This article appeared in the June 1997 issue of Reptile Hobbyist
The Worst Reptiles for Beginning Hobbyists
by Petra Spiess
With all of the reptile species available today has come some
misconceptions about which reptiles are best for beginning hobbyists.
The cheapest species are very often not the easiest or most suitable for
the beginner. Several species have in fact, been traditionally sold as
"starter" reptile pets, when in fact, they are far from suitable. Many
of these "starter" reptile species should only be kept by experienced
What Makes a Reptile Species Difficult?
Just with the best reptile species, there are several factors that
contribute to making a reptile the "worst" species for beginners.
Aggressive reptile species should not be kept by beginning hobbyists,
these animals can be difficult to handle and can cause injury to an
inexperienced keeper. Reptile species that are heavily parasitized, as
is the case with the majority of imported species, are difficult to
maintain for the beginner and should be avoided. Large species that are
potentially dangerous, or that are expensive to feed, house, and
maintain should be left to experienced keepers. Reptiles that require
demanding environmental conditions, or reptiles that stress in captivity
easily are difficult to maintain for everyone, not just beginners.
Unfortunately, there is rather a long list of difficult reptile species,
but it is important to know which commonly seen species to avoid.
Burmese, Reticulated, and African Rock Pythons.
All of these species are very cute as hatchlings, but quickly grow HUGE
not matter what size of enclosure they are kept in. Although Burmese
pythons often can become very tame, this is seldom true for the other
two species, reticulated and African Rock pythons. A large, aggressive
snake is not much fun to maintain for the beginner. Unfortunately, these
species are so prolific, there are many captive born hatchlings for sale
on the market. Subsequently, the price is relatively low for a
hatchling, and this often tempts beginning keepers into a purchase they
should avoid. The reticulated and African rock python are often
imported, to both their and the purchasers detriment. Imported specimens
are often emaciated, dehydrated, tick and mite infected, and sick, which
creates a whole host of problems for the purchaser. Adults of these
species require room sized enclosures, and can be expensive to feed and
Green iguanas are by far the most common reptile pet on the market. This
is unfortunate as this species is not suitable for the beginner for
several reasons. Iguanas are large lizards, adults can easily exceed 5
feet. Iguanas require very large enclosures to fare well, and most homes
cannot provide for this necessity. There is no aquarium on the
commercial market that is large enough to house an adult iguana.
Although some iguanas can become tame, many never do, and some animals
may even be aggressive, especially males. Iguanas have specific dietary
and environmental requirements in captivity that cannot be met by
children of any age, so they do not make good children's pets. This
species is one of the cheapest on the market today, do not let this fool
you, iguanas are difficult, demanding, and expensive captives.
Box turtles have been sold for many years as a "easy to maintain" or
"ideal children's reptile pet". Neither of these two statements are
true. The majority of people who wish to purchase box turtles want to
maintain them inside year-round. This presents several difficulties. Box
turtles require a lot of room to fare well, even one box turtle cannot
be housed in an enclosure any smaller than a 30 gallon breeder aquarium.
Almost all box turtles are wild-caught adult animals that are heavily
parasitized. As with the green iguana, box turtles require very specific
dietary and environmental conditions, which make this species less than
ideal for the beginner. If the purchaser researches all the captive
needs of box turtles, and can find a captive born animal to purchase,
box turtles make excellent captives. Unfortunately, this seldom occurs,
and box turtles die by the thousands due to ignorance.
Anoles are another "disposable reptile" in the industry. Green anoles
are a lot more difficult to maintain than most people realize. Many
people purchase anoles as pets for their children because they are very
inexpensive. What they do not realize, or are not told, is that the
proper set-up for anoles is ten times the purchase price of the animal.
Anoles are still relatively inexpensive even with the proper equipment,
but there are several other factors that make this species a less than
ideal captive. Almost all anoles on the market are wild-caught animals
that are heavily parasitized. Even a healthy looking anole can carry a
huge parasite load that will eventually lead to its demise. Anoles DO
NOT tolerate handling well. This lizards are naturally very wary
(everyone eats them) and become very stressed by handling. Captive born
anoles in the proper, naturalistic enclosure can make a beautiful
display, but they are not suitable for beginning reptile pets.
Wild-Caught Ball Pythons
Although captive born ball pythons make one of the best reptile species
for the beginner, wild-caught or captive hatched species are among the
worst. Wild-caught adult ball pythons are notorious for finicky eating
and heavy parasitization. Do not let the term "captive hatched" or "farm
raised" fool you, these animals are only slightly better than
wild-caught specimens. The reason for this is the fact that captive
hatched or farm raised ball pythons are still imports, and although they
many not be as heavily parasitized as their wild-caught brethren, are
still subject to the stresses of the importation process. Imported ball
pythons, whether they be wild-caught or captive hatched, are often
stressed severely by shipping, and crowding together with other animals
at dealers and importers. The crowding that occurs often acts as a
vector for the spread of external parasites and disease. The only ball
pythons a beginner should consider are captive born, feeding animals
that have not been subjected to excessive stress. Although the
wild-caught and captive hatched ball pythons are cheaper, they will cost
more in vet bills and frustration in the long run.
Wild-Caught Chameleons of any Species
Even captive born chameleon are demanding captives, but mixing together
an antisocial nature, the stress and crowding of importation, and heavy
parasitization, makes wild-caught chameleons terrible captives for the
beginner. Some dealers make a concerted effort to establish wild caught
chameleons before sale, deparisitizing and acclimating their animals,
most importers however, are not this conscientious and subscribe to the
idea of "buyer beware". Chameleons are asocial, and do not tolerate
handling well. Chameleons need to be housed away from other chameleons
and from stressful household occurrences such as cats, dogs, vacuum
cleaners, and high traffic areas. Feeding and housing chameleons
appropriately requires a lot of effort and time, these animals are
stunning, fascinating, and beautiful, but are too difficult and
frustrating for the beginning hobbyist.
The Tokay Gecko
There are few other reptile species of any genera more aggressive than
the tokay gecko. This species is very common on the market, and is
subsequently very low priced. Most tokays are imported animals and have
all the problems that go with this process. Tokay geckos, with very few
exceptions, do not become docile and do not tolerate handling well. In
addition, they are extremely quick and, as with all arboreal geckos, can
climb even slick surfaces with ease. The first thing a tokay geckos does
when it feels threatened (which seems to be anytime anything comes near
one) is to gape its prodigious mouth as a warning, which is why most
close photographs of the tokay geckos show the animal in this position.
The second course of action for a threatened tokay is a load barking
noise followed by a lunge at the threatening object (if you are keeping
one, this is usually your hand). The last course of action is biting,
and boy, can they bite! Tokay geckos have very strong jaws, capable of
causing serious injury to anyone fool enough to be bitten by one of
these animals. This beautiful and interesting gecko can make a good
captive for those who are experienced in handling aggressive, fast
moving reptile species. Beginners generally do not fall into this
category, so should pass this species by when looking for a new
Caimans or Alligators
There are many reasons not to keep these two species, among them is the
fact that many states ban the private sector from owning these animals.
Baby alligators are produced heavily in the East and South, a determined
person will be able to purchase one, legal or not. Caimans can be found
in almost every state that does not ban their sale. Baby caimans and
baby alligators are undeniable cute, they make cute sounds, and are
extremely soft to the touch. Most people who purchase these animals as
babies have never seen an adult animal or do not plan on caring for the
animal for its entire life. I will never forget speaking with a person
who had just purchased a baby alligator and asking,
"What will you do with this animal when it gets anywhere near the adult
size?" The answer I received was,
"I Dunno know", which is the typical response of a person who purchases
one of these completely inappropriate reptiles. Many alligators
purchased by people such as this die or are killed long before they
reach an "inconvenient" size. Alligators are extremely unsuitable to
just about all reptile keepers, experienced or not. Their huge size,
demanding housing and feeding requirements, and aggressive nature makes
this species one of the worst reptile species to maintain in captivity.
Caimans are much smaller than alligators, but size is relative
considering alligators are beyond HUGE. Caimans are also aggressive, and
require very large aquatic enclosures most people cannot provide.
With so many reptile choices on the market today, it is sometimes
difficult for a beginning hobbyist to choose an appropriate reptile pet.
There are many reptile species that are wonderful for beginners, but
there are many commonly available and cheap species that are not. It is
important that beginning hobbyists have good experiences with the
reptiles they choose to purchase, as this encourages them to become more
involved in a fascinating hobby that will last a lifetime.