Whilst “exotic” is technically an expression for a species of animal not indigenous to a particular country, the term “exotic pets” is often used to refer to unusual pets like iguanas, snakes, parrots and monkeys. When choosing an exotic pet, please keep in mind some important ethical considerations - there is a substantial illegal trade in exotic species, and one should make every effort to ensure that one is buying a pet from a reputable source. Furthermore, there is a risk of exotic pets escaping and surviving in their new habitat, thus displacing the indigenous fauna. In order to be a responsible exotic pet owner, due care must be taken in this regard.
1. SMALL PRIMATES
Marmosets and tamarins are small South American primates that are becoming increasingly common as pets. The ethical considerations are especially important with these monkeys, as most species are considered threatened in the wild. As hand-raised bottle-fed babies, these little creatures are most charming and will tug at the heart strings of anyone with a heart. But with the onset of sexual maturity, they frequently become unpredictable, aggressive and even dangerous to all humans, not only their owners. It is the view of many veterinarians that people should be discouraged from keeping these creatures as pets.
For many moms and dads, the prospect of Junior coming home from school with a pet snake or lizard is a terrifying thought, but it is fair to say that reptiles can make very good pets. Once again consideration should be given to the fact that a huge illegal trade in threatened reptiles exists, and care should be taken to ensure that this is not supported.
As with any pet, it is critically important for the child and the parents to understand the animals that the child wishes to keep. Reptiles are very different to dogs and cats, and many problems can be avoided by following simple husbandry guidelines. Most importantly, reptiles are cold-blooded, meaning they are unable to control their body temperature without external influence. This means they need to be provided with a warm spot where they can bask, but have enough space in the vivarium to get away from the heat should they choose to do so. Constant access to fresh drinking water is very important, and many species of reptiles enjoy a swim.
Numerous pet shops sell snakes as pets, and in most instances these are multiple-generation captive-bred animals, and are quite comfortable with being handled on a regular basis. Prospective owners should understand that most of these snakes are reluctant to bite, and will only do so if fearful or injured, as a dog may bite or a cat may scratch when handled roughly.
Potential owners should also be aware that certain pet shops sell extremely dangerous animals, and the new owner often does not fully understand the implications of a bite. There is absolutely no valid reason for an animal like a rattlesnake to be kept as a pet!!! A bite is potentially fatal, and for many species available in South Africa there is simply no anti-venom in the country. Some snake parks keep antivenom for certain species, but remember that they may not be willing to hand it over to you if you get bitten – giving their valuable stock of antivenom away places their own staff at risk.
For the young child interested in a pet reptile, young corn snakes, king snakes or rat snakes are generally very docile and seem quite content to be held for hours on end winding through a child’s fingers. Water dragons, bearded dragons and certain geckoes can also be tame and docile, but should all be handled with care and not held by the tail.
Common problems in pet reptiles:-
Pet reptiles are sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and it is of utmost importance to ensure that adequate environmental conditions are provided for the species kept. Reptiles do not have a diaphragm, thus making it difficult to cough foreign materials out of their respiratory tracts. This makes them even more susceptible to respiratory infection. Infections of the upper respiratory tract often progress to pneumonia, which is one of the more difficult conditions to treat. If a pet snake or lizard is blowing bubbles from its nose, it needs to see a vet in a hurry!
(2) Incomplete Shedding
Snakes, lizards and even tortoises need to shed their skin, and a successful slough depends on the animal being exposed to the right temperature and humidity. If the slough is incomplete, assistance should be given using a fine spray of water and gentle massage of the retained skin. Owners should be aware that skin rolls off towards the tail, and frequently breaks off in the process, leaving the tip of the tail covered with old skin. This must be removed promptly as it can hinder the blood flow to the end of the tail and result in loss of that portion of the tail. When removing sloughed skin from a vivarium, one should look carefully to ensure that both spectacles are present. These are eye caps which, if retained can create serious eye problems. However, the eyes of many a pet snake have been irreversibly damaged by a well-meaning owner trying to remove retained spectacles with forceps - this is a task best left to an expert.
(3) Bite Wounds
The king snake and rat snake families, like pythons and boas, feed on small rodents. If the thought of dangling a squirming mouse over a vivarium is too gruesome to contemplate, you will be pleased to know that many pet shops sell frozen mice specifically for this purpose. Rats and mice should never be fed alive! Apart from the obvious ethical considerations, these rodents are known to have inflicted serious wounds on many a pet snake.
(4) Inappropriate Diet
There are now commercially prepared diets on the market for both adults and juveniles of the most commonly kept exotic reptile pets from bearded dragons, box turtles and tortoises to green iguanas and geckoes. Pelleted or canned foods are used in combination with crickets, mealworms, waxworms, vegetables and the occasional pink mouse, depending on the species kept. Crickets, silkworms, grasshoppers and a variety of other insects can be offered, with a nutrition supplement to help balance the diet. Vibrating feeders make geckos and lizards think their prey is still alive, and stimulate a feeding response as soon as the unit is switched on. With diet being so important, prospective owners are advised to carefully research their options before making a choice.