Xref: news rec.answers:37600 news.answers:123245 rec.pets.herp:133875
An Introduction to rec.pets.herp
Part 3/3: Questions About Herps
Bill East <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This document is copyright 1995-1998 by Bill East, and may be redistributed
freely under many circumstances; the details are explained in Part 1 (section
3.1). Some sections were written by other authors, who are also identified in
This document is provided as-is, with no expressed or implied warranty of
any kind. Every effort has been made to make this FAQ an accurate and
comprehensive source of information; however, the maintainer offers no
guarantee that these efforts have been successful, and assumes no
responsibility for damages resulting from errors or omissions.
This document represents the understanding and opinion of the maintainer,
and, where possible, a consensus of posters to rec.pets.herp; it is not
endorsed by, and does not necessarily represent any position of, the
maintainer's employer or ISP.
Section 7: General herp care
Subject: <7.1> My herp got away. How can I find it?
Guess which WWW page to look at?
contains the Finding Lost Herps FAQ. It is a collection of comments from
various individuals; no guarantees are made that these comments will be
consistent with one another.
Fortunately, most escapes can be stopped before they happen with some
attention to the enclosure of the animal in question. Use common sense:
Don't leave snake-sized openings in the lid of your snake's tank. Don't
leave the lid off while you wander away to get a food item (for the herp or
yourself). Don't take small, quick-moving animals out to play on the lawn.
As a general rule, assume that your herp can levitate, walk through walls,
cloud your mind so that you cannot see it, pass through the holes in pegboard,
and gravitate unerringly to the most inaccessible spot in your home. Design
enclosures and herp rooms accordingly.
Subject: <7.2> Is there something wrong with using mealworms as food?
Yes and no. Many people use mealworms as feeders with no ill effects at all,
especially with lizards. However, mealworms have hard chitinous shells and
may cause digestive problems in large quantities. Moreover, mealworms have
mandibles; at least one poster reports having seen mealworms literally eat
their way out of a garter snake (yuck), and this author has lost leopard
frogs to internal injuries caused by "king" mealworms.
The chitin problem can be almost entirely ameliorated by feeding mealworms
that have just shed their exoskeleta. Since they shed their mandibles as
well, this procedure should also help with the problem of internal injuries;
however, if you're feeding mealworms to an animal that can reasonably be
expected to swallow them whole, it is prudent to cut the worms' mouthparts
off first, or to crush their heads and mandibles with a pair of forceps.
It's not pleasant, but it beats risking your herp's health.
Subject: <7.3> Is there something wrong with using live feeder rodents?
(This question pertains, essentially, only to snakes, which are the main
consumers of feeder rodents. Although some lizards and amphibians will eat
rodents, amphibians typically will not take dead food, and most carnivorous
lizards eat rodents too small for the concerns of this section to be a
factor. Large monitors are an exception, and this question may apply to
them as well.)
Although a snake is a pretty formidable adversary for even the toughest
rodent, a feeder can occasionally get lucky and manage to bite its predator.
Such bites can be serious; in extreme cases, the rodent can land one
fortunate bite at the base of the skull and kill the snake outright.
Most feeding bites are much less serious and pose no real threat except from
infection, but such catastrophes really have occurred. This is one very
good reason to prefer to use dead feeders; a prekilled mouse will rarely bite
a snake. This goes double for gerbils, which are fast and scrappy, and at
least triple for adult rats.
Another convenient feature of prekilled rodents is their availability; it
is possible to mail-order hundreds of frozen rodents, fill a freezer with
them, and have a practically permanent food supply for your snakes. Many
of the rec.pets.herp regulars (the author included) do precisely this. It's
convenient, and also much cheaper than buying individual live rodents at
Most snakes of commonly-kept species can be conditioned to accept prekilled
prey, though the conditioning process is sometimes lengthy and frustrating.
The tricks used to encourage feeding are innnumerable and really beyond the
scope of this FAQ, but often simply wiggling a dead feeder (with a pair of
forceps---don't use your bare hand or you *will* get bitten) is enough to
interest a reluctant snake.
Some snakes simply refuse to eat anything other than live prey. It behooves
the responsible herp keeper, when faced with such a specimen, to take every
precaution to make sure the predator-prey relationship doesn't reverse itself
(and, yes, there *are* cases in which snake keepers have found an intended
feeder rodent making a meal of the snake)! Never leave a live feeder rodent
alone with a snake, especially in the case of tough scrappers like rats. If
possible, stun the feeder before offering it; many snakes that turn up their
rostral scales at prekilled prey will still eat live but unconscious animals.
In short, don't invite trouble.
Naturally, many of the caveats of this section do not apply to pinky or fuzzy
rodents, which are not yet developed enough to injure anything larger than a
small insect. However, conditioning a snake to take prekilled pinkies or
fuzzies while it is a juvenile may help encourage it to eat dead prey as an
In the first draft of this answer, I wrote "A prekilled mouse will never bite
a snake." I'm wrong; in March 1996, a poster actually reported seeing his
corn snake receive a "bite" from a dead mouse! The snake managed to knock
the mouse's mouth open and drag the teeth over its side while searching for
the head. (Fortunately, the injury was extremely minor.) This anecdote
should only strengthen your resolve to feed prekilled; if even a *dead* prey
item presents a slight hazard, just imagine what a *live* one could do!
Legislation affects the use of feeder animals in the UK (the Protection of
Animals Act) and perhaps other countries as well. The UK law is not
particularly restrictive---it requires that live feeder vertebrates be used
only as a last resort and that the feeding process be monitored. Local US
jurisdictions may also have relevant regulations. Apprise yourself of the
local legislative situation as it applies to your feeding practices.
Subject: <7.4> I can't keep my <whatever species>. What do I do? Let it go?
No! Never release a captive animal back into the wild, especially if it's
a species that's not native to your area. The animal will either die, in
which case you didn't do it any favors, or it won't, in which case you have
just introduced an exotic species into your local ecosystem. This Is Bad;
the most drastic example among herps is the giant toad (_Bufo marinus_),
which created ecological chaos when it was introduced into Australia for
pest control (and it didn't even work for that). Even if your herp is a
native species, it may be carrying pathogens that shouldn't be released into
the wild, and if it was captive-bred, its genetics may have drifted enough
that you're introducing destructive genetic material into the wild population.
The problem of pathogens is not just theoretical; some wild populations of
herps have nearly been destroyed by well-meant releases of captive animals.
If you have a native herp that was caught in the wild, and you know exactly
where it was caught, and you're very sure it hasn't been exposed to any
pathogens while in your care, and it hasn't been in captivity too long, you
*might* think about releasing it. Even then, it probably isn't a good idea.
If you really can't keep a herp (or other pet), try to find it a good home.
If nobody wants to take it, a local herp society might be willing to put it
up for adoption among its members. Zoos generally will not accept donations
of this sort (they have enough Burmese pythons already), but if you have
something really unusual, it couldn't hurt to call the zoo and ask if they
want one. Or you can sell the animal to a pet store, though it behooves
you to find a good, responsible store that keeps its animals in decent
conditions. Just don't let it go.
Subject: <7.5> Can't you get salmonella from reptiles?
You can, indeed. However, if you take the most elementary precautions, your
chances of getting salmonella from a herp are much less than from, say,
incompletely cooked chicken. Wash your hands after handling herps or herp
supplies. Don't put herps in your mouth (yes, this probably means you should
resist the urge to kiss that bearded dragon). Keep herps away from food
preparation surfaces. In sum, don't treat herps as if they were "clean" for
human consumption. With that caveat obeyed, the risk of catching anything
from a herp is negligible.
Children and immunocompromised individuals are particularly vulnerable to
salmonella and other zoonotic infections. Therefore, it's appropriate to
observe additional precautions. Foremost among these is not allowing small
children to interact with herps without supervision; they tend to put their
hands, if not the actual animals, in their mouths, which is a good way to
expose themselves to any pathogens the animals might be carrying.
Steve Grenard of Herpmed maintains a document about salmonella and reptiles on
the Web, at
It's a thorough and valuable document, with brief case histories of some recent
reptile-associated salmonella cases and detailed guidelines on how to avoid
becoming one of them.
Section 8: Choosing a herp
Subject: <8.1> What's a good first herp?
Any answer to this question is necessarily colored by opinion. This question
attempts to list species that will be generally suitable for beginners with
no prior herpetological experience. It also focuses on species of which
captive-bred specimens are readily available in North America. (Information
on the availability of these species in other parts of the world, and
suggestions for suitable species where the ones below are hard to obtain,
would be welcome.)
See question 8.2 for some generalities to keep in mind when purchasing a
Good first snakes include corn snakes, common king snakes (of which there
are many subspecies: California, desert, Florida, speckled...), and captive-
bred or captive-born baby ball pythons. Imported adult ball pythons are a
poor choice, because they tend to be heavily parasitized and unwilling to
feed. Many people's first snake is a garter snake collected from the back
yard, but garter snakes are actually quite a bit harder to take care of than
the above-mentioned species. Boa constrictors and Burmese pythons are popular
pet-store items and very attractive snakes, but they grow rather large---
especially the Burmese---and should only be attempted by people who really
are prepared to share their home with a *big* snake.
There are many good starter lizards whose care requirements are not extreme,
but that can still provide much enjoyment and interest. The leopard gecko,
a desert-dwelling insectivorous species, is readily available captive-bred and
is easy to tame and maintain. Captive-bred bearded dragons are more
expensive but equally easy to keep and handle, though it is recommended that
the beginner start with a juvenile rather than a hatchling. Captive-bred
blue-tongue skinks are charming animals that can be easily set up in a
temperate enclosure with moderate supplemental heating. There are also many
suitable starter lizards that, however, are bred less frequently in captivity;
these include collared lizards, desert iguanas, chuckwallas, ameivas (also
called dwarf tegus), savannah monitors, and anoles.
<8.1c> Turtles & Tortoises
A number of turtles can be maintained in captivity by beginners, if they are
willing to devote the time necessary to keep them appropriately. Aquatic
turtles will require a large tank, basking areas, heat sources, filtration,
and frequent water changes. Hardy beginner turtles are sliders and cooters
(adopt a red-ear from your local herp society!), related species of sliders,
mud and musk turtles (including the African mud turtles), and some Asian water
turtles such as Reeves' turtles (_Chinemys reevesii_). Land turtles require a
large amount of land, heated quarters, hiding areas, and an appropriate
Good beginning turtles/tortoises are red-footed tortoises, leopard
tortoises, African spurred tortoises (which, however, grow rather large),
and captive-born box turtles. If at all possible, buy a captive-born turtle;
they generally do much better in captivity than wild-caught individuals, and
this may make the difference between success and a dead turtle.
David Kirkpatrick wrote an article for _Reptiles_ magazine on starting out
with aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles; it's available on the WWW at
<8.1d> Frogs & Toads
Any frog is more delicate than the "starter" reptiles listed above. This
doesn't mean they're off-limits to beginners, though. Popular first species
include White's tree frogs (sometimes called dumpy tree frogs) and "Pac-Man"
frogs (properly called horned frogs; there are several species). There are
good Advanced Vivarium Systems books on both, and plenty of keepers on the
net who will be helpful. Those who are willing to work with an aquarium have
the opportunity to keep aquatic frogs; the dwarf frog and African clawed frog
are very easy to keep and are excellent first frogs, while the related
Surinam toad is slightly more delicate but is included here in a shameless
display of favoritism by the author.
<8.1e> Salamanders & Newts
Several commonly available caudates make good first herptile pets. They are
just as interesting as frogs in most respects and don't vocalize (read: make
noise when you are trying to sleep).
Probably the easiest to keep are western US newts of genus _Taricha_ (the
California or golden newt and/or the rough-skinned newt, which will happily
eat tubifex worms or chopped earthworms, and can even be trained to eat dry
food pellets with time. They are friendly, robust, long-lived, and fairly
big for newts. (They are also *extremely* toxic if placed in the mouth;
wash hands after handling!) The eastern newt (eats tubifex or *small*
earthworm parts) isn't bad, and neither are the frequently seen Japanese
cynops species, fire-belly and paddle-tail (a.k.a. shovel-nose) newts,
which feed as do _Taricha_.
If you insist on a big salamader, stick with tiger salamanders (US), or
fire salamanders (Eur.), or a similar rugged and cheap species. In the US,
tigers can often be had, often erroneously labelled "waterdogs", "mudpuppies",
or even "axolotls", for a dollar or less from bait shops, in larval form.
Tiger larvae are very similar to the more fragile axolotl, and eat water bugs,
worm chunks, small fish and just about anything suitably sized for their
mouths, including small newts, or even smaller siblings! Don't mix-n-match.
Adults enjoy bugs of many sorts, meal worms, and earthworms.
European readers would do well to start with _Triturus cristatus_ (the crested
newt) or _Pleurodeles waltl_ (the ribbed newt); both are hardy, active,
aggressive feeders, and easily obtainable in Europe.
The only commonly available caecilian, the rubber "eel", can be found in
lots of aquarium shops (many of whom have no idea what it is - be sure
it is in good health, as it may not have been fed properly). They eat
small worm bits, tubifex, and small water-dwelling creatures including
tiny feeder fish, water insect larvae, etc. A parting word of caution
regarding caecilians: They love to escape. Get a tight-fitting screen top, and
make sure it stays closed at all times. Even a few seconds is long enough for
them to go wandering, so keep an eye out when feeding them with the lid open.
Subject: <8.2> My kid wants a reptile; what should we get?
There are some things to consider before buying any herp. Remember, first,
that buying the animal itself is likely to be the *cheapest* part of the
process; that $20 iguana will cost closer to $250 when equipped with housing,
a substrate, furnishings, lighting, heating, food, and initial veterinary
care. Second, many herps are sold as juveniles and will be many times larger
at adulthood than at purchase; consider whether you are prepared to provide
suitable enclosures as the animal grows, and just where you're going to put
those enclosures. Third, many lizards, and all frogs and snakes, are
carnivores; to keep one, you will need to provide other animals as food
items, possibly killing them yourself (see question 7.3). Fourth, even
vegetarian herps have specialized needs; lettuce is *not* a suitable diet for
an iguana or other vegetarian lizard, and you are likely to have some strange
conversations about turnip greens with your produce manager.
When a herp (or other pet) is being entrusted to a child, there's also the
issue of responsibility. Many herps require relatively little care to do
well, but this ease of maintenance actually makes neglect easier; after not
feeding the frogs for three or four days, it's easy to forget for another
week or two. In addition, certain large or flashy herps have a surface
appeal that may draw people (and especially young people) for the wrong
reasons: "If I had a *really* *big* snake, I could scare the heck outta my
Let's assume that the kid is responsible enough to take care of a pet, and
that its reasons for wanting a reptile are good reasons. In this case, the
species described in the answer to question 8.1 are good places to start
looking. The large snakes, however, are particularly contraindicated in
households with small children; incidents in which a snake injures a human
are *extremely* rare, but the effect on the public image of herpkeeping and
the potential for tragedy are great enough that it's better to play it safe.
For obvious reasons, venomous herps should never be kept in households with
Many, probably most, herpers started as children, and strongly encourage the
fostering of a child's interest in herps and other animals. This answer is
not intended to discourage children from keeping herps, but to suggest the
most responsible and rewarding routes to that end.