Pet life: keeping snakes, lizards and frogs

One of Andrew Stratton's Leopard geckos

One of Andrew Stratton's Leopard geckos - Credit: Archant

Keeping a snake, lizard or frog may not be everyone’s first choice when searching for the ideal pet, but these creatures can offer a wealth of interest for those seeking a more unusual animal companion

Andrew Stratton, owner of Pelagic Aquatics, holds an Albino Apricot Pueblan milk snake

Andrew Stratton, owner of Pelagic Aquatics, holds an Albino Apricot Pueblan milk snake - Credit: Archant

Reptiles, amphibians and indeed invertebrates as alternatives to traditional cute and fluffy pets are perfect for people wanting an observational, relatively low-maintenance and a different option, according to fish and reptile enthusiast Andrew Stratton.

Andrew, who owns Pelagic Aquatics on the outskirts of Matfield, which also stocks a good selection of cold-blooded creatures, has kept fish since the age of seven after winning a goldfish at a fair.

The entrepreneur has seen his aquatics business expand significantly over the past 10 years and is now seeing a surge in popularity for his shop reptiles. The aquatics fanatic also has a particular soft spot for chameleons and the shop ‘pet’ – a 12-foot-long snake, named Darth Vader.

He says: “The Burmese python is as close to a shop pet as we’ve got as we have had her since she was small – we would probably sell her if someone offered us silly money but I’ve already said no to someone last year. She is very friendly and definitely a bit of an attraction for us.

“We call her Darth Vader because she is always hissing as she breaths in and out and everyone thinks that’s aggressive, but essentially she’s saying ‘here I am, how are you?’

Chameleons will need spraying twice a day to mimic rainfall; this is a Panther chameleon from Madaga

Chameleons will need spraying twice a day to mimic rainfall; this is a Panther chameleon from Madagascar - Credit: Archant

“She seems to be more comfortable and relaxed when I handle her. Not that she dislikes anyone, but there is a bond with me,” Andrew smiles.

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The non-venomous snake weighs about 25 kilograms with the potential to reach about 18-feet-long. Of course, a Burmese python is not the species for someone starting out in snakes – much more suited is the corn snake or royal python because they only reach about five or six feet long and are very thin.

“Corn snakes are so relaxed and chilled out that even when they are angry they can’t be bothered – it’s like they are saying, ‘I’m really angry but actually I would rather go to sleep,’” reassures Andrew.

It is the low-maintenance leopard gecko, however, which remains the most popular reptile in the shop with children and adults starting out in this area of animal keeping.

Andrew explains: “Leopard geckos are kind of a starter lizard and very easy to look after. If people come in and say ‘I like lizards’ this is where we would direct them.

Andrew Stratton holds a Panther chameleon

Andrew Stratton holds a Panther chameleon - Credit: Archant

“They are a desert species from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, you can keep groups of females together and they are actually easy to breed, which some people like to do as well because you get all these interesting, weird and wonderful colours.”

Meanwhile, chameleons are a step up from a basic reptile in terms of care, but still are not difficult to keep, although Andrew warns: “They are rainforest animals so do require quite high humidity levels and will need spraying twice a day to mimic the rainfall.

“Rainmaking systems are available which allow you to push a button and the whole vivarium mists up,” he adds, pointing out that a vivarium in which to keep your reptile is an essential purchase.

“Because reptiles are from hotter climates, providing extra heat sources is of paramount importance, be that a heat mat that sits underneath them to raise the ambient temperature, heat bulbs or UV strip lights which mimic the sun to keep them nice and healthy.”

Andrew says most reptiles will eat insects including locusts and crickets but because they are cold-blooded, they don’t get heat from their food like mammals do, they get it from their environment. Therefore, reptiles require feeding a lot less – just two to three times a week.

His customers are varied both in age and experience with many children wanting ‘a dragon’ as their first pet, teenagers looking for their next reptile and adults looking for another species to add to their collection.

Buying any animal should never be taken lightly and Andrew advises potential owners to have a few weeks to think in between looking and purchasing to ensure it is the right pet for them.

He adds: “The average age of people buying the geckos, the bearded dragons and the corn snakes is between eight and 12 years old. Then you get people coming here who have had reptiles before and want something else as a challenge to add to their collection. Because you can easily stack vivariums, you can keep two or three different things and have a little collection without taking up a huge area.”

An attraction for potential reptile owners is that most species are very easy to care for. “Some species are fruit as well as insect-eating – for example, the Iguanas and the Uromastyx are more vegetarian. Geckos will eat fruit as well so you can vary the diet a little bit but their diets are mainly insect based.”

Andrew stresses the importance of providing a domestic reptile with UV light as asource of vitamin D. “Like all living things, when UV light falls on their skin they create vitamin D and that is what allows them to absorb calcium and keeps their bones nice and strong.

“They have quite thick skin because they are used to desert regions so they need a really powerful UV to get through that skin.

“Tortoises need a good source of UV because if they stop absorbing calcium in their diet their shell will start to go soft which can be fatal for them. The UV is something that needs to be thought out beforehand and maintained all the way through the creature’s life.”

As well as reptiles, customers are also looking for observational pets such as amphibians and invertebrates and enjoy recreating their natural habitats inside the tanks.

“Things like spiders and frogs are not really handling or cuddly pets, but it’s when they think you can’t see them that it becomes so fascinating watching their behaviour. People like the challenge of keeping these creatures – you can get more advanced reptiles and amphibians which require much more complicated set-ups.

“Keeping things like poison dart frogs in their natural environment – mimicking their rainforest habitat with lots of plants and the rain makers – can be quite a challenge but beautiful to create. It’s painting a living picture.”

Andrew adds: “The most popular frog we have is the white tree frog – they are big green frogs, make a nice noise, can be handled, they are fun and jump around about a bit and can live between 10 to 14 years.

“Then you get the more specialist red-eyed tree frog which are beautiful they are a bit more nocturnal. The white tree frogs and the milk frogs are species which you can handle, they’ll jump around and eat in your hand, so they are a more interactive pet.”

Andrew admits that it takes a certain type of person to want these types of creatures in their homes but this number is growing, adding that there is a real community of people out there who share a passion for ‘scales and tails’.

Did you know?

• A chameleon’s territory in a tree is only a couple of metres square and if it’s a big tree there may be hundreds of chameleons using their colour-changing skin at the same time to communicate their emotions and whether they are looking for a mate.

• A Burmese python could probably survive about six months between feeds in the wild with no ill effects. Reptiles don’t require regular food like mammals who need to eat almost continuously to regulate their body temperature - a snake’s heat comes from their environment.

• Bearded dragons are hardy and robust and very popular pets for that reason.

• Reptiles’ personalities tend to vary as individuals rather than between species.

• The cost of keeping a reptile is relatively low - it is the initial equipment and creature itself which are most expensive. There are some running costs in terms electric heat bulbs and providing food, but there’s not a huge outlay compared to keeping other types of pet.

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