Alexandria,VA- Alexandria Animal Welfare League staffers returned to work one morning last year to find two boxes of Argentine tegus on their doorstep, owner unknown. Tegus are big-jawed, South American lizards that can weigh 15 pounds. The league takes in whatever comes in the door and, beyond dogs and cats, this means animals like tropical fish, hermit crabs, rabbits, snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, chickens, ducks, gerbils, hamsters, rats, mice, and…Argentine tegus.
In May, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter got an undernourished albino boa constrictor found coiled in a garden hose. In 2018, the shelter took in 4,739 dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, parakeets, cockatiels, macaws, snakes, and bearded dragons.
People’s pet choices vary, but animal experts strongly advise prospective owners to have their eyes fully open and to understand that some animals can be difficult to manage. They urge you to do your homework.
Getting Sucked In
“Oh, he’s so cute.” That’s how it usually starts. Your ten-year-old fixates on a bunny rabbit in the pet store. Grandma gives your daughter fuzzy little chicks for Easter. Dad succumbs to his youngster’s pleas for a hamster. But then, these animals grow up. They eat voraciously. They need space. They get sick.
Take rabbits: “Rabbits are at least a 10-year commitment,” says Lolly Busey, Director of Animal Intake of Rikkis Refuge in Orange, Virginia. Some lose their cuddliness. If not stimulated, they might dig holes in carpets or chew baseboards.
And baby animals grow up. Baby chicks need both indoor and outdoor space, can pass along salmonella infections, and become chickens or roosters. Quarter-size baby turtles, when adults, will need a 40- to 50-gallon tank, says Amanda Novotny with the Fairfax County Animal Shelter.
The Path to a Shelter
Animals end up in shelters because animal control officers or animal welfare groups get calls about or find an apparently unowned, neglected, or abused animal. Some pet owners surrender their animals because they can no longer take care of them. Kids grow up and go to college and Mom’s left with the snake. Sometimes people find they are allergic to their pets. Some owners tire of them. Families downsize.
Busey is on the receiving end of many hard-to-manage pets. The no-kill animal sanctuary, now in its 20th year, has up to 22 species of ill, disabled, injured, abandoned, homeless, and abused domestic and farm animals, including cows, horses, donkeys, pigs, rabbits, ducks, geese, emus, goats, turkeys, peacocks, and more. Three emus arrived because students hatched and raised the birds for a classroom project, but in just a few months, the emus were several feet tall, beyond the class’s management capabilities.
Pot-bellied piglets are smart and friendly and have the personalities of dogs, says Busey, but they grow up to be 200-pound swine. “Many people are drawn to the cuteness of a baby potbelly pig,” she says, “especially since they are often advertised as ‘mini-pigs’ or ‘teacup pigs.’ Well, they are only small for a very short time.” If they don’t get to shelters, they are often left in the wild to fend for themselves. “It’s tragic,” she says.
Exotic Pet Trade
A robust exotic pet trade is raising many questions about animal ownership and care.
In 2018, thieves stole nearly 7,000 insects, spiders, and lizards from the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, 80 percent of the institution’s collection. Why would anyone steal hairy scorpions, cockroaches, and venomous snakes? Owner John Cambridge told The Washington Post that the exotic pet industry is “absolutely bursting with buyers,” and not just for cuddly lemurs. Some tarantulas were selling for $350 and rhinoceros cockroaches went for $500 per mating pair last year.
People buy animals online and at trade shows. More than 100 repticons (exotic animal vendor events) take place in the U.S. each year, according to Chris Sweeny writing in the winter 2018 Audubon magazine. The United States Association of Reptile Keepers reports that live reptile trade is around $1.2 billion a year. Over 509 types of non-native lizards, Nile monitors, turtles, Komodo dragons, pythons, crocodilians, and snakes are thriving in South Florida, animals bought in the exotic pet trade and likely released by their owners.
Why is this a problem? Animals raised in a confined area may not be able to survive in the wild. And they can be serious threats to native wildlife, especially birds, which they often outcompete. “Nile monitors are not pets,” said Bob Mongdock of the Cape Coral (FL) Environmental Resources Division, adding that they should be basking in Africa’s Nile delta.
Global trade in exotic pets can spread disease. A 2018 Science magazine article reported that the Bd (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) fungus is threatening wild frogs, toads, and salamanders.
Keep Wildlife Wild
For many animal lovers, it’s hard to sort through which animals make good pets and which do not. Wildlife biologists, especially, will caution that many animals do not belong in homes.
Even though the fictional Hedwig, Harry Potter’s snowy owl, seems charming, raptor experts say owls should not be considered pets. Birds of prey like hawks, eagles, and owls do not make good pets because young birds in domestic situations can imprint on their human owners, fail to learn how to hunt, and usually cannot survive on their own if released.
Deciding which animals make good pets is not always clear cut. In January 2019, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors added hedgehogs, chinchillas, and hermit crabs to the list of commonly accepted pets that can be kept as household pets without any special permissions. The Humane Society of Fairfax County opposed listing hedgehogs as pets and some wildlife biologists had concerns. In March, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned people “not to kiss or snuggle hedgehogs” because CDC officials believed they were infecting people with a strain of Salmonella typhimuricum. Elaine Becker, with the Hedgehog Welfare Society, in a Washington Post article, argued that many pets, such as turtles and birds, can also carry salmonella. Hedgehogs are not for everyone, she noted, “If you can’t handle the poop and feeding them meal worms, get a stuffed animal.”
Each jurisdiction has different rules. Local governments may classify some animals like goats and chickens as livestock and require a property size larger than most suburban yards.
Prepare and Prepare Some More
Experts stress that prospective pet owners should fully understand an animal’s short- and long-term needs. “Responsible pet ownership is important. People
should always make sure to do their research before bringing any type of pet into the home,” advises Gina Hardter, Head of Communications for Alexandria’s Animal Welfare League. “If you are not thoroughly prepared, you should not have animals,” says Debbie Geiger, who has rescued pitbull dogs in Florida for more than 30 years.
Many animals have special diets. Bearded dragon lizards need ten crickets a day, wrote Christopher Ingraham for the January 1 Washington Post when his family got one as a pet. Rabbits need a lot of hay and fresh greens.
Some pets are not safe for children under age five. Some animals may need specialized veterinary care that many vets cannot provide. Some animals need specialty equipment, like heat lamps or humidifiers. Some need to climb; some need to burrow.
Novotny counsels, “When considering adding a new pet to your family, it’s really important to do some research into that animal’s lifespan and what the animal will need to live a long, healthy life: what type of cage, tank, or enclosure is best for them; any specialized equipment such as heat lamps for reptiles; their dietary requirements; the frequency and type of veterinary care; and what they need in terms of enrichment and interaction with you.”
Busey urges prospective pet owners to understand “the personality of the pet. Is he hyper? Would he require lots of attention like walks? Is he scared? Does he have separation anxiety, especially if he is young?” And she adds, “Our shelters and rescues are filled with pets whose owners did not do research on what kind of animal would be good for them and it is the animal who suffers.”
Wildlife Should Stay Wild
Many people are tempted to try to help injured wildlife like birds, squirrels, and foxes. “More often than not, handling injured, sick, or orphaned wildlife can do more harm than good,” says the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ website. “Although our intentions are well-meaning, human interaction with wildlife should always be kept to a minimum. Humans often misinterpret normal wildlife behavior as abnormal and may unnecessarily disturb and stress wild animals by attempting to catch them.”
And wildlife biologists say, do not feed ducks, geese, raccoons, squirrels, foxes, or deer. Human food is not good for most wild animals. If wild animals become acclimated to people, they can harm humans and pets. They can lose their natural wariness.
The bottom line: Keep wildlife wild. “Wildlife has a place and that place is in the wild,” says Shirl Dresser with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
So what happened to the Argentine tegus? They found a home with Reptiles Alive, a local organization that conducts live animal programs.