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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 herpetocultuists.

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 maintain.

Green Iguanas

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

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.

Green Anoles

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 purchase.

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.



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