly capable of making their intentions and thoughts known. Take the bearded dragon for example. If said lizard is sitting calmly on your arm, occasionally flicking its tongue and glancing around the room, then he is probably fine with the level of human contact being endured. On the other hand, if that same lizard starts darting around, twisting in your grasp, or opening its mouth, then he is probably had enough and needs to be replaced in his enclosure for a while. Think of a "fidgeting" toddler.
Over time the amount of handling you can do without upsetting your pet will increase. Start off slow, and work your way towards longer sessions of owner/pet interaction. Properly picking up and restraining an animal will go a long way in the amount of stress in endures, and how long it will permit you to handle it.
When working with young, skittish, or new animals, make slow, calm movements. Quick jerking motions are often interpreted by the animal as hostile, and can lead to further startle them. By moving slowly and calmly, one can often get much closer to touching or picking up their pet than by quicky swooping down and grasping it. Remember, until you prove otherwise, your baby leopard gecko simply thinks you're going to eat him.
Keep in mind that baby reptiles play an important role in the food chain of many eco-systems: They are food. And most predators snatch them from above. Therefor when your reptile senses your hand looming above them, or even coming up behind them, they can fear for their lives, and run away. It is then best to approach you pet from ground level, in plain sight, and slowly. Then when you do gently grasp the animal, it at least knows what's grabbing it. Imagine for a moment the panic that must be felt by a hatchling water dragon as it is endlessly chased around the perimeter of its enclosure until you finally catch it.
Now that you understand some of the basic theory behind handling reptiles, let's look specifically at what to keep in mind when you are dealing with certain reptile types.
Lizards generally present the largest obstacle for inexperienced hobbyists, based mainly on the fact that lizards are highly mobile, and potentially powerful animals.
Regardless of the size of the lizard with which you are working, keep in mind that the animal will not feel secure unless al of it's limbs are supported. Small lizards can usually be grasped in one hand, with their fore legs resting on your pointer finger, their body laying across your palm, and their hind feet gently gripping your hand. Calm individuals will usually be content to rest in this position with little or no restraint. More feisty animals may require you to use your thumb to apply gentle pressure across the animals back. In most cases, you are not even holding the animal. Instead, it is just sitting on your hand. Your thumb may simply be resting on the animals back exerting no pressure, but this point of contact is generally enough to keep the lizard still.
Slightly larger lizards require slightly more work. You may need to use both hands, one for each set of legs, in order to properly support t he animal. In this position it is often possible to allow the lizard to walk from hand to hand. All you need to do is continually take your rear hand and place it front of the lizard. This "treadmill" effect works well in that it allows the animals sense of freedom, while still exposing it to human contact. Additionally, hyper individuals will often wear themselves out this way, quickly become relaxed enough to sit calmly.
Big lizards such as tegus and some monitors are potentially dangerous, and should be treated with respect. When dealing with these animals you are more likely to be badly scratched than bitten. Nevertheless, always keep tabs on the animals head. When picking up large lizards, it may be difficult to support all four feet with your hands. Instead, allowing the lizard to perch on your arm, with its tail tucked between your elbow and body is the best way to go. Keep in mind, that large lizards (and snakes too) don't typically do well being held. Instead, they are best "interacted with." This may include walking them outside of their primary enclosure or petting them. After all, you wouldn't carry around a 25 pound dog, so why would you hoist a 25 pound monitor up on your shoulder?
When it comes to handling lizards there are a few things to keep in mind. Many small (and some larger) lizard species possess the ability to "drop" their tails. This behavior, known as autonomy, is common among species of the Iguanidae, Gekkonidae, and Teidae families. There are exceptions, but unless you know otherwise, assume that your lizard possesses this ability.
These species have fracture plates built into the skeletal anatomy of their tails. If cornered, threatened, or restrained roughly by the tail, the appendage will simply drop off. In healthy animal this is usually of no medical consequence to the lizard, but it can be downright horrific to the owner who is not expecting it. Even more startling is the fact that the tail will continue to wiggle for a few moments after detaching. Whether or not the tail will regenerate is species specific.
Despite the socially ingrained phobia that many people have towards snakes, they are in reality, among the most gentle and easy to handle of all reptiles. This is, of course, a generalization, and it should be made clear that some snakes are less tolerant of human contact, while others should not be handled at all. It should go without saying that venomous snakes should never be free handled without the aid of a snake hook and in the presence of another experienced handler. Dealing with venomous snakes is far beyond the scope of this article, and will not be covered here.
When it comes to handling any snake, you are best off allowing the animal as much freedom and range of motion as possible. Even nippy, aggressive snakes will stop attempts to strike if allowed to simply crawl through ones hands. However, at the first sense of being restrained, the same animal will turn around with surprising speed and strike at the handler. With experience you will become able to read your snakes' body language and know at what point they have had enough. Generally, smooth, measured movements on the part of the snake are fine, where as jerky, sporadic, or panicky thrashing should be interpreted as a final warning that the animal has had enough.
As with any hands-on activity it is near impossible for me to accurately describe how to hold a snake. The best advice is to act like a tree. In other words, don't be a person holding a snake, be a branch over which the snake is slithering. If you become just another inanimate part of the snakes environment it will calm down drastically.
Avoid grabbing or pinching a snake, as this almost always startles them and will elicit a bite in aggressive species. Small snakes may be allowed to interweave between your fingers and hands. Larger snakes may wrap around your hands and arms. Just keep track of the snakes head, and if possible, allow the snakes tail to wrap around a part of you. By doing so, the snake feels "anchored" to its perch, and it will become more relaxed.
Snakes (even small ones) are remarkably strong for their body mass. Do not let your snake wrap around anything other than your hands. You will be shocked at how hard it can be to untangle a corn snake from a telephone cord, or a ball python from a desk chair. Like wise, don't wrap snakes around your neck, or allow a free roaming snake to form a complete loop around your neck. I know that they are not going to intentionally squeeze your neck and kill you, but a frightened snake could easily tighten it's grip just long enough for a person to lose consciousness. If you need to move or support a large snake, put it over your shoulder so that half of the snake is behind you and the other half is in front of you.
Frogs and salamanders can make very fascinating pets, but for the most part they should not be handled. Amphibians have semi=permeable skin that allows them to absorb water from their moist environment. It also allows them to absorb any traces of soap, perfume, lotion, etc that may be on your hands. Additionally, these animals need to remain moist in order for their skin to remain healthy. If their skin becomes too dry they may become dehydrated and may have trouble breathing. There are a few exceptions, but just because these animals can survive handling physically, doesn't mean that it is good for them in the long run.
If you must handle a frog or salamander, be sure that your hands are completely clean, and moist. Better yet would be to wear latex gloves. Keeping your hands wet will definitely reduce the chance of injuring the animals skin, but it does make them very hard to hold onto. Hold frogs cautiously, as they can jump very far with little warning. A drop from chest height onto even a soft floor could kill a frog.
A few of the basking species of tree frog, as well as the true toads, can be safely handled for brief periods of time. Whites tree frogs, the larger monkey tree frogs (Phylomedusa spp.), seem to be rather docile and slow moving, making them among the ONLY frogs that I would ever recommend picking up. Even though both types of frog would likely sit calmly on your hand, it is only the white's tree frogs that tolerate the stress involved.
Like I said, these animals make very neat hands-off pets, but they do best if left alone, and enjoyed from inside their cage.
Turtles and Tortoises
These intelligent shelled critters are even less suited for handling than amphibians, but still make outstanding pets. These animals will panic if lifted abruptly off of the ground, are best left to move about on their own. If you must pick up a tortoise or turtle, do so slowly, and from the sides. If the animal is small enough, use the thumbs on top, fingers below method. With tortoises and box turtles, make sure to keep your fingers clear of the limbs and plasteron hinges (in box turtles) to avoid a very painful pinch.
The best way to move a chelonian over a large distance is to move it to a box, and then transfer the box to your final destination. Carrying a turtle or tortoise from room to room can be very stressful on them. Although it may be cute when they try to "swim" in the air, they are actually scared to death.
Respect the natural inclinations of these ancient creatures , and leave them at ground level.
Notes on Large or Dangerous Reptiles
I feel that it would be a great disservice if I did not mention the potential dangers associated with very large reptiles in an article centered on human-animal contact. Although this article is geared towards the amateur, even newcomers can choose to keep larger species. In general, large monitors and tegus present only a minor risk associated with scratches or bites. A bite from a large monitor can be serious, but not life threatening. Only handle lizards that you feel that you can safely control. Lizards tend to be remarkably strong, and even a moderately sized one can be too much for an average person to0 handle. These animals are rarely aggressive, but simply too strong to safely restrain. Remember this old adage: Where does a 6 foot monitor go for fun? Anywhere it wants!
Giant snakes (which are very popular pets) pose a serious threat id not respected and handled responsibly. All snakes over 6 feet in length should be handled with 2 or more people present. Make sure that everyone helping you is familiar and comfortable with snakes. For more information on keeping giant snakes safely, refer to the Burmese Python Manual by Philippe de Vosjoli. This book outlines steps that should be taken when keeping a potentially dangerous constrictor.
When it comes to animals, there are no rules, and no absolutes. The information I have provided for you is based on my experience and reflects my opinions. There are some people who feel that reptiles should never be handled. Others believe that if you are not going to interact with them then why own them? I believe in a happy medium in between. There are thousands of reptile types out there. Literally one for every keepers personal needs and conditions. The trick is finding the one that is right for you.
Reptile ownership is still in it's infancy, and keeping herps as pets is an even newer concept. We are still learning. The above information does not constitute every possible methodology for reptile handling. Instead it is a broad sampling of a few tried and true techniques. Don't be afraid to experiment. You may discover something that works for you that has failed for others.