People and Pets

Monday, November 8, 2010


The Sulcata Tortoise, Geochelone sulcata is native to Africa and occupies a hugh territory across the northern part of the continent south of the Saharah Desert. The land is hot and very dry. During the long summer the temperature climbs to well over 100 degrees F with little or no rain. Yet in this harsh and unforgiving environment, Sulcatas survive. So well adapted and efficient is their digestive/excretory system they are able to obtain the water they need to live from the sparse, impoverished vegetation. They are equipped with thick skin which greatly inhibits fluid loss. To escape the merciless sun and to access subterranean moisture they burrow beneath the arid soil.
True giants of the tortoise world, Sulcatas are exceeded in size only by the Galapagos and Aldabra species. Males can attain a shell length in excess of thirty inches and weigh more than 100 pounds. Females are somewhat smaller. A life span of over fifty years is common. The heavy, flattened carapace features shades of brown and muted yellow and sports distinctly marked scutes. The front legs are massive and well protected. Large spurs decorate the rear legs.

Before buying a Sulcata Tortoise several factors need to be considered. First, realize that these reptiles get big and live a long time. If you reside in an apartment or a house without a yard, this tortoise is not for you. Second, ask yourself if you are willing to devote the time, work, and money it will take to keep the animal healthy. Details are elaborated on later in this article. Read ahead and see what is required.
Now, on to the creature itself. Inspect the animal's enclosure. Is it clean and dry? Next, pick up the tortoise. It should feel somewhat heavy, look alert, and be active. The shell should be hard and free of anomalies. Eyes should be clear with no swelling or oozing and the nostrils should be unobstructed and without any mucus. Reject any animal with sores, ulcers or lumps in the mouth. Finally, check the vent for suspicious-looking discharges. It would be prudent to ask the seller about the tortoise's history, what it's been eating, if he offers a guarantee and any other questions you might have.

Babies can be kept in aquariums or large plastic tubs. Simply provide larger quarters as the animal grows. Reptiles are ectotherms which means they don't produce body heat. They rely on the environment to supply the proper temperature for their life processes. In the wild this is accomplished by moving into sunlight when body temperature is too low and retreating to shady areas, or into water, or going underground when body temperature becomes too high. By approaching or avoiding the sun reptiles thermoregulate. In captivity, the keeper provides the appropriate environment by establishing a temperature gradient. This is done by locating a heat source at one end of the enclosure. A clip-on "work light" fixture incorporating an incandescent bulb or a ceramic heat bulb works well. The tortoise is free to position itself directly under the fixture to get maximum heat or move away to progressively cooler areas. The basking spot (directly under the heat source) should be 85-90 degrees F and the coolest place in the enclosure, in the low 70s. You'll need to install a thermometer at each end of the enclosure to monitor the temperature levels.
With the exception of snakes and nocturnal species, reptiles require sunlight, or in its absence, a specific wavelength of light from an artificial source to survive. Without exposure to UVB rays tortoises can't produce adequate levels of Vitamin D and consequently can't absorb calcium. This encourages the development of metabolic bone disease resulting in life threatening growth deformities as well as loss of appetite and other abnormal behavior. You will have to provide the UVB emissions. This is easily done with special fluorescent lights available at pet stores handling reptiles. Look for Active UV-heat bulbs by T-REX, ZOOMED's Reptisun 5.0 or iguana lights, or Tetra Terrafaun's DayCycle.
The enclosure's substrate begins with a layer of newspaper to soak up excessive urine or water. On top of this put a mixture of sand and garden soil, preferably with a high peat content, a layer of hay such as Timothy hay which can be found in pet supply stores, or a product such as Lizard Litter. Change the paper and substrate material when it becomes soiled. Water should be provided in a shallow bowl. Change it daily. Be sure to include a hide box for your pet. An appropriately sized cardboard box will do. Larger specimens will need to be moved outside during warmer weather. Dry conditions are necessary and nighttime temperatures should not drop below 70 F. Make sure you have a strong, secure enclosure. Sulcatas are master diggers and can push with the force of small tanks. Include shady areas, a shallow water source, and some kind of shelter (a large trash can laid on its side works) in your design. Take precautions against dogs, cats, raccoons, etc. They can injure and even kill a tortoise.

In the wild, the preponderance of a Sulcata's diet is grasses and so it should be with pets. High fiber foods are essential. Various grasses and hay can be found in larger pet supply stores. Feed alfalfa sparingly due to its relatively high protein content. Cut the grass into pieces suitable to the size of the tortoise. Feeding excessive protein (Sulcatas need very little) leads to shell deformities (pyramiding) and other health problems. Therefore, do not give these animals cat or dog food. Even  commercial tortoise food is improper. Vegetables can make up the remainder (25-30%) of the diet. Sulcatas benefit from the addition of vitamin and calcium supplements. Sprinkle a little on their food once or twice a week. Use the kind formulated for reptiles. Herptivite and Rep-Cal are good choices.
Again, don't purchase a Sulcata Tortoise unless you are prepared to make a serious commitment to care for it properly. It's life depends on your devotion. If you're willing to dedicate the time, effort, and resources necessary to properly maintain this magnificant animal, you will be well rewarded.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


It's been my experience that when it comes to snakes, opinions are restricted to two camps: those who love them and those who hate them. Unfortunately for the snakes, the latter group greatly outnumbers the former. I love snakes and don't understand the negative attitude they engender in many people. Contrary to popular belief, they are not slimy, and the vast majority are harmless. When approached they will flee. Imagine moving about your environment, capturing prey, fending off predators, and reproducing - without limbs. Snakes have pulled it off in grand style. Wild-caught specimens can make fine pets, especially king snakes, milk snakes, and corn snakes. But the variety of captive-born reptiles available today is staggering. All things considered, that's definitely the way to go. The large constrictors (boas and pythons) have long intrigued me. My favorite among the giants is the Burmese python. Impressive in size (growing to twenty feet or more), beautifully marked, and generally docile they make magnificent pets. Breeders have produced them in an enticing assortment of colors and patterns. Rare or new forms can be very expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars. However, a normal Burmese, clad in an array of greens, gray, and browns is a striking creature and very inexpensive. Babies can be purchased at reptile shows for about forty dollars. I wanted to add another Burmese to my collection, and since I already had a normal, an albino was selected. You might think that an albino snake would be pure white but that's not the case. A baby albino Burmese is basically white with tracings of yellow/orange and pink. Hatchlings tend to be "nippy", but outgrow their defensive striking behavior within a few weeks. My little snake (a female) was three weeks old and 18 inches long. A ten gallon aquarium with a screen cover and newspaper on the bottom housed the young serpent. A heat lamp fastened to the cover, a hide box, water bowl, and a rough rock completed the decor. A thermometer and a device to measure humidity were installed. I used a thoroughly rinsed Windex pump spray bottle to increase the enclosure's humidity. The rock served two purposes. Positioned under the heat lamp, it provided a basking spot and would be there for the snake to rub its snout against to begin its first shed. This event occurs shortly after the snake's first meal. I'm sure you noticed that I haven't mentioned the snake by name. I don't name my snakes for two reasons. Snakes don't hear air-borne sounds, or if they do, they hear only very low-pitched sounds. Secondly, they lack the cognitive ability to realize a sound (me saying her name) relates specifically to them. My beautiful albino took her first prey a few days after taking up residence in her new home. She constricted a small mouse (sometimes called a "hopper"), and when it stopped moving, proceeded to swallow it. The sequence of events, from prey detection to ingestion was quick and well coordinated, just like an adult performance. The reptile was ravenous. She moved on to adult mice, then small rats, then adults, then to multiples of the biggest rats I could find. The ten gallon aquarium morphed into a 8' x 4' x 3' custom-made plywood and plexiglass cage. Over the years I handled my Burm regularly. She grew at an astounding rate and I didn't want to eventually have to deal with fifteen feet of muscle, sharp teeth, and nasty attitude. Feeding became a problem; the biggest rats were too small. I needed to provide larger prey animals. A friend came to the rescue. He knew a man who was raising a breed of giant rabbits. I purchased one of the monsters and presented it to my now ten foot albino Burm. When the rabbit entered the cage it was struck immediately. Apparently a rabbit's foot isn't so lucky after all. I'd never imagined a rabbit could shriek as loudly as this one did. People came running from all over the house. They found the scene disturbing, and after voicing their displeasure, beat a quick retreat. So huge was the bunny that having subdued it , I wondered if the snake could swallow a creature so large. To my surprise, after an hour of pushing and pulling and twisting, the rabbit disappeared down the snake's grotesquely distended mouth. There would be no more live rabbits after this episode. I located a pet store that stocked frozen ones and they were the main course from then on. On a diet of two frozen-thawed rabbits a week my snake continued to grow. By her seventh birthday (hatchday?) she measured 15 feet in length and was as thick as my thigh. Big, healthy, gorgeous, and dog-tame - the most impressive animal I've ever had the privilege to keep. Yet, even as I admired her size I realized I would have to give her up soon. The once spacious cage was now inadequate and I had nowhere else to keep her. Eventually, I sold my giant to an enthusiast who devoted an entire room to his snakes. The Python Palace featured sub-floor heating, a large tub, logs and poles for climbing, and a ventilation system. I felt confident that my pet would have a comfortable life there. TOP PHOTO: Having dispatched its prey, the snake begins engulfing the rabbit. BOTTOM: After an hour's struggle, the rabbit has been reduced to a memory and a bulge.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


In the mid '90s miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs were very popular in the pet trade. The little porkers attained a length of about twenty-four inches and a weight in the vicinity of 35 pounds - or so it was said - and made hearty and docile pets.When we saw them in the store we had to have one. A friendly young female was selected and my wife and I settled on the name Tiffany. Our house sits on three and a quarter acres of mostly wooded land so space was not a concern. Apparently our little pig chose to disregard the size expectations for her species. She began gaining weight quickly and it became obvious that Tiffany was going to be a big, fat pig. She didn't disappoint. But she was a sweet gal, with an engaging personality. Favorite activities included, of course, eating, and having her side scratched. Within a few minutes of the latter activity she would collapse into a blissful stupor. The routine never failed to elicit a chuckle from human observers. We so enjoyed Tiffany that the purchase of another pot-bellied pig was inevitable. The new one, a male we named Scooter, exhibited a temperament markedly different from his female companion. He was, shall we say, agressively self-assertive and I sometimes hesitated to turn my back on the little rascal. Apparently, our trash cans struck Scooter as rivals for the attention of Tiffany because he never tired of pushing them fifty yards through bushes and vines and into a stream.
From an early age Scooter displayed a relentless interest in sex. His attempts to mate with his girlfriend were Quixotic due to the size difference. But he persisted. That autumn Tiffany assumed an even more rotund appearance. In mid-November eleven adorable piglets arrived. As soon as they popped out of mom they were straining umbilical cords to the breaking point. With eyes and nostrils wide open, they were off and running. We loved the babies but didn't have the time or room to take on another eleven pigs. After they were weaned we donated them to a children's petting zoo.
As the months went by Tiffany grew even larger, and Scooter became more aggressive. We took to calling him, only half jokingly, Satan. Soon problems developed. Former homebodies, the pair now took it upon themselves to regularly investigate neighborhood yards. Any not earning their approval were dug up or defaced in more unpleasant ways. My wife and I became social outcasts. Circumstances forced us to the conclusion that, as much as we loved Tiffany and Scooter, we couldn't keep them. Finding them a proper home had us stymied until we met a guy who knew a guy with a horse farm. The farm owner, a kind-hearted fellow, agreed to take in our animals.
I've come to realize some things about pigs. They are intelligent, tough, and strong. Studies indicate they are at least as intelligent as dogs. And with the exception of unneutered males, pigs, at least the breed I kept, are affectionate and playful. What more could you ask for in a pet.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I have a lady friend I call P.C. ( no, the initials don't stand for personal computer or politically correct) who enjoys keeping exotic pets. At one time she was the proud caretaker of a Golden Marmoset, a boa constrictor, and a skunk. I don't think you can get much more exotic than that. She later developed an interest in lizards. I expected  her first acquisition to be something prosaic, like a baby green iguana. But she brought home an adult water monitor. Native to southeast Asia, they grow to an enormous size. Hers measured seven feet in length and weighed about 50 pounds. Fortunately, the former owner raised it from a hatchling and obviously lavished it with attention because it was dog-tame. "Baby" was housed in a small room with adjoining bath in the basement. Space heaters supplied warmth and florescent tubes, designed for reptiles, provided the light spectrum required to keep lizards healthy in captivity. Baby soon accepted the new environment and spent much of his time soaking in the bath tub. Food, in the form of frozen-thawed rats, chicken laced with vitamins and minerals, and occasionally eggs and fish, was eagerly taken. P.C. interacted with her pet daily, and the two creatures bonded. In fact, the lizard became quite possessive of the woman. I remember a time when I walked past the two of them too closely. Baby produced a threatening hiss and struck me with his tail. Startled, I retreated and examined the welt on my leg. My approach never elicited an aggressive response when Baby was alone.
Panic erupted one fine summer day when P.C. discovered her reptilian friend missing. Somehow, the beast opened the door to his room, navigated the basement, and escaped. A thorough search of the yard and surrounding area produced only a couple of indignant toads and a nervous mouse. The Lizard King was on the loose. A water monitor's behavior changes dramatically when it is outdoors. Survival instincts take command. If approached, it will attempt to flee. If cornered, it will lash out with its tail and bite. Given Baby's size and newly acquired attitude, we were concerned for neighborhood pets and curious children. Days passed with no sign of the escapee but we did get reports of sightings. Knowing water monitor habits and remembering a stream in a wooded area about a hundred yards from P.C.'s house, a plan was formulated. On the stream bank a stake with a piece of chicken tied to it was hammered into the ground. Now we had to wait and see if the big lizard would come to the bait. Several times a day I crept quietly to the trap site. Never have I felt more like Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter. My patience was rewarded one morning, when, as I approached the stream, I saw Baby chewing on the chicken we had staked down. Rushing through the vegetation, I pounced on my quarry. A tough struggle ensued but I avoided claws and teeth and prevailed in the encounter. My opponent scored a few points with his tail, however. I wrapped the thrashing reptile in an old blanket and carried him home. Looking a little sheepish, he slipped into his tub. The door was fitted with a lock and the escape route secured. Lizard and neighborhood could relax.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Slick with sweat, my hands squeezed the steering wheel as I raced helplessly toward the intersection. If I didn't apply the brakes within the next few seconds I would smash into the cars stopped in front of me. My right foot pounded the brake peddle repeatedly but it wouldn't go down. Fate was about to reward an act of kindness with blood and thunder. All right, a little overly dramatic, I know. Here's a more sedate version of the story.
I was driving on US 40 a few years back when I noticed something plodding across the road up ahead. It was a turtle, an Eastern Box Turtle to be precise. And it was about to become a bloody pancake. As an enthusiastic dilettante of herpetology, I had to try to prevent the impending tragedy. I pulled my car off the road and sprang into action. With the speed and agility of a jungle cat I raced to the hapless reptile. Clutching the animal tightly under my arm, I sprinted to safety. And let me tell you, Superman never moved as fast as I did on that fateful summer afternoon. After placing the lucky creature in the back seat of my beloved Camaro Z28, I drove on, planning to release it when I found an area unthreatened by automobiles.
About ten minutes later I came upon a group of cars stopped at an intersection and needed to decelerate quickly. I pushed hard on the brake but it wouldn't go down. A crash was imminent unless whatever was interfering with the brake peddle was removed. Kicking and prodding finally dislodged the impediment and the car jerked to a halt. On the floor I found the turtle I recently rescued. The ungrateful son-of-a-gun had crawled from the back of the car to the front and got stuck under the brake peddle. My act of bravery nearly resulted  in disaster.
Would I do it again? Sure, but in the future I'll keep an old pillow case or a cardboard box in the car to preclude a similar occurrance.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


While doing yard work on a Saturday morning several years ago I spied a small, indistinct lump on the lawn. To my dismay, it proved to be a baby gray squirrel,      so young that it's eyes hadn't opened yet. With the mother nowhere within sight or hearing, I realized the pup was doomed to a slow, unpleasant death. More disturbing yet, it might be killed and eaten by one of the many raccoons or foxes that frequent our yard. I knew keeping native wildlife as pets was illegal but abandonment was a mitigating circumstance here. Fate was generous that day. Our cat  dropped a litter of young a week earlier. Upon introduction, the little orphan was immediately accepted and soon began to nurse. Before long  he began to gain weight and see the world through newly opened eyes. We decided to name him Sparky. Within a few weeks he was weaned onto solid food. He had the run of the house and never grew tired of exploring it. To facilitate tracking, I fitted Sparky's collar with a bell. A favorite game involved scampering to the top of the living room curtains, then sliding down them to the floor. The rescue and nurturing of Sparky has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Visitors describe him as "adorable." Intelligent, curious, affectionate and playful, he became a cherished member of our household. Top left: Sparky mugs for the camera. Bottom left: A curious squirrel perambulates my head. He has indeed found one of the biggest nuts in the world.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


My first encounter with the natural world occurred when, as a baby, I crawled, with loaded diaper in tow, from the kitchen to the backyard and ate my first bug. The experience could not have been too aversive because a keen interest in creatures great and small has been a constant throughout my life. During childhood I enjoyed the usual assortment of pets: a kitten, hamsters ( I always seemed to get the ones that bit ), a parakeet, goldfish in inadequately sized bowls, a baby turtle in a little plastic tub, and so on.
When I was five we moved to the suburbs where space allowed for a dog. But of greater concern to me was the woods across the street. My mind raced with enthusiasm as I tried to imagine the kinds of creatures such a dark, leafy habitat might conceal. The mystery soon dissipated as my gang and I began making regular sorties into our personal jungle collecting box turtles, green frogs, garter snakes, preying mantises, salamanders and anything else that either wasn't fast enough to get away or wouldn't bite or sting us. At age nine I was introduced to the hobby of keeping tropical fish and quickly got hooked.
My high school and college years were relatively lean pet-wise. There were a couple of dogs and a fish tank or two. But generally study, sports, and females of my own species garnered most of my attention. And, of course, occasionally someone would drag me to a keg party or force me to participate in a panty raid.
In my case, adulthood recapitulated childhood as far as my fascination with animals was concerned, only on a much grander scale. The pieces all fell into place. Now I had money, my own place, and nobody to tell me "no." I was off to the races. Garter snakes became Burmese pythons and fish bowels morphed into 135 gallon aquariums. I would like to share some of my pet-keeping experiences with you, gentle creatures of the blogosphere, and I hope you will do the same.