© COPYRIGHT SUSAN DONOGHUE, VMD, DACVN
Nutrition Support Services, Inc.
Will you be ready when disaster strikes? I thought I was.
I've even published articles on disaster preparedness for owners of dogs and cats,
but a few days of the "Eastern United States 1993-94 Winter-From-Hell" almost destroyed my reptile and amphibian collection. Perhaps my experience will help
you to be ready when a winter disaster knocks on your herp-room door.
Reptiles are a big part of both my passion for animals and my business in veterinary clinical nutrition. On our farm in the Appalachian Mountains, feeding trials are underway with 41 tortoises representing eight species (mostly Geochelone sp.), 19 iguanids (mainly Iguana iguana), eight juvenile Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps), and several day geckos (Phelsuma sp.). Plus, I have the odd assortment of herps that seem to find their way into collections. Most of my animals are diurnal, requiring light to function normally, and all require an external heat source.
Ensuring the well-being of a reptile and amphibian collection housed in a four-season climate occupies a fair share of my thoughts and time. This commitment became a nightmare last winter.
After losing power, I checked temperatures every few hours in the herp room in the barn and my herp-laden office in the house. By 4:00 p.m., now 15 hours without power, temperatures inside were dropping below 55 F, so I fired up an electrical generator. It works for six hours on one tank of gasoline, so I had waited, rationing fuel until I could drive through the ice to buy more gas. An additional full can of gas would have provided another six hours of power.
Mechanical stuff is not my forte, and, although I had started the generator once during a practice run, I had not used the new machine when it was actually needed. I almost set fire to the barn by placing the generator so that it vented hot exhaust and sparks against the wood siding; the barn contained a loft filled with hay and, in a separate room, my herps. I turned off the machine while inhaling acrid smoke and pulled a hot tarpaulin away from the barn. The 200-pound generator needed to be moved and adjusted; I lacked the strength and expertise. I was shaken and, for the first time, aware that the lives of my reptiles might be truly in jeopardy.
It was a long night checking temperatures and animals. A young Cuban Rock Iguana (Cyclura nubila) stayed tucked inside my sweaters, but I had many more animals to care for. I laid awake between temperature checks, inventing survival plans in my mind. Were the roads passable or were they blocked with trees and downed wires? Where could I go with all these herps anyway? The storm had affected everyone I knew within hundreds of miles.
I came up with a plan: I'd warm up my car, then leave it idling with the animals inside until the power came back on. I ran to the car, euphoric with thoughts of warm herps. The car's battery was dead; the night temperatures dropped still lower.
By 2:00 a.m. (25 hours without power) temperatures in the reptile room began to drop below 50 F. I evacuated everything I could carry. For the iguanas, I kept the experimental groups separated so there wouldn't be mix-ups identifying animals. Baby Bearded Dragons went into individually numbered plastic drinking cups with lids fashioned from aluminum foil. My employees and I can usually identify each animal, but mistaken identification would destroy months of study. Most lizards went into pillow cases, with cagemates sharing the same bag; all were alive but had cold bodies and stiff limbs. Small tortoises went into boxes, while three almost-comatose Red-eyed Treefrogs (Agalychnis callidryas) were placed in a small plastic tank. All were moved to my office, which was holding at 52 F.
By first light, help arrived. My husband returned from a business trip after driving most of the night. Not only was it a noble gesture, but it meant we had a warm car with a good battery. We got to work. Seven African Spur Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata) soon filled the hatchback area, then bags and boxes of animals were added to the seats and floors.
By 5:00 p.m. (40 hours without power) the car was still running well although it was exhibiting occasional belches of exhaust, so we were concerned about its catalytic converter. As daylight waned and temperatures fell far below freezing, the degree of widespread destruction throughout the area became evident. Hunched over a battery-operated radio, we learned that power might not be restored for six more days!
Most motels were either closed or booked full immediately following the storm, but we found one about 15 miles from home in a town that saw remarkably little damage. We booked a room and an hour later arrived with a credit card and 87 ectotherms ranging from a tiny Painted Mantella Frog (Mantella cowani) to a 75- pound tortoise. Deciding that these were desperate times, we didn't ask the night clerk about their pet policy and moved in under cover of darkness.
We remained at the motel for about 40 hours. The African Spurs were barricaded on washable linoleum. All animals were kept off the shag carpeting in order to reduce risk of exposure to toxic chemicals found in cleaners. Little tortoises lived in newspaper-lined bureau drawers. Two Veiled Chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) shared time on a Schefflera plant brought from home. The Rock Iguana had a tank of his own, but other herps spent about 30 minutes each in rotating shifts inside a 10-gallon tank with food and water. Otherwise, they stayed in pillow cases, two or three to a sack. A few, such as a pair of crazed Basilisks (Basiliscus plumifrons), stayed put in their bag because of the high risk of escape and injury.
Finally, 81 hours after the ordeal began, I stood in my lighted herp room, watching the thermometer climb above 70 F, and prepared for the move back home.
We kept on-hand cash and credit cards to cover emergency expenses such as the motel room and a new car battery. In retrospect, our total expenditures didn't equal the cost of even one valuable tortoise.
I kept planning, right down to the last moment. We knew that our days in a motel room with African Spurs were numbered--they're just too big for such refinements. The day our power returned, I vowed to call everyone I knew, trying to find a heated kennel or stall that we could rent for the larger animals. If that failed, we talked of loading the cars and driving south.
We took every precaution we could think of to lessen the stress on our herps. Stress depresses appetite, and fasting in warm reptiles mobilizes vital tissue proteins which weakens immune systems, enzyme activities, and organ function. The risk of disease and death grows with each day off-feed. So, we kept the motel room warm but not hot (I didn't want my Spurs getting frisky), turned a television on softly to help block sudden startling noises, offered our own water from home to avoid chlorine and unfamiliar tastes and odors, and fed the freshest produce we could find. But few animals ate or drank.
When it was all over, we cleaned the motel room, including a thorough scrub of the linoleum. The room looked and smelled great, and no one complained. I want to be able to go there again if a problem develops, and I want the place there for other herpers as well.
After a few days in a dark office and barn, I'd forgotten what lights and appliances had been on when the power went off. When the electricity returned we were at the motel. I walked into the house four hours later and found heat lamps on, as well as tank lights that had been piled one on top of the other and pushed up against furniture in my haste to remove the animals. I realized how fortunate I was when I watched that morning in horror as a neighbor's dwelling went up in flames. Next time, I'll unplug everything before leaving and arrange for a neighbor to call me as soon as the power returns, so I can check for lights that might start fires.
Of the animals evacuated, one Mantella Frog died. Some that I thought might be fragile, such as newly hatched Paradoera pictus, seem fine today. The female Veiled Chameleon is due to lay eggs any day. She is not eating yet and is losing visible muscle (due to the mobilization of lean tissue), but is drinking water. Her mate is healthy and vigorous.
Each animal received an individual inspection upon return. No wounds or lesions were found. All of the tortoises received warm water soaks.
Twelve iguanas on feeding trials had been weighed the morning that the storm struck. We weighed each one as it was unpacked from its pillow case and after three days of recovery. During the four days of fasting, daily weight loss averaged 0.18% of body weight. Following three days of recovery, daily weight gain averaged 0.28%. Body weight gains were not statistically significant (paired t-test). The data suggest that nutritional intervention was not yet necessary by day four of the emergency, for the animals neither lost a significant amount of weight during the emergency nor gained a significant amount during recovery.
Data is not available for reptiles, but for humans, nutrition support is recommended following acute weight loss of 10% of body weight. The large bowel of iguanas (and tortoises) is adapted for hind-gut fermentation, so this carries much water and fiber (a source of calories), and may have helped to prevent weight loss and serious dehydration.
We were especially worried about the six-week old Bearded Dragons because of their relatively high activity, short digestive tracts with more hydrolytic than fermentative digestion, and low intakes of food and water while stressed. They had been weighed two days before the storm, one day after the emergency ended, and then two days later. Daily weight gain averaged 0.62% of body weight during the emergency, then 2.63% during recovery (Table 2). In contrast, daily gains during the previous six weeks averaged 3.29%. The difference between pre-emergency gain and emergency gain in body weight was significant (P=0.00043).
Most refused to eat or drink voluntarily during the 81 hours of the emergency. The cold and darkness experienced during the first few days took a toll on the animals. Confinement in bags--sharing strange and close quarters with cagemates--was undoubtedly stressful. If the evacuation continued another day or two, we would have considered involuntary feeding and, more importantly, fluid administration.
Upon return, after four days of stress, all herps were rested for five to seven days. Feeding trials were suspended temporarily, and all were offered a wide variety of fresh foods with our rehabilitation premix added. The premix provides nutritional balance, with emphasis on high quality protein and those nutrients known to be affected by stress (such as zinc and vitamin C).
Much that I learned sounds like a cliche; we've heard it all year on news interviews following hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Don't underestimate the power of the weather. One cannot over-prepare for disasters. Aim for self-sufficiency, because others may not be able to reach you. Remember that you'll have other concerns on your mind, in addition to your herps. You may be responsible for young children or elderly neighbors and, I hate to say it, you may have to opt for your own survival and leave your herps behind.
Whether you evacuate with or without your collection, try to ensure the safety and comfort of your animals. Confinement helps to prevent injury from falls or wounds from fighting. Our data suggest that hindgut fermentors may tolerate several days of fasting. Individuals which are very young and growing rapidly, and those which digest food with relatively more hydrolysis (such as Bearded Dragons), may not be as tolerant. Water is critical for all species; provide access to drinking water or moist substrate at regular intervals. My experience suggests that a few days of food and water deprivation in previously healthy animals did little lasting harm and recovery is likely for most herps. For myself, I will be just a bit longer recovering from the stress of this emergency.
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