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Rescuing Reptiles in Need

When deciding on a reptile pet, consider the adoption option!



It’s common to see dogs and cats in need of homes. So many animal shelters are filled with these kinds of pets. But the most popular pets are not the only ones who find themselves in need of rescue. Herps of all kinds are the focus of rescue groups around the country that are working to find them good homes.

Given how easy it is to care for most herps, how do so many of these pets end up without homes? While statistics on homeless herps aren’t typically kept by large animal welfare organizations the way they are tallied for dogs and cats, the considerable number of reptile rescues in the U.S. and Canada indicates a serious need.

sulcata tortoise

MontezumaSulcata/Wikipedia

Sulcata tortoises may wind up in rescues after people who bought a cute little hatchling later learned this species grows into a very sizable tortoise with special care requirements.
 

Most Popular Reptiles in Hobby Are Those in Need

Not surprisingly, the species of herps that are most in need of new homes are the ones that are most common in the pet market. Various reasons exist for why owners can’t or won’t keep these animals.

“The reptiles that end up in rescue situations are first, those that are popular pets and therefore in captivity in high numbers, and second, those that grow to large sizes as adults and/or are difficult or costly to care for,” says Janna Shepherd, executive director of the Reptile Rescue Center in Little Rock, Ark., an organization whose goal is to rescue surrendered, unwanted, injured, abused, and neglected reptile pets. The Reptile Rescue Center also provides rehabilitation, which includes seeking appropriate veterinary medicine, administering care to return the animal to good condition, and dealing with any behavioral issues. 

hatchling green iguana

HdeK/wikipedia

The iguana is cute when a hatchling, but they grow very large and require specialized care.
 

According to Shepherd, the Reptile Rescue Center most frequently gets calls for normal, male ball pythons; water turtles; iguanas; boa constrictors, and sulcata tortoises. “Normal male ball pythons have little-to-no ‘value’ in hobby breeding, and their long life spans also make them a common ‘lack of interest’ surrender,” she says. “Water turtles are often purchased inexpensively as small babies, especially when people are on vacation at the beach. Once people realize the turtles’ actual care and space requirements as adults, they find themselves in over their heads and often opt for surrendering them into rescue.”

Shepherd says green iguanas, boas, and sulcatas all fall into the category of being larger as adults than owners expect them to be when they buy them as juveniles. 

The Reptile and Amphibian Rescue Network (RARN), a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization committed to helping reptiles of all kinds, provides treatment and safe haven for reptiles with medical issues, behavioral issues, and any other trouble that causes the animal to require more specialized care than shelters can provide. 

According to RARN, as reptiles and amphibians became increasingly popular as pets, problems with caring for them escalated. Reptile imports in the U.S. now exceed those of exotic birds, and are second only to the vast numbers of imported ornamental fish, according to RARN. For every animal that makes it into the United States alive, many more die. Of those that survive the import process, most will die within the first year of captivity due to improper care, abuse, neglect and ignorance.


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RARN rescues injured and sick reptiles and amphibians, nurses them back to health, and finds proper homes for these animals. RARN also helps pet owners become educated in the care of their animals. Jason Lawless, a herpetologist with RARN, sees ball pythons, boa constrictors, iguanas and slider turtles as the most common herps in rescue.

“These are the species that are overcrowding the reptile rescues,” he says. “Each of them are very cheap to buy and are sold as amazing pets. However, what usually doesn’t get told is that each of those animals lives a long time—30-plus years—and gets large. This means they need long-term care. In families, the kids grow up and move out and leave the animals at home.”

At CCSB Reptile Rescue, Rehabilitation & Adoption Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., herps of all kinds are surrendered and then re-homed whenever possible. The center not only provides a sanctuary for herps in need, but offers removal from homes and ponds, and takes in any unwanted reptiles. 
CCSB places adoptable animals in homes, when possible. In cases where the animal is not adoptable, the organization works in coordination with zoos, science centers and educational facilities to ensure the animal will have the best care possible while being enjoyed from a distance. 

“We get everything turned over to us, including venomous [snakes] and crocodilians,” says Chad Griffin, a herpetologist with CCSB. “The most common species that are owner-surrendered are iguanas, red-eared sliders, ball pythons, corn snakes, boas, bearded dragons, leopard geckos, Nile and savannah monitors, and sulcata and Russian tortoises.”

New Homes for Rescued Reptiles

Finding the right homes for herps that have been displaced is a priority for reputable rescues. A thorough screening process is crucial in making sure animals go to an appropriate situation.

“We have an extensive screening process for potential adopters to make sure the reptiles we adopt out wind up in knowledgeable, loving homes and won’t be surrendered back into rescue—or worse—down the road,” says Shepherd. 
The Reptile Rescue Center screening process begins with an adoption application with questions about how the potential owner plans to house, feed and provide general care for the species in which he or she is interested. The questionnaire also asks for information about other pets currently or previously owned.

“We then go over the application with the potential adopter to make sure they have the correct care information and know our adoption policies,” says Shepherd. “Lastly, we perform a home visit to make sure the adopter has a suitable habitat set up and ready for their new pet.”

The center requires that adopters have the necessary caging, heating and lighting equipment, cage furnishings and food to ensure that the new pet will be happy and healthy. In fact, potential adopters must meet species-specific minimum requirements in order to adopt an animal. For example, requirements for leopard geckos include a minimum enclosure size of 20 gallons, constructed with solid walls, adequate top or side ventilation, and at least three sides darkened or covered. The enclosure must be secure with either latching doors or a screen held on with clips or a locking mechanism. Primary basking heat should be provided with an under-tank heater, and additional overhead heat in the form of a ceramic heat emitter or a blue heat bulb may be necessary if ambient air temperatures in the home are too low. The chosen heat source must be hooked up to a reliable thermostat, preferably a digital one, and temperature should be monitored with a reliable digital thermometer or heat gun.

CCSB also has an extensive screening process for people looking to adopt a herp from the facility. “We personally spend at least one hour talking to potential adopters,” says Griffin. “That gives us a good idea of their actual experience level and whether they are getting the animal because they think it’s cool or because they actually care about keeping it healthy and happy.”

According to Griffin, he tries to make sure potential adopters have the right experience level for the reptiles they are considering. “We are looking to find out their experience level verses what they want,” he says. “For instance, a person may want a Nile monitor when maybe they should get a savannah instead. Or they may want a chameleon but should start with something a little easier to care for, like a water dragon.”

He points out that he does not try to talk a potential adopter out of taking home a reptile if the person has put forth the effort to learn about the animal and has done research. “The only exception would be a reptile that could pose a risk to the adopter or the family because the adopter lacks experience,” he says. “Our place is to see that these animals have the right home with the right owner. This hobby should be about the love of the animals.”
At RARN, Lawless explains that they really try to understand the situation of the potential adopter before they allow the person to go home with a pet. “We want to make sure they have prior experience or at least understand the needs of the animal they want to adopt,” he says. “We ask questions like, ‘How do you plan to house the animal when it gets fully grown—over 6 feet for instance?’ ‘Do you understand it will live longer than a dog or cat?’ ‘Are you okay with the animal’s feeding requirements?’ We ask this last one become some people have issues with feeding mice and rats. This would be a big issue if the person wants a snake.”

Reptile Adoption Costs

All rescues need to charge an adoption fee to help mitigate the cost of caring for animals in need, and reptile rescues are no exception. In most cases, the fee is considered a donation.

“Most legitimate rescues don’t make money,” says Griffin. “They usually lose more money than they make, which is why we rely so heavily on donations. This just helps rescues to stay open to help more reptiles.”

Many reptile rescues have had to shut down due to lack of funds. “When there is no one to help them, these wonderful animals are euthanized in mass quantities,” Griffin says. “So it’s very important for rescues to get the help they need.”
At the Reptile Rescue Center, a small adoption fee is collected with each adoption. “Generally, this fee is mostly symbolic, as studies have shown that ‘free pets’ are not usually treated as well as those that come with a re-homing fee,” says Shepherd. “The fee rarely covers even a drop in the bucket of the costs associated with caring for the animal prior to adoption. As with all donations we receive, adoption fees go into our general operating budget, which covers expenses such as food, bedding, vet visits and other care items for all of our animal residents.”


RARN is a 501(c)3 charity and asks for an adoption fee set at $35 for most animals, and a little more for the larger boas and pythons, according to Lawless. “This helps cover housing, heating and feeding, although it really doesn’t cover our real expenses. It barely scratches the surface,” he says. “We always need more donations in cash and supplies, as most rescues do. But because we’re not dealing with cute dogs and cats, it’s much harder.” 

Choosing a Reptile Rescue

Adopting a herp is a great way to help an animal in need, but it’s also important to choose a rescue that is reputable. In the event you have to surrender a reptile to a rescue because you can no longer keep it, it’s especially crucial you choose an organization that is reputable.
“Unfortunately, not all are reputable,” says Shepherd. “We recommend researching how the rescue cares for the animals in its possession. For example, are they housing them appropriately, feeding them correctly, and getting them the veterinary care they may require?” Shepherd also recommends using a rescue that subjects adopters to a thorough screening process, because this indicates the organization truly cares about the welfare of the animals in its care. 

Before getting involved with a particular rescue, Lawless recommends finding out as much as you can about the organization. “Research, research and more research,” he says. “Don’t just click on a Craigslist ad for ‘reptile rescue.’ Make sure the group is a recognized non-profit, with a website and social media profiles. This is the best way to ensure that the animals you are adopting are actually coming from a real rescue and not just someone trying to make a quick buck.”

Lawless also recommends asking questions, visiting the animals and meeting the people. “We love talking about our animals,” he says. According to Griffin, a rescue does not have to be large or well known to be worthwhile, but in the event you need to surrender a pet, Griffin recommends doing a lot of research before you hand it over. “Know who you are leaving your reptile with if you have to give up your pet,” he says. “The rescue should always be available to answer questions or take phone calls if you want to check in. Just keep in mind that no rescue is capable of keeping every reptile turned over. Sometimes people have unrealistic expectations that a rescue will keep their animal forever. As much as I would love to keep every reptile turned over, that’s just not possible.”

Helping Rescues

Many rescues are struggling financially and barely have the resources they need to stay afloat, but as a herp lover, you can do a lot to help those in need.
Donations are the most valuable way you can assist a rescue. Many rescues ask for one-time donations, as well as regular, automatic monthly donations. 

“Our ability to rescue and rehabilitate reptiles and to permanently house our educational Animal Ambassadors depends on donors,” says Shepherd. “We rely on donations to pay for care expenses such as food, heating and lighting, bedding and veterinary visits. When a person donates, their contribution goes directly to helping reptiles in need.”

Sponsorships are another way to provide monetary help to rescues. By agreeing to a monthly or yearly financial sponsorship of a particular animal, you can help support that animal’s care. 

Donations in the form of certain items can also be tremendously helpful to rescues. Many of them need cleaning supplies, handling tools, tanks and other enclosures, food, supplements and veterinary supplies. Office supplies are also in short supply, so printer paper, stamps and other supplies can come in handy. Gift cards to pet supply stores and even gas stations can go a long way toward helping a rescue to keep its doors open. 

Another great way to contribute to a reptile rescue is with your time. Many rescues are in need of volunteers to help provide a variety of services. “The Reptile Rescue Center is home to approximately 30 species of reptiles at any given time,” says Shepherd. “Some of these animals are permanent residents of our sanctuary, some are Animal Ambassadors in our education program, and some are awaiting adoption into new homes. We are a small non-profit organization and depend on the help of volunteers to carry out our mission.”

The Center actively seeks out volunteers to assist staff in the day-to-day care of the animals, including cage cleaning, food preparation, feeding, handling and taming, as well as maintenance of the facility. Volunteers work in two-hour shifts, and the center requires a once-a-week commitment.
Volunteering is a great way for herp-loving teens to help the animals they care about. At the Center, teens 14 through 17 can be volunteers as long as they have their parents’ permission.

Some rescues hold fundraising events, and helping out at these activities can mean a lot to the organization. Purchasing items through a rescue’s online store or at an on-site boutique helps support the group’s work for animals. 

Caring about herps means supporting reptile rescues in any way possible, whether it’s adopting an animal in need or providing money or your time. The service these organizations provide to the herp world is invaluable! 


Audrey Pavia is a Southern California-based freelance writer. She has kept various herps, and wrote the book, The Gecko: An Owner’s Guide to a Happy, Healthy Pet (Howell Book House).

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