The pitfalls

Most hobbies, and for most of us keeping reptiles and amphibians is at the end of the day a hobby, since it doesn't pay us, seem to attract two levels of adherents. The first level is those who like playing the game or sport occasionally, or keep maybe a pair of leopard geckos or a green iguana, and spend enough money to keep their interest active or their pets healthy. The second level, and the one where ironically most problems arise, is the level of the devotee. In football you see it in the man who travels to all the away matches every Saturday. In games you see it in the player who collects all the add-ons, the extra modules and the magazines. In herpetology you see it healthily in the person who reads a lot of the literature about the subject, and possibly less healthily in the person who wants a large collection.

Let me straightaway make a confession here: I have a large collection. As a man with no children, a wife who works shifts at the hospital and a reasonable amount of free time and disposable income, you might suppose that I am in a safe position. But actually I am speaking from experience here of the pitfalls of having a large collection.

It seems to be a fact that in any hobby where you have the capacity for collecting something - stamps, models, fish or herptiles - there is an inevitable human tendency to want more. Sometimes this is laudable, eg for reasons of research, contributing to human knowledge or simply because you can't play the game fully until you've collected all the parts. But too often it becomes a form of addiction. Somebody in Reptile Hobbyist magazine accurately described it as "empty cage syndrome".

It often works like this. You've been keeping geckos or treefrogs successfully for several months, and you read an article on another species and like the sound of them. Or you're down at the pet shop, looking at the latest acquisitions, and something takes your fancy: an unusual monitor, maybe, or one of the more colourful salamanders. The telling point is whether you're seized with an overwhelming desire to buy it there, right now, on the spot, without even considering where you're going to house it or whether you can give it a lifelong commitment. If you find yourself walking out having spent over 100 on a new herp, together with tank, life support systems and everything else, and you originally only intended to go down there to buy some crickets, then you may already have the collection mania. A more virulent form of this behaviour can be found at shows, where you may see a lot of reptiles and amphibians you've never seen before. It's easy to end up going home with three or four acquisitions with only the faintest warning bells about long-term needs ringing in the back of your head.

Within a year or two you find that suddenly your house is full of cages and glass tanks, and you rarely need the heating on because the temperature is kept up by your pets' hot spots. Suddenly you also find that some of the creatures you used to spend so much time on now seem like... well.... strangers. You quickly swill their water out once a day and chuck in some food two or three times a week, but somehow you never get much time to spend on them individually. You also notice to your consternation that not a week goes buy without you having to purchase 20-30 of specialist food, which never lasts more than a few days, so you switch to a bulk discount mail order firm for these supplies, which is a pity because although you save money, you lose that special relationship with your local pet shop owners who used to give you discount as a valued customer. In the extreme cases of this obsession, either the collector ends up isolating himself from the run of everyday life to keep his pets going, or the creatures themselves sit unhappily in muck or stagnant water because the chores of cleaning have just become too overwhelming.

Incidentally, if you are feeling smug because you don't keep reptiles or amphibians but do keep, say cats, rabbits or rodents, then the same applies even more to you. Mammals are actually more demanding: they eat more often, defecate more frequently and need cleaning out even more urgently. This is especially true of caged mammals such as rats, guinea pigs and rabbits. Creatures in hutches get very unhappy if they are sitting in a pile of their own pellets, especially in summer. Again, I'm talking from experience here.

Another facet of the problem is if your "significant other" (wife, husband, partner) shares your interest. If they are neutral or not keen about your animal collection, then you probably won't be able to build up a large collection anyway. But if they also are enthusiastic, and have their own ideas about which pets they want to keep, then your collection can really run out of control, particularly if you bargain on the basis of "if I buy this, you can buy that".

So what constitutes a big collection? John Breen recommended that a keeper maintain no more than about a dozen species to avoid being overstretched. To a certain degree this can be increased slightly if you have two or three individuals sharing one tank or cage, but three geckos in one cage still require three times as much individual attention as one gecko in one cage. I would say a dozen is still a good figure to keep as the maximum.

How can you guard against this syndrome? There are several things you can do:

It is also a fact of life that people and their circumstances do change. A change in job, location or work pattern can all lead to a sudden decrease in the amount of time available to spend on your pets. When my wife spent six months doing extremely long hours (up to 12 a day) in a previous job, I found myself looking after virtually all our animals, and it was quite stressful at times. Whatever the reason, if you feel you can no longer cope with the amount of pets that you have, take steps to deal with the situation rather than suffering (and letting them suffer) in silence. This may mean enlisting the help of your partner, cutting down on something else, or in the last resort reducing the number of animals you have. This does not mean dumping them in the wild or giving them away to the first eight-year-old kid who expresses a bit of interest in them, but rather means being responsible and seeking new homes for them. The best bet, in fact, is to try to sell them. People tend to look suspiciously on a free gift, and also tend to value it less than if they had spent money on it, and this holds true for pets as well. Reptiles and amphibians can usually be advertised through one of the specialist magazines, and you have the knowledge that the target audience know at least a little about what they are getting into if they buy your pet. Pet shops may also take some animals, but you should be aware that there is not much of a market for large pythons, fully grown iguanas, large monitors or, for that matter, old cats, old rodents or hefty rabbits. If all else fails you should try to find an animal sanctuary that is equipped to deal with the pet: not all have the capacity to deal with reptiles and amphibians especially. Groups such as the RSPCA can probably help here. If you have an old pet that only has a short lifespan (eg rats and other rodents, Green Anoles, etc), the kindest thing to do is probably to bear with it until it passes away, and then simply not replace it.

If all this sounds a bit negative, again I emphasise that I am speaking from experience. Again, there are also too many unwanted pets crowding sanctuaries in the UK and North America. But collections do have their place, and a lot of contributions have been made to herpetology by the studies and observations of amateurs and private keepers. Let's keep it that way.

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