Added 17 November 2004.
or, what to do when things go wrong
Few people in life are immune to change, and that includes herpetologists, both amateur and professional. It is however the amateurs I am addressing in this section.
Life's circumstances change. We leave home and go to university, college or the armed forces, or we get married. Sometimes our job takes us a long way from one location to another, even abroad in some cases (not unusual in these days of globalisation). All of these scenarios can affect the hobby of keeping reptiles and amphibians. The most common, and often annoying if not distressing, is however a sudden reduction in economic status - to put it bluntly, the loss of earning power, usually through loss of one's job. This short page attempts to address these problems.
"An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure", so the saying goes. One cannot prevent life changes, and it would be foolish in many cases to attempt to do so: an 18-year old should not resolve to live at home with their parents for the rest of their natural lives, for example, unless there is really a compelling reason to do so (an only child with two severely disabled parents, perhaps). You can however make it easier for yourself to cope with life changes by taking certain steps to ensure that you, and your herps, can meet them.
- Keep your collection to a sensible size. For dedicated herpetologists this can be extremely challenging, since once we are drawn into the world of reptiles and amphibians, we are drawn to many of their species. However, realism should dictate that there are are only so many hours in the week to devote to your animals, and that a few happy-looking creatures in clean cages look far better than a houseful of animals that have the appearance of being neglected. More important to many people is the economic cost of keeping herps. Remember, they all have to be fed, and many need UV lighting, heating and other accessories. It is a worthwhile, if sometimes frightening, exercise to work out how much on average you are spending on your pets. Nobody begrudges pet animals their needs: what is important is to work within a budget, particularly if you think your circumstances may become tight in a few years' time. Also to be considered is how many animals you can take with you if you move. This applies particularly to rented accommodation. While some landlords may turn a blind eye to one or two small tanks of geckos or a corn snake, they may not look so kindly on a whole menagerie being carried into their property.
- Don't be a lone herper. These days there is no reason for not being connected with other hobbyists, given the number of Internet forums and local and national societies that are available. Apart from the fact that we can all learn from one another and give moral support to one another, a network of friends within the herping community can offer help in other ways (see below).
Let's now assume that the worst has happened: you've lost your job and the prospects of immediate paid employment are not good. A less draconian but more long-term case might be the sudden arrival of twins, necessitating converting a room from a herp room into a children's bedroom and the spending of once disposable income on the next generation. What should you do?
The first part is to assess how much you need a week, on average, to feed and maintain your herps. If it is obviously a figure you are not going to be able to meet, work out how many of them could be maintained on an affordable amount.
It is the second part that is tricky, not to say sometimes tough or even heartbreaking. That is to work out what to do with the ones you cannot keep. Right away let me say that I know how this feels, and to be pained by the prospect of this is not sentimentality. What is foolish or sentimental, however, is to try and hang on to animals that you know you cannot afford to keep properly. Although reptiles and amphibians have a much lower food intake than mammals, they do still need feeding and other necessities, and to watch them gradually decline over a period of time will only cause further distress to any decent keeper. To love someone (or something, however you view your animals) is to want the best for them, and in this case this may mean finding them another home where they can be looked after well.
What you must emphatically NOT do is to release any herps you cannot keep into the wild. There are three very compelling reasons for this. Firstly, for many reptiles, release into a cooler environment than they originate from will usually mean a slow and lingering decline and death. This has happened with some tropical species that were shamefully discarded by owners, and such people should not count on other members of the public finding them in time to save them. Any herp released into a non-native environment in this way, particularly in the West, is also at risk from cats, dogs and foxes (in the UK) or other native predators (elsewhere). Secondly, those released non-native herps that do survive can become a serious pest themselves. The green iguanas that have formed feral colonies in Florida may not have done much damage, but red-eared sliders (terrapins) that have been dumped in ponds around the world, from Europe to South Africa to Japan, are considered a menace to local wildlife even if they do not breed. Thirdly, for both the previous reasons cited, such action is considered unlawful (not to mention unethical) and if traced back to you will be punished with a heavy fine, possible imprisonment and maybe a criminal record - not to mention having society's opprobrium dumped on your head.
Okay, so what CAN you do?
There are in fact several options for finding new homes for animals you can no longer keep.
- Pet shops. This is not everyone's preferred option, and not all pet shops are created equal - some are very good and can be trusted to house animals correctly, some should be shunned like the plague. What it boils down to is that essentially you are asking the shop to resell your animals to someone else. They may give you some money for your animals, but obviously it is not going to be much or even anything like the sales price they will subsequently be asking. Accept that as a fact of life: shops have to make a profit and cover their overheads. The other thing you should be aware of is that shops will usually only take animals that they think they can resell. This does not leave much room for large and grouchy iguanas, giant constrictors or crocodilians, although a specialist herpetological retailer might consider them.
- Private sale. This I think works best within one's circle of friends or the society to which one belongs, or should belong. The German herpetological society the DGHT actually regularly produces a periodical with members' classifieds in, while in the UK at least one herpetological forum carries a classifieds section. You should be honest when placing your ad: describing your Nile monitor as tame when it regularly goes for its keeper will quickly saddle you with a bad reputation that will make it hard for you to sell or give away anything. You may well improve your chances if you offer the accommodation for the animal(s) at a greatly reduced price or for nothing, since enclosures often cost more than their inhabitants. The more you can inform prospective buyers about your animal(s), probably the better your chances. I am very wary of simply putting an ad in the local free paper: "Snake for sale" may attract the wrong kind of buyer. If you can, stick to people who already have an interest in herps.
- Friends. Some people are very dedicated keepers and very dedicated friends and may be willing to help you out by taking your excess animals in. Again, this is more likely if you have a species that they are interested in, or if there are no obvious problems (the size of the animal obviously plays a part here, see under "Pet shops"). I have been the recipient of much kindness from a couple of individuals who threw me, and some of my animals, a lifeline at a difficult period, and I know that the animals went to good homes. Don't however abuse your friends' kindness, and don't start asking for money if they are willing to look after your charges, especially if there is no obvious gain to them in doing so. You are probably also best to consider the animals as the property of their new keeper from the point where you hand them over.
- Sanctuaries. Really this should be your last port of call, when all else fails. I say this not because I dislike or distrust sanctuaries, but rather because many of them are sterling outfits which are already strained in terms of resources. The less you hand over to them, in a sense, the better. However, if you have tried all else then do not feel guilty about approaching them. Most sanctuary people would sooner offer space to an animal than see it suffer, although obviously their time and money is limited and there is only so much they can do. Some if not all sanctuaries will ask for a donation to cover some of the immediate cost of rehoming your animal(s), which is not unreasonable given that the animal(s) may be there for a long time, perhaps the rest of its life. Many sanctuaries do operate a rehoming or adoption policy and attempt to find caring owners for animals that have come through their doors, and some vet prospective homes before they release the animal(s). However, you should also be aware that some also euthanise animals that they think they are unlikely to be able to rehouse, usually after a certain period. This is obviously controversial and some sanctuaries or rescue societies make a point of emphasising that they never euthanise animals that they accept. The sanctuary should be open about their policy in this regard, but it never hurts to ask around on the grapevine. If you are willing in desperation to consider the possibility that an animal may have to be euthanised, you should enquire as to the method. In the UK the RSPCA unfortunately seem quite ignorant in this regard and seem to assume that simply putting a cold-blooded vertebrate in the freezer will kill it painlessly, which is hotly disputed.
In the case of a large collection of animals a combination of the above avenues may be necessary.
There is obviously an emotional cost to the keeper of parting with an animal or animals, but what about the animals themselves? DeVosjoli relates the tale of a green iguana who died a week after being rehomed in a pet shop, with apparently no signs of external illness. It is hard to make any definite rules in this area, but igs are certainly intelligent compared with other reptiles and may therefore suffer more from being relocated in this manner. I would suspect that overall, chelonians and lizards are the most sensitive in this area, followed by snakes. Most amphibians probably do not care as long as their environment is correct, although the more intelligent such as Tiger- or Fire Salamanders may notice if they have been used to interaction with their owners. Another possible rule is that small herps which do not allow hands-on interaction are less phased by rehoming than large herps which do. Obviously if you suspect there will be a certain amount of negative psychological impact on an animal, then finding a friendly keeper immediately will be better for it than being placed in a pet shop.
"Do unto others..."
Finally, circumstances do change, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. It may be that in ten years time you are in a position to help others. If you are, consider adopting a sanctuary animal, offering it a home or else taking on an animal from someone else who can through no fault of their own no longer keep it.
It may not be the most sought-after species, nor the most attractive, nor the "sexiest", but if you can do this without overburdening yourself, then you will have done a good deed indeed.
DeVosjoli, The Lizard Keeper's Handbook, has a page on this subject to which I owe a debt.
The article in Reptile Hobbyist 3:8, "A cage in every corner - and a herp in every cage" addresses the dangers of overexpansion in a herp collection.
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