Choosing a Green Iguana

The green iguana is considered by many to be the most popular pet reptile on the market. Most are farmed in Latin America, but some are collected from the wild in Latin American countries. A few are captive bred. Additionally, the green iguana can now also be found in south Florida where it is so firmly established that there are now cautionary road signs depicting crossing iguanas in Key Biscayne!

This lizard is essentially a leaf-eater by nature, and despite it propensity for eating other items when they are offered, he should be maintained on a diet of about 95 percent healthy greens and vegetables and 5 percent fruits.

Hatchlings are bright green, often with black bands. Adults are duller gray-green but intensify in color (some turn predominantly fire-orange) during the breeding season.

Baby iguanas remain fairly close to the ground, but adults are primarily arboreal. All sizes can run swiftly and swim well.


The great green iguana is a master of his environment. This lizard can climb agilely, swim admirably, run swiftly, and leap when necessary. Wild iguanas bask extensively but flee at the slightest disturbance. When taken captive, wild collected adults (especially the males) may repeatedly batter their nose against their cage in their attempts to escape. Even with slow, gentle overtures, it may take considerable time to begin to win the lizard’s confidence and some may never become trustful. Babies, and some females, are more approachable than the males.

Iguanas can and do bite. They have strong jaws and sharp teeth. Even a casual (as opposed to an aggressive) bite from a sizable iguana can cause a nasty wound.

Tame, sexually mature iguanas often become aggressive during the breeding season. An adult male may especially become aggressive toward his owner if he feels his dominance in being challenged.


Because green iguanas have dominated the pet trade for more than 5 decades, it may now be the world’s most readily recognizable lizard. You can tell adult males and females apart by their appearance. Males are the larger sex, attaining a length of more than 6 feet. Male iguanas have a very tall vertebral crest of separate elongate scales and huge jowls. The females are more diminutive, seldom reaching over 4 1/2 feet in length, and have smaller jaws and a lower vertebral crest. Except during the breeding season (when they are brightly colored) adults tend to be a dull gray-green in color. Babies lack a well-defined crest but are vividly bright green, slender and long-legged. This species has one or two greatly enlarged disc-like scales on the jowls.

The tail of the iguana is about two-thirds of the lizard’s total length and is used as a defensive weapon by the lizard. A single “whop” can cause skin swelling or even lacerations.


In captivity, iguanas eat a great many unnatural foods. The majority of these are not beneficial to the iguana; those with high animal protein contents seem to cumulatively impair the health of your iguana. Iguanas thrive on a diet consisting of 95 percent healthy greens and vegetables and 5 percent fruits.

Feed your iguana chopped collards, mustard, beet and dandelion greens. Augment this with escarole, romaine, hibiscus leaves and blossoms, nasturtium leaves and blossoms, chopped kale, chopped bok choy, chopped cabbage (the darkest outer leaves are best) and some fruits. Make sure to offer a wide variety of foods since feeding the same food consistently can result in problems related to either excess or deficiency of certain vitamins and minerals. Prepared commercial iguana diet (find the brand with the lowest percentage of animal protein), can be offered but should only be used as a supplement and not the primary diet. Other possible food items include peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread, slices of dark bread, a mixture of cooked rice, oatmeal, black beans, green peas and corn.

A sizable shallow container of fresh drinking water should always be present.

Fast growing babies and ovulating females should be given a D3-calcium supplement twice weekly. For adult males, provide vitamin-mineral supplements at least once every two weeks.


Baby iguanas can be purchased so cheaply, and are so endearing, that many are bought on impulse. This is sad, for they are not the easiest lizard to keep. Nor, when that impulse-purchased baby iguana becomes tiresome, are they the easiest of lizards to find homes for.

A well-maintained baby iguana does not remain a baby for long. They grow quickly and some can grow over 6 feet! They also have long life spans (some live more than 20 years). You need to consider their longevity and their housing before choosing a green iguana.

A 7 to 10 inch long baby could, in a pinch, be kept in a 10 gallon terrarium. Larger is always better. An adult iguana needs a cage at least 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet high.

Crisscross the cage with sizable diagonal and horizontal limbs (at least the diameter of the lizard’s body). Visual barriers offer the lizards a feeling of security that is important to them. Light and warm one end of the highest perch to 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit with a UV-B-heat bulb. It is very important to make sure the bulb gives off sufficient UVB. Many bulbs that claim to be full spectrum do not produce sufficient UVB to keep your iguana healthy.

The terrarium’s ambient daytime temperature should be a humid 85 F. Nighttime temperatures can drop by a few degrees. A substrate of mulch (of some non-aromatic form) will maintain a high cage humidity and ease of cleaning. Greenhouses and spare rooms can also be adapted for housing your iguana.

A large but shallow water receptacle will be enjoyed by these lizards. The water temperature should be maintained at about 85 F. This can be accomplished by using an undertank-heating pad. The water must be kept fresh and clean.

How Lizards Behave

Like other reptiles, lizards have certain basic behaviors. They seek out warmth and sunlight, so they can feed and digest the food they consume. If healthy, they will be alert to the world around them and find a receptive mate and reproduce. But there’s far more to lizard behavior than a positive response to heat, light, food and sex. Here’s a brief review of some interesting behaviors:


Subordinate bearded dragons literally wave to other bearded dragons to say, “Hello, I’m here and I’m harmless.” Subordinate females raise one of their front legs and wave it at a superior male or female bearded dragon as the other lizard approaches. This gesture, called circumduction, seems to initiate acceptance by the larger lizard.

Position in Trees

In the wild, baby great green iguanas spend the first 3 months of their lives feeding and sunning on the lower 30 feet of vegetation. Older iguanas sun above them. While they are at these lower levels, the younger iguanas consume greenery that has been inoculated, if you will, with the feces of the older iguanas in the upper story. During these months, the younger iguanas develop the same intestinal flora as the adults.

The bacteria help break down the massive amounts of cellulose or plant fiber the young lizards consume throughout the rest of their lives. Baby iguanas kept in captivity (and not allowed to consume inoculated leaves) do not develop the intestinal flora and grow more slowly than their wild brethren. After 3 months, the now-larger-grown baby green iguanas move to higher perches in the vegetation.

Looking Big

We put shoulder pads in our jackets, lifts in our shoes (or wear high heels) and wear “big hair.” Lizards inflate themselves with air and stand high on their legs to look bigger and more imposing to other lizards and potential enemies. Sometimes lizards enhance their colors to look brighter and more distinct. But the amusing part of this tactic is that it only works if you look at the lizard from the side view.

Two practitioners of the “look big” approach are the great green iguana and the arboreal chameleons. If you look at them from the back or head on when they are displaying, they look very thin (laterally compressed, in technical terms) but from the side they look too big to mess with.

Playing Opossum

If you can’t run away from an enemy, maybe you can disappear. One way depends on cryptic coloring, a quality displayed by fence swifts. They are obscurely patterned in gray and dark gray, and when they rest on the dark gray bark of the trees in their habitat, they disappear.

Other lizards combine cryptic coloring with sudden movement and sudden stops. The western leaf lizard, Stenocercus fimbriatus, looks like a dead leaf, patterned in two shades of brown. It’s a fast lizard, moving suddenly out of harm’s way. But as you follow it with your eyes, it suddenly disappears and you cannot relocate it. The lizard has made a headlong dash away from you but has stopped less than 3 feet away. Hidden among the dead leaves on the forest floor, it is invisible as you search in vain 4 feet away. If you get too close, it may make another short dash, only to stop after moving just a few feet.

Other lizards take the role-playing of playing opossum to heart. Corythrophanes cristata, the forest chameleon, is not a true chameleon. Its main claim to fame is not in its name but in its ability to seem very dead when you pick it up. What once was a shy but bright-eyed lizard, bearing an attractive crest on the back of its head, will turn into a rigid but lifeless lizard when you pick it up. Who wants to eat something that’s obviously dead? The forest chameleon is hoping that all potential enemies will find its lifeless body unappealing.

Becoming Aggressive

A few lizards take the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” stance when confronted with an enemy (defined as anything larger than they are, which is pretty much everything else in the world when you’re only 9 inches long). These lizards will bite, and bite hard.

One memorable example is the tokay gecko (named for its nocturnal call). The tokay gecko, originally from southeast Asia but now established in parts of Florida, is an aggressive feeder on insects, small mice, birds and lizards. It has tiny teeth but jaws strong enough to crush the skull of a mouse. Of particular interest is its bulldog tenacity in not only biting but in hanging on once it has something in its mouth. It tightens up at intervals, so you’re reminded that there is a lizard biting the end of your finger, and it doesn’t seem to be interested in letting go. By the time the tokay does let go, the end of your finger is numb. Other lizards are aggressive, but you rather expect that (and watch for it) from a 10-foot-long Komodo dragon. Aggression from a small lizard can be surprising.

Even green iguanas can be aggressive toward their owners. This is particularly true of male iguanas and female keepers. A sexually mature male iguana may make an unprovoked attack on an unsuspecting female human, either because she has come too close to the lizard’s personal space or because human odors may convey unknown messages to iguana chemoreceptors. Patti was surprised when our 5-foot-long male green iguana leapt down from his perch and charged her, when she entered his cage after a 2-week absence. He grabbed her pant leg. She shook him off and made an I’m-bigger-than-you-are display of her own, holding open the sides of her vest and stomping in a circle. She now knows to keep an eye on him when she enters the cage and to alert female “pet sitters” as well.

Housing Your Snake

Captive snakes can thrive and breed in either lush cages or spartan quarters, but the aim in all cases is to provide a healthy, secure and absolutely escape-proof environment. Some species do, of course, have more specific caging necessities. Terrestrial snake species, for example, do well in horizontally oriented cages but we urge you to consider vertically oriented terraria for arboreal species.

Captive snakes must have dry cages, and they must be absolutely clean. Even species such as ribbon and water snakes, forms that are usually associated with aquatic habitats in the wild, require dryness in captivity so they don’t develop skin disorders. In the wild, the onset of these potentially fatal illnesses is deterred by long basking periods in unfiltered sunlight.

A terrarium may be as simple as a converted aquarium fish tank or a plastic shoe, sweater or blanket box (all available in hardware and department stores). It will often contain nothing more than an absorbent substrate of folded newspaper, paper towels or aspen shavings, a water bowl that won’t tip and a box in which your snake can hide. The suitability of these conditions is reflected in the tens of thousands of rat, king and gopher snakes and many others that are bred in them annually.

Tips on the Tank

  • Glass aquaria are available in horizontal or vertical “high-cube” styles. Terrestrial snakes do well in horizontal tanks while vertical tanks are excellent for arboreal species.
  • Be sure that your set-up has a secure top. Loose tops can be secured with tape or velcro strips. Locking plastic or metal-framed screen lids are available in sizes to fit most standard aquaria.
  • If you use plastic caging, you must provide ventilation by drilling holes through the sides. We prefer ventilation on at least two sides but usually ventilate all four sides. If an aridland species is being kept, we ventilate the top as well to prevent a build up in humidity.
  • If you are handy, you can build your own tank up to a capacity of several hundred gallons by joining panes of glass with silicone aquarium sealant. Hold the glass in place with strips of tape while the sealant is curing (about 24 hours). The most important thing when using the sealant is to make absolutely certain that the edges of the glass that are to be sealed are entirely free of oils or any other debris that could prevent the aquarium sealant from forming a tight seal.
  • The Substrate and Cleaning

    The substrate is the material that lines the bottom of the tank so that your snake rests on something more natural and comfortable than glass. It can range from a layer of paper towels to several inches of smooth sand into which a snake can burrow. Other acceptable materials include newspaper, rolled corrugate, aspen shavings, cypress bark mulch and dry leaves. We use those of live oak. Do not use cedar shavings or aromatic wood shavings.

    The substrate also serves as the repository of your snake’s waste and should be removed and replaced whenever the snake eliminates. It is a good idea to clean the entire tank at the same time. Acceptable cleansers include alcohol-based glass cleaners, mild soap and water, dilute Clorox® solution and dilute Roccal® solution. Do not use phenol-based cleansers, such as pine cleansers.

    Cage Furniture

    It is important to provide the most natural surroundings possible. Cage furnishings figure prominently. The term cage furniture covers virtually all cage decorations, whether a simple wooden snag, an inverted cardboard hidebox (usually referred to simply as a “hide”), a growing plant or a plastic vine.

  • Firmly anchored, sizable limbs are particularly important to arboreal and semi-arboreal snakes. Limbs, cut to the exact inside length of the terrarium can be secured at any level with thick “U-shaped” beads of silicone aquarium sealant that have been placed on the aquarium glass. Merely slide the limb downward into the open top of the U until the limb rests securely in place.
  • Snakes also use large tank-bottom logs and rocks, but these must be positioned so they can’t shift and hurt the snakes.
  • Providing Hiding Spots

    If snakes are nothing else, they are secretive. Most spend a good deal of time in, adjacent to or beneath cover of some kind. Captive snakes seldom outgrow the need to hide. Burrowing snakes spend their time beneath substrate, arboreal snakes seek clumps of leaves or other visual barriers, and other snakes seek surface hiding areas of some sort.

    Snakes prefer to coil in hiding areas that seem barely big enough to contain them. A suitable hidebox may make the difference between a nervous snake eating or not eating. If forced to stay in the open some snakes will become stressed and refuse to eat. This is especially true if the snake’s cage is in a heavily trafficked area and the inhabitant is one of the more nervous species.

  • There can be no hidebox more inexpensive, readily available and readily replaceable than a small cardboard box with an access hole cut in one side. Commercial hides are available from pet stores. These may be preformed plastic “caves” or combination cave-water dishes, artificial stone pools and others.
  • Cork bark in tubes and other various shapes also makes excellent hides. Parakeet and cockatiel nesting boxes are readily accepted by most species of rat snakes, small pythons and semi-arboreal boas. However, unless these boxes have a hinged or removable side they are very difficult to clean. Hollowed cactus skeletons laid on the cage floor are also readily accepted by many small snakes.
  • Some materials are not suitable for use in a hidebox. These include cedar and other phenol exuding wood.
  • Choosing a Fire-Bellied Toad

    Fire-bellied toads make attractive, undemanding, lively, long-lived pets – but they are a species that should be kept only with other fire-bellies.

    When sheltered among the plants of the vivarium these small pop-eyed pond denizens sit nearly unseen, camouflaged by their mottled black, green, and gray backs. But it’s the underside of these frogs that makes them so popular: a boldly patterned bright orange belly with contrasting black reticulations that signal that fire-belly toads release toxic skin secretions that can sicken or kill animals that might try to harm them.

    Appearance and Behavior

    Fire-bellied toads are members of the family Discoglassidae, which must catch prey in their mouths rather than with their tongues. They are in the genus Bombina, which consists of six different species. The three species usually found in the pet market all take essentially the same uncomplicated care: clean water, a haul-out area, live food and a little light.

    When startled, fire-bellies arch their heads, thrust back their forearms, and stretch their hindlegs over their backs displaying the colors of their abdomen. This is known as the “unken (German for boat) reflex” referring to the bowed shape of the frog’s arched belly.

    The colors that are displayed are called aposematic colors because of the warning message they send.

  • The European fire-bellied toad, Bombina bombina, lives in lowland shallow ponds, lakes and streams in Eastern Europe. A small toad that rarely grows to 2 1/2 inches long and it has a more pointed snout than the other Bombina. Its dorsal coloration is gray to brown, with a bright orange and black abdomen (venter). The black areas of the venter may be speckled with tiny white dots.
  • The yellow-bellied toad, Bombina variegata, comes from shallow water areas in central and southern Europe. When living in the same areas as the European fire-bellied toad, the yellow-bellied will usually be found at slightly higher elevations. The two species can hybridize. The adult yellow-bellied toad also reaches 2 1/2 inches in length. It has a gray-brown, warty-appearing skin and a slightly more flattened body than the other Bombina. The venter is yellow, rarely orange, with black markings. The yellow coloration is usually present on the fingertips and may appear as a solid, single patch on the underside of the thighs.
  • The most colorful, and for that reason the most common species in the pet trade, is the Oriental fire-bellied toad, Bombina orientalis. This brown to light green-backed frog with black and green patches lives in mountain streams in eastern Siberia, China, and Korea, at elevations of 5,300 to 10,000 feet. The bright belly is mottled scarlet red and black although some captive bred specimens may have yellow venters. The red color can be brought back by the addition of beta-carotene to the frog’s diet. These are primarily nocturnal frogs, and of the three types mentioned here, the most aquatic.
  • Housing

    Housing for the fire-bellied toads can either be aquatic or semi-aquatic. A 20-gallon aquatic tank will give you room for some half-dozen frogs. Set up the tank as you would an ordinary fish tank with a gravel or river rock bottom and a filtration system to keep the water clean and well-oxygenated. Use only water that has been dechlorinated to protect the frogs’ permeable skin. Change a quarter of the water every couple of weeks. Install submerged logs, floating plants or a plastic lily pad for a resting/haul-out area. Plants also provide homes for tiny snails, small fish and aquatic insects that the frogs will eat. Also provide a spot to tip in a few small crickets at feeding time.

    A semi-aquatic tank will give the toads more opportunity to explore and give you an opportunity to create an inviting micro-environment with lush plantings, craggy logs, mosses and perhaps a waterfall. The circulating pump used for the waterfall can be used in conjunction with a filter, but water changes will still be needed at least every two weeks. Maintain the tank at a temperature between 78 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 68 F in the winter.


    These frogs are insectivorous and need live food. They’ll gobble up small crickets set loose on the floating plant surfaces, or on the land area of the semi-aquatic tank. Wait until the first few are consumed before adding more. Once a week, just before you add them to the tank, dust the insects with a calcium/vitamin supplement. If you raise your own crickets, feed them on a commercial cricket “gut-loading” diet before giving them to your frogs. These “stuffed” crickets further benefit the fire-bellied toad that eats them.

    Other food can include wingless fruit flies or house flies (toadlets will need the smaller fruit flies), small moths, moth larvae, small mealworms and guppies. Remember that once a week you’ll need to dust the food items with vitamin/mineral supplement before you place them with the frogs. Offer the earthworms at the end of a broom straw. Earthworms are high in calcium, which helps avoid metabolic bone disease.

    These little pop-eyed denizens will soon learn to equate the approach of their owner with food, and will swim eagerly to the front of their tank, chins lifted in anticipation. They should live from 10 to 14, even 20 years and unlike some other herptiles, they’ll never outgrow their tank.

    Choosing a Ball Python

    The ball python is one of the smaller pythons, and if obtained as a captive bred and hatched baby, it is usually hardy and long-lived. In fact, longevity of more than 45 years has been reported for one captive ball python and 20 to 25 years is commonplace.

    History and Origin

    The ball python, Python regius, is also known as the royal python and hails from West Africa. It is a relatively heavy-bodied snake that can grow to 4 to 5 feet in total length. Because of this small size (for a python at least), a ball python can be kept throughout its long life span in a relatively small cage. The small adult size of a ball python also prevents him from being in violation of regulations instituted by many municipalities prohibiting the keeping of snakes more than 6 feet in length.

    Most of the ball pythons now available in the pet trade are either captive bred and hatched domestically or farmed at African facilities. In contrast to wild-collected adult ball pythons that can be problematic feeders, most hatchlings feed readily and are large enough at birth to accept fair-sized mice. Adults require adult mice or rats.


    Ball pythons have many small, non-keeled scales. The top of the head has a prominent dark spear point marking. There is also a dark stripe from the tip of the snout, through the eye, to the back of the head. The ground color is tan to tan-brown. A broken dark brown vertebral stripe is normal, but this, as well as the body patterns, is variable. Downward extensions from the vertebral marking may form circles, semi-circles, “E-T faces,” figure eights, or other figures on the sides. Adults and babies are colored similarly. The eyes are dark and have vertically elliptical pupils.

    Ball pythons have a pair of cloacal spurs – remaining vestiges of bygone days when snakes had legs. The spurs of the males are larger than those of the females and are employed during courtship.

    Albino, caramel, jungle, reverse-stripe, anerythristic, ghost, lemon pastel, pastel jungle, pied, and striped, are just some of the hobbyist derived color and pattern phases of ball python now being bred. It seems that a new color or pattern crops up every year or so.


    The disposition of the ball python varies from specimen to specimen, but most are quite shy and non-aggressive. Even those that show some feistiness will quiet down when handled gently and frequently. Typically, a disturbed ball python will coil itself into a tight ball (hence the name) and hide its head in the center of its coils. It may remain in this position for minutes or hours, depending on how frightened it is and how much activity is taking place around it.

    Ball pythons are usually considered terrestrial snakes and they do spend most of their time on the ground. However, they also may ascend into brushy tangles. They also indulge in subterranean activities, hunting for food and depositing their eggs in the burrows of rodents or other mammals.

    These snakes seem to “prey imprint” early in life, and it may be difficult to induce wild-collected adults to accept readily available mice and rats. They may instead insist on gerbils, jirds, hamsters, or prey species that are even more difficult to obtain. For this reason it is always better to start with a baby ball python that has been hatched in captivity and has been started on rodents that are readily available to you.


    Ball pythons are powerful constrictors that are capable of easily overpowering the small mammals that comprise their base diet. They may also eat some lizards, ground-dwelling birds; incidences of cannibalism have been reported.

    Wild-collected adults can be difficult to induce to feed. Try all types and colors of all available rodents and birds. Try offering a reluctant feeder its pre-killed prey in the evening in the solitude of the hide box. Captive hatched baby ball pythons are usually amenable to accepting the commonly offered lab rodents. They usually feed readily, especially if given hide boxes in which they can seclude themselves and feel secure while eating.


    Ball pythons handled soon after eating may regurgitate their meal. Do not lift them for a few days after they have eaten. Ball pythons with vision impaired by an impending shed of skin may bite. Pythons may respond defensively – or alternatively, hide their head in the coils – if confronted with fast movements or movements from above. They are more tolerant of slow movements or approach from the side. When you are trying to accustom your ball python to being handled, try gently lifting it frequently until it becomes used to the procedure.

    It will probably ball up each time for many weeks, but will eventually become used to being handled. Never grasp your ball python by its neck. Rather, slide one hand under it about a third of the way back from the head, the other hand about a quarter of the way forward from the tail tip, and holding the snake loosely, lift it slowly. If not startled or frightened, the snake will probably hold you. Keep it away from your face. Never try to handle your ball python without thoroughly washing your hands after handling a prey item. If it smells food, it may try to bite you.

    Choosing an African Spurred Tortoise (Sulcata)

    Best known as the African spurred tortoise, the sulcata is one of the largest mainland island tortoises. Despite the threatened status of many island tortoises, the sulcata is a popular species and is now routinely bred in captivity.

    Hatchling African spurred tortoises are available in small numbers throughout the year. When properly cared for, this tortoise grows very rapidly. From a 2-inch long hatchling, one may attain a length of 10 or more inches and a weight of 35 or more pounds within two years, and eventually reach 200 pounds. A well-cared-for tortoise can live 30 to 50 years.


    This large, sand or dirt colored tortoise has a low-domed carapace that is somewhat flattened in the center. When viewed from above it is roughly oval in appearance.

    Hatchlings are tan to light brown in coloration, often with darker growth rings on the carapace. There are enlarged scales on the anterior of the front legs. The plastron is light in color. The growth annuli are well developed, imparting a sculptured look.

    The limbs are strong and well clawed. The rear feet have a shape similar to that of the elephant.


    African spurred tortoises are large tortoises with a heavy, well-formed shell. They become very tame and trusting but do not like to be lifted. Indeed, because of the great weight of the adults, it is difficult to lift them, even if you have to. Like most tortoises, they are essentially terrestrial, but on hot days may enter shallow water to soak and cool down. They bask extensively, usually in the morning or late afternoon, as temperatures are warming or cooling. They actively forage throughout much of the day. Some spend the heat of the day hunkered down in a shallow, self-dug, pallet beneath a bush; others may dig very deep and well-formed burrows. This is natural behavior, but owners who enjoy a finely manicured lawn may find the excavations troubling.

    Spurred tortoises are gentle. They seldom bite and, when acclimated, will readily accept food from their owner’s fingers (use care or you can be bitten while hand-feeding the tortoise).

    Until fully acclimated, a frightened tortoise may withdraw into its shell, fold its heavily scaled forelimbs across the anterior shell opening, and remain immobile for many minutes. When it begins to relax, it does so slowly, ready to withdraw again if startled.


    Captive African spurred tortoises should be fed a diet of mixed, healthy greens (collards, mustard, beet, and dandelion greens, romaine, lettuce, escarole, bok choy), some fruits, some commercial tortoise foods and, occasionally, a little low-fat kibble dog food. Because spinach contains oxalic acid, a calcium binder, it should not be fed to the tortoise. A sizable shallow container of fresh drinking water should always be present

    In captivity, where exercise is limited, tortoises can become unnaturally fat. Regulate the amount of food given. Obesity is no healthier for a tortoise than it is for a human.

    Fast growing babies and ovulating female tortoises should be given a D3-calcium supplement twice weekly. For adult males, provide vitamin-mineral supplements at least once every 2 weeks.


    African spurred tortoises can be handled, but they do not enjoy being lifted from the ground. Do so only when absolutely necessary.

    Until fully acclimated these tortoises may be shy, withdrawing into their shell when lifted. This is especially true of adults. Allow these reptiles to make the overtures. As they become used to their pen and to the movements around them, they will become ever more trusting, eventually coming to the side of their cage to greet you and accept food.


    One or two hatchling African spurred tortoises may be kept in a 15-gallon terrarium with dry mulch or rolled corrugate substrate. As they grow, the size of the terrarium will need to increase. One or two adult African spurred tortoises will need a cage with a bottom space of 8 feet by 8 feet (the size of two sheets of plywood) or a dedicated room. They will require a retaining wall of about 2 feet around the perimeter of the cage, but will not need a top.

    During the daylight hours, illuminate and warm one end of the cage. An ambient cage temperature of 80 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit is fine, but a hot spot warmed to 95 to 100 F by a full-spectrum UV-B-heat bulb will be appreciated and used extensively. Nighttime temperatures can drop by a few degrees and the heat bulb can be turned off.

    Provide a shallow but sizable water receptacle for your tortoise to drink from and soak in. Since many tortoises regularly defecate in their water receptacles, be prepared to change this as necessary.

    Beside cages and dedicated rooms, garden pens and greenhouses can also be adapted as a tortoise home.

    Keeping Your Lizard Healthy

    Health for a captive animal is much easier to maintain than it is to restore. If you want a healthy lizard, start with a healthy lizard. Don’t buy one that lies listlessly on the bottom of the cage or one with protruding hipbones or one that has a thin body but whose legs are chubby. Any lizards with these symptoms has serious long-term health problems that will probably kill the animal before any medication or dietary rehab can have any effect.

    For lizards, there’s a simple checklist to follow before you consider any purchase or acquisition. Just because a lizard is free doesn’t lessen your responsibility toward it.

    What Are Your Circumstances?

    First of all, look at yourself and your circumstances. Are you willing to provide everything the lizard needs in terms of food and housing throughout its life, which may be 20 years?

    Now look at the lizard:

  • Is the lizard alert?
  • Is the lizard feeding and can you easily provide that same diet?
  • Is the lizard’s skin healthy and free from lesions?
  • Are the limbs strong and not swollen?

    If the answer to all these questions is “yes,” then by all means go ahead. Set up your lizard’s housing, get a supply of food and then go out and acquire him (or her). Lizards are fascinating animals, each displaying not only its species’ behaviors (i.e., iguanas climb and eat greens) but individual quirks as well. (My “new” adult male iguana likes day-old bread and really likes turnip greens and peanut butter sandwiches).

    Some lizards become tame, such as bearded dragons, which will readily climb onto your arm when you open their cage. Some quiet down, such as veiled chameleons, which will allow themselves to be picked up without displaying distress coloration. A few, such as racerunners and whiptails, will probably always blast into their hiding areas when you open the cage, even when you arrive bearing tender food morsels like trevo worms.

  • What If Something Goes Wrong?

    Suppose you choose a lizard that appears healthy, eats readily, but one day the lizard somehow looks a little “off.” The next day, its behavior changes. Where once it waited for its meal at the front of its cage, it remains in its hidebox, emerging to feed in limited amounts (you think) when the house is quiet. Perhaps the animal becomes sluggish and keeps its eyes closed, even during the times of day it was once active. Or the animal suddenly isn’t interested in food, although the cage temperatures are right and you haven’t altered the diet. Or your lizard’s eyes seem swollen, and its breathing is labored. What’s gone wrong? How can you ID the problem and correct it?

    Group Dynamics

    Check the basic parameters again. Look at group dynamics. Is your lizard one in a group of lizards? In the small confines of a cage, each lizard’s need for a territory of his or her own may come to the fore, and not all lizards will have a chance to claim his own turf. In particular, a male lizard without territory is an intruder on another lizard’s territory. Failure to feed is a typical symptom of territory infringement. The answer? Give each lizard its own cage or maintain lizards in groups of one male and no more than two females.

    The Need For Proper Lighting

    Does your lizard have access to UV light? A lizard needs warmth to stimulate the digestive system into functioning (during cold spells, digestion stops), but your lizard also needs UV light to regulate activity levels, stimulate alertness and trigger the transformation of vitamins into usable compounds.

    Like people, lizards need more than vitamins to be healthy. Lizards need UV light in order to metabolize the vitamins in their diet. Sunlight is the best source of UV, but there are light bulbs readily available that provide UV light. You may opt for an older fluorescent light or a newer incandescent bulb that gives off heat as well as UV.

    Stress and Parasites

    Was your lizard subjected to stress during capture or in the pet store before you bought it? In the wild, essentially all lizards have a number of parasites that for them are normal and acceptable. Indeed, we are only beginning to learn of the intricate ballet between what we call parasites and their hosts. (In iguanas, the huge numbers of nematodes found in the gut may actually serve as a digestive “churner,” enabling the body to extract more value from the food with less effort on the body’s part.)

    In captivity, the system of checks and balances between a host and its internal parasites is disrupted, and what had been gentle co-dwellers can become strength-sappers. When your lizard appears listless, a stool specimen should be analyzed to check parasite types and numbers. Your veterinarian can identify the parasites in your lizard’s stool, determine if the parasite load is excessive, and prescribe medication if necessary. Remember that the goal is more to reduce the number of parasites, not to eliminate them entirely.

    Choosing a Bearded Dragon

    Bearded dragons are one of the more ideal pet lizards. They have a readily available diet, are not so nervous that they injure their nose on their terrarium sides, and are adult at a size that is easily housed.

    Although they are not difficult to handle, excessive handling can be detrimental to the lizard’s long-term well being. If kept dry and warm and provided with a proper diet, a longevity in excess of seven years can be expected for a bearded dragon.

    Contained in the Old World lizard family, the Agamidae, there are about eight species of dragons in the Australian genus Pogona. Despite not all having the beards (a distensible chin area) that are to hobbyists the hallmark of the genus, all are commonly referred to as bearded dragons.

    Only one dragon is truly common in American herpetoculture: the inland bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps. At slightly more than 20 inches in total length, P. vitticeps is one of the two largest species of dragon (if not actually the largest), being equaled in size only by the coastal bearded dragon, P. barbatus.

    The range of the inland bearded dragon includes much of interior eastern and central Australia. Dragons, like all Australian wildlife, are protected and exportation for the pet market from Australia is not permitted. Those now present in American herpetoculture are probably descendants from dragons bred by European hobbyists.

    Although bearded dragons were occasionally available in the United States prior to the 1980s, it was in that decade that they became truly popular. They are now commonly bred by many herpetoculturists, and great emphasis has been placed on enhancing the dragon’s often drab coloration. Among other color strains now available, Bob Mailloux’s “sandfire” strain and Pete Weiss’ “flame” strain have become legendary in the hobby.


    In overall appearance, the bearded dragon is quite a typical appearing lizard. About 14 inches of their 20-inch overall length is tail. The eight-inch-long body is of heavy build, somewhat flattened and spinose. The head is large, has many spinose scales laterally, and the throat has a spiny, distensible beard.

    The legs are well developed, strong, and fully capable of carrying a startled lizard quickly across the ground. The color varies from tannish-gray to a quite brilliant orange. Lighter dorso-lateral striping (often broken into a series of dashes) are often evident. The lizard is dark when cold or inactive, and lighter or brighter in color when warm and active. Hatchlings are less brilliantly colored, but often more strongly patterned, than the adults and about three inches in total length.


    Baby bearded dragons may be quite nervous, but they generally become more “laid back” as they approach adulthood. When housed in groups, a curious arm waving appeasement gesture (termed circumduction) is frequently displayed.

    The beard is an integral part of a male bearded dragon’s territorial display. When a male displays, the beard blackens and is distended. The male flattens his body and tilts towards the other male hoping that size and actions alone will drive the interloper away. If display doesn’t work, they will usually engage in an actual skirmish.

    Bearded dragons are semi-arboreal. They readily climb onto limbs and perches when these are provided. The climbing limbs should be at least the diameter of the dragon’s body. Bearded dragons are heliothermic (sun-basking) lizards that are quiescent when the illumination is not sufficiently bright. They often bask on rocks and limbs at temperatures of from 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Although several females (either with or without a single male) will usually coexist well, no more than one male should be kept in each cage. In fact, during the breeding season, males can be so territorially competetive that the mere sight of a second individual — even in another cage across a room — will cause a male to indulge in almost continual, stressful displays.

    As with most heliotherms, bearded dragons benefit greatly from ultraviolet rays. It has been demonstrated that UV-B permits a heliothermic reptiles to synthesize pre-vitamin D3, which in turn facilitates the metabolism of calcium. These processes are necessary to avoid metabolic bone disease, and should be duplicated as best possible with UV-B emitting bulbs if your bearded dragons are housed indoors.

    For an alert and active lizard, bearded dragons settle down nicely in captivity. Although they tolerate handling fairly well, this does not necessarily mean that the lizards enjoy it. Occasionally, when approached by a human hand, the dragons will hunker down and partially or fully close their eyes. This body language generally means, please, I’m a lizard, I don’t really want to be petted. This response is especially apparent if the lizards are merely rubbed with a finger rather than being lifted. Handle your bearded dragons sparingly.

    Keeping Your Snake Healthy

    If you want a healthy snake, start out with a healthy snake then strive to keep it that way. If you provide your snake with a suitable cage, cleanliness, water and proper humidity, proper diet and temperatures, snakes are not difficult keep healthy. If we can anthropomorphize a little, they are probably also happy.

    Most health problems seen in snakes can be traced to improper husbandry and stressful situations. Let’s take a look at a few of the things you may do to help you succeed with your snake, be it your first or tenth.

    Before choosing your snake, first determine how much space you have for a cage, what foods are readily available and what cage temperatures you can most easily maintain. You must also learn about state and local laws and consider how much experience you have in keeping snakes. All these criteria will ultimately figure into your ability to keep a snake healthy.

    Caging Your Snake

    If you have room only for a cage the size of a 20-gallon-long terrarium (12 inches by 12 inches by 30 inches), don’t get a baby boa or Burmese python that will quickly outgrow the cage. Instead, opt for a California kingsnake, a Honduran milk snake, corn snake or garter snake. Any of these could live out their long lives in a 20-gallon tank.

    Conversely, if you want to make a custom cage with a bottom space the size of a piece of plywood (4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet) and with a height of 2.5 feet or higher, you could certainly house a Colombian boa or a larger snake. If you have room for a vertically-oriented tank with a height of 2.5 or more feet but only a floor space of, let’s say, 12 inches by 24 inches, you might opt for an arboreal species such as a tree boa or a green tree python.

    Heating and Lighting

    Lighting your terrarium will help you observe your snake, and incandescent bulbs can provide necessary heat as well. This might be helpful if you live in a cooler area. In a very hot region or home environment, you may opt for cooler fluorescent lighting.

    Cages and terraria can also be warmed by the prudent use of undertank heaters or by ceramic heat coils that fit an incandescent light socket. Because malfunctioning “hot rocks” have caused so many burns to snakes, we do not advocate the use of these.

    Overheating can kill or debilitate a snake as surely as overly cold temperatures. Use care when supplying heat and provide thermal gradients within the terrarium by heating only one end. This will allow the snake to utilize the temperature that suits it at the moment.

    What is too hot or too cold will vary according to the species. In general, the hot end of the tank should not exceed 88 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit and, unless your snake is a temperate species undergoing a winter cooling or hibernation, the cool end should not be below 70 F. A good temperature range for most snakes is 88 to 75 F at the hot and cool ends of the tank respectively. Terraria for temperate snakes can be allowed to drop a few additional degrees at night.

    If cage temperatures fluctuate rapidly and widely, your snake may develop respiratory illness. This is especially so if cage humidity is high or the substrate is wet and cold. Since many snakes have only a single functional lung, respiratory distress of any manner can be a very serious – even fatal – malady. Excessive sneezing, wheezing, rasping or bubbling all indicate the need to correct your husbandry, elevate cage temperatures to 90 to 95 F, and to seek the help of a reptile qualified veterinarian.


    Proper humidity is also key. A shovel-nosed snake or a rosy boa kept in a perpetually humid cage will rapidly show a health decline and, unless husbandry is changed, will die. Aridland snakes kept too humid often develop a chronic and difficult-to-correct regurgitation syndrome. Lower the cage humidity, feed smaller meals and consult a reptile-oriented veterinarian.

    Humidity can be lowered by keeping the terrarium in an air-conditioned or otherwise dehumidified room and by allowing an airflow through the terrarium. As long as a constant supply of drinking water is available, a snake from humid regions kept in a tank with too low of a humidity is at slightly less of a disadvantage. One of the first signs that problems do exist may be the snake’s inability to shed its skin properly. Cage humidity can be raised by providing a larger waterbowl, by sitting the waterbowl atop the undertank heating unit (if one is used) and by partially covering the terrarium top with plastic.

    Virtually all of the humidity-related problems can be avoided by keeping a snake that is naturally adapted to the area in which you live.

    Choosing a White’s Treefrog

    White’s tree frogs, also known as dumpy treefrogs, are placid, large bodied frogs whose mouths appear fixed in perpetual smile. They are fun to watch as they proceed along their branches, hand over hand, and show obvious satisfaction as they use their tongues to lap up crickets. Because of their simple housing and food needs, long lives and attractive appearance, they make easily maintained pets.

    Reasonably priced at $20 to $25, White’s treefrogs are readily available in most pet shops that sell reptiles and amphibians. Tens of thousands are purchased as pets every year.

    Origin and Lifespan

    White’s are originally from Australia and Indonesia. In the early 1960’s, these frogs were imported into the United States when little was known about their captive care needs. Through trial and error, much was learned about the White’s treefrog and today, their captive care needs can easily be met. They can live ten to 20 years in captivity.


    The usual White’s treefrog ranges from the green color of oxidized copper through olive green to dark brown. Some have a distinct blue tinge, which may be due to genetics or to a lack of carotene in the diet. The belly and chin are white, and frequently there are smaller white spots along the sides and back. The eyes are large and dark.

    They are large frogs at adulthood. Females sometimes reach a body length of almost 5 inches. Males are rarely more than three inches from snout to vent. They have expanded toepads that look like circles at the end of each toe, and provide considerable gripping power. When well fed, these frogs develop a rounded ridge over each eye. In a large specimen, the skin falls in a loose fold along each side of the body.


    White’s tree frogs do best in a tank that is taller then it is wide because they like to climb. The tank should be appointed with interlaced tree branches that allow the frog to choose the best spots for temperature regulation and observation. A constantly replenished shallow water dish is a necessity.

    A single adult can be kept in a 20-gallon tall tank but a 30-gallon tall tank would be better. Provide wide horizontal perches; these frogs aren’t particularly heavy but they are a bit clumsy. A larger branch is easier to grasp. Sections of giant bamboo are particularly useful, if parts of the side are removed allowing the frog to secrete him inside. In larger cages, White’s seem to find secure hiding places in the axils of banana plants.

    One of the keys to keeping a White’s treefrog is sufficient ventilation. A typical aquarium hood with lights is not recommended for this frog; instead, use a screen clip-on terrarium top with a light in a dome reflector. During warm weather, an outside enclosure of wood and wire mesh can provide both space and exposure to rain and the sun. But make sure your frog still has an area that can serve as a shaded refuge from the heat.

    In any caging, keep in mind that constant moisture is neither necessary nor desirable for frogs like this. Allow a couple of days between mistings. Use a spray bottle, filled with water. Point the bottle upwards over the cage so the water will fall like rain on the frog and its surroundings. Mist enough to put a fine sheen on the frog’s skin and on its surroundings.

    In smaller cages, substrate, or the covering for the bottom of the cage, can be as simple as paper towels, which are easy to place, and easy to replace when dirty. Newspaper works as well, although it isn’t as attractive. Kraft or brown paper looks neat and is easy to change. Cypress mulch or a layer of dead leaves also provides an acceptable substrate. Experiment and use whatever works best for you.

    Although White’s will sun while in nature or in outside cages, they can control their body temperatures by moving to cooler areas. In a smaller inside cage, they don’t have that option. If the area where the cage is kept is cooler than the 77 to 86 degrees that the White’s prefer, you can carefully provide access to additional heat/light by using an incandescent light at one end of the tank or cage, or an undercage heating pad (available at your local pet store, from pet catalogs, or on-line) under one end of the tank. Heating just one end of a tank gives the frog the ability to select its optimum temperature.