A young boy pushes his face to the glass as he closely examines a group of small green iguanas at a pet shop. "Mom, come look," he excitedly calls. "Oh, aren't they cute?" Mom says.
"Can we have one?" the kid implores. "You said we could get another pet when Lady died."
And 15 minutes later, the two walk out of the shop with aquarium, various paraphenalia, and a frightened, lonely iguana.
Something like this scene is played out thousands of times in pet stores across the land. Unfortunately, from such hopeful beginnings do not always ensue entirely happy experiences... at least not for the herps. Prospects for the iguana portrayed above are bleak... it may well be dead within six months. Much the same might be expected for other lizards, snakes, frogs, geckos, turtles and most other herps that have the rotten luck to be acquired by a well-meaning but totally inexperienced, ill-prepared and ignorant human.
No one should aquire any type of pet without a great deal of forethought, planning and research... but this statement goes double for herps, for of the common pet types they are perhaps the most difficult to properly care for. Mammals and birds are a snap to tend and nurture compared to most herps. Dogs, cats, birds, bunnies, mice and such thrive in a wide variety of temperatures and conditions, subsist on easily obtained and prepared food sources, and usually adapt quite readily and well to human companionship. But reptiles and amphibians do not in any way share the characteristics which allow such amazing resiliency and flexibility among mammals and birds. Whereas a macaw from the rainforest can quickly adapt to life in the colder regions of North America, and a dog bred for life in Nova Scotia can thrive in Texas, herps are highly specialized creatures that often cannot tolerate conditions more than a tad askew from that which they evolved to live in.
Many of the people who acquire a pet herp do so upon impulse. This is Pet Mistake No. 1! Indeed, the only mistake that can even approach this one in the travesties that it spawns is Pet Mistake No. 2 -- giving a pet as a gift. Both of these gross errors in judgment have one thing in common: they usually involve a keeper who is unprepared for all of the ramifications of caring for this animal.
All pet types are abused by people bumbling into ownership through one of the above mistakes, yet quite often cute little pups that grow into 100-pound dogs, kittens that turn into adult cats, parrots that act like, well, parrots, and even the ubiquitous "Easter" bunnies can at least survive long enough to have hope of finding a decent home. Not so with many herps. By the time the uneducated keeper figures out that this pet is really not for them, the herp is often well on the way to Rainbow Bridge... or perhaps already crossed over.
Almost all herps require special care and specific habitat conditions. Many need heating elements and full-spectrum lighting setups. Some need very moist conditions; others need a very dry living environment. Aquatic or semi-aquatic herps require extremely clean water sources. Failure to provide a habitat very close to that required for any given species is a sure-fire pathway to trouble.
Moreover, many herps acquired from pet shops may not even be in the best of conditions on Day One. Pet shop herps are notorious for being ill, weak or parasite-infested. The unprepared new owner is likely defeated before he or she gets started with a herp thus affected.
And then, on top of these potential problems, is the very specialized food that most herps require. Though commercial reptile foods are available for some species, these are best supplemented with other nutritional sources and vitamins. Iguanas, for instance, do best on a wide variety of foods... and the keeper who attempts to maintain one on a diet of iceberg lettuce will soon have a dead iggy. Certain herps, such as all snakes, turtles and many lizards require animal protein, which means that keepers must supply live or thawed mice, fish or other animal as food. Though these are fairly readily available if one knows where to look, they are certainly not as prevalent as dog or cat chow, and also not as easily served.
There is no getting around another aspect of herp-keeping as well: reptiles and amphibians do not adapt to human companionship as readily as most other pet types. Some never fully adapt to human companionship, no matter how they are handled and treated. So if a prospective pet-keeper is looking for a cuddly companion, they probably are better off looking in another pet realm. This is not to say that some herps can't eventually become tame and human-toleratant, or even what one might call "affectionate." But this is more the exception than the rule with most herp species.
The true herp aficianado enjoys his or her herps regardless of how "affectionate" they may be, for the true value of herp-keeping is in caring for, studying and experiencing these totally unique creatures that are so different from us. Aside from fish, herps are the most different from us of any of the commonly-kept pets. This fact entirely explains why such a different approach must be taken to ensure that they have a "lifestyle" that is secure, healthy and happy.
Herps have much to offer the well-prepared prospective keeper. Yet for those who think they might want a herp, but do not fully understand all they are getting into, we have just one word: Don't!
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