Buying an exotic reptilian isn’t an endeavour for the faint of heart. The idea of owning and loving a lizard from the other side of the planet hadn’t dawned on me until my partner did just that.
He’s been taking care of leopard geckos, veiled chameleons, and corn snakes since childhood. When we first met, I was almost immediately introduced to Estefan, the grumpiest blue-tongued skink in existence. Naturally, I was in love.
And you can be too. Aside from the cool factor (I see your cat and raise you a boa constrictor), owning exotics gives you an outlet for your obsessive need to control small environments and ye, even feel the warmth of a cold-blooded creature.
(DISCLAIMER: To properly care for any exotic you need to go far beyond this post. Research like mad before taking on the care of any living thing and be prepared for a potential decades-long commitment.)
Choosing a species
Questions to ask yourself first:
- Can you handle a baby animal?
- What are the space requirements of a fully-grown adult of the species you want?
- How much time are you willing to spend taking care of them?
- What are the health risks involved with that species?
- How much do you want to handle your pet?
Now RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH. Depending on how much money you want to spend, you can start small (anoles are around $5), or go big (tortoises start at $500). Also, some reptiles almost seem to enjoy handling but others are display only (do not give your child a tree boa).
Buying an exotic
Figure out where you’re going to buy your little sweetie. Avoid big box pet stores and find a local breeder who knows their stuff. In larger cities there are specific breeding clubs — these folks love them some exotics and will walk you through how to take care of your pet.
Look for a reptile that has already proved it can eat well, has bright eyes, unmarked skin and looks generally happy. Sometimes even with an experienced breeder, things can go wrong. We had a baby snake pass away under our care from a genetic neurological condition. Again, not faint heartedness here. If you can’t deal with this prospect, get a heartier juvenile.
Setting up a Terrarium
Also known as a vivarium (Latin for “place of life”) this tank will be where your creature spends 95%-100% of its time. There are a lot of factors to consider when you’re first getting set-up and all these will vary depending on what species you get. Almost all the work involved with keeping an exotic is setting it up properly.
Basic terrarium setup (adjusted to the needs of your species):
- A tank big enough for your exotic at its adult size. If you get a baby, you will have to upgrade your starter tank. Think about the ventilation needs of your pet.
- Your tank needs to be large enough to have a temperature gradient — so one side is warm, one side is cool and the middle is in between. Overhead heat lamps or heating pads for the bottom of the tank are commonly used to get this effect. Find what works for you.
- Almost all reptiles need UV lighting for their psychological/physical well-being. There are different spectrums of UV so make sure you get the right kind of light. All animals benefit from a day/night cycle, so turn all your lights off when you go to bed and on when you get up.
- There are a few types of bedding, from newspaper to sand. Your burrowing-type reptile will thank you for a couple inches of wood shavings to hide in. (Be careful about the kind you buy — cedar is toxic to reptiles. Aspen is a safe bet.)
- A water bowl is usually a good idea. It gives off humidity and your exotic can guzzle it down at will. Some species require more humidity, so misting them with a spray bottle or dampening their bedding will be necessary. Humidity also helps when it comes time for your lovely pet to shed its skin (it’s not gross, I swear).
- Places to hide like little caves or miniature huts will satisfy your exotic’s need for privacy.
- A flat surface to bask on gives your little one a chance to enjoy the UV/heat from the comfort of a warm rock.
Terrarium hacks abound:
- When you’re hunting for the perfect tank, try looking on kijiji or Craigslist for deals.
- Need a basking rock? Get a dark stone tile from a hardware store.
- Outdoor flood lights cost half as much as pet store heat lights and work just as well.
- Tube style UV lighting is cheap at aquarium stores. Just be sure to double-check the wattage and light spectrum requirements of your exotic.
- Try searching garden stores for humidifiers that will fit in your tank.
You are now on your way to a vague knowledge about exotics. I seriously can’t stress enough how much you need to research before jumping into reptile-ownership. However, it can be super rewarding.
Personally, I can’t imagine not having Estefan. He’s got a personality as big as any cat I’ve known. And hey, after all the initial costs, you might only have to feed your pet once a month. Then it’s just dealing with a freezer full of dead mice. Let’s just leave that one for another day.