Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Pet Owners Warming up to Keeping Reptiles

When an iguana mysteriously appeared in her uncle's garden three years ago, Darcy Colby was "scared to death" of the little green reptile. But after searching extensively for the lizard's owners, Colby took the tropical animal home, litter-trained her and the two forged a bond. Now, when Colby brings in the mail, her 2-half foot sidekick sits perched on her shoulder, never making a move to jump away.
Yoda, as the iguana is now known, is her family's pet. "She hangs out with us," said Colby, 29, of East Greenbush, noting she and her husband are both allergic to cats and dogs, making Yoda the perfect companion. "She's our girl."
Across the area, other families have also forsaken the traditional puppy or kitten for more exotic companions. Troy resident Kim Laware used to own two cats, but gave them to good homes after they pulled down curtains, tore up furniture and were "just too wild." Now she owns a bearded dragon, a Chinese water dragon and a ball python. "It's the same as having children," she said. "You have to take care of them." She looks forward to someday owning a dog, but fears if she brings one into her home, it may eat her beloved reptiles.
At the Healthy Pet Center in North Greenbush, manager Becky Gray advises prospective reptile owners to be aware of all aspects of the animal's care and needs. She recommends researching a reptile of choice or finding one that best suits one's lifestyle. The animal's environment and feeding pattern are important, she said. She said initial startup sets for a lizard can cost about $100 and finding vet care can be very difficult.
She said if owners are willing to spend the time and money on them, that makes the difference. "People need to be more informed and know that it has feelings ... you do have to treat it just like a cat or dog," Gray said, adding, "Some can live 30 years if you keep them in the right environment." And people can get attached to their reptiles, she said, noting the scaly pets have a keen sense of who is taking care of them. "They recognize their owners," she said. "They let certain people hold them and certain people not."
Stephanie Crug, 21, of Averill Park, grew up with reptiles -- a red-tailed boa, leopard geckos and a bearded dragon were in her home every day where she grew acquainted with the animals. But from her experience, she doesn't get too attached. "They are a predator," she said. When Crug owned an okeetee corn snake and White's African tree frog, she cuddled the animals in her hooded sweat shirt -- even walking them around her house to help get them more familiar with her. "You have to make sure you handle them every day," she said.
Dr. Michael McCarthy, a licensed veterinarian practicing out of the Animal Hospital in Guilderland, said reptiles are becoming increasingly popular. Thirty percent of his patients are exotic animals, ranging from tiny rodents to huge snakes to a variety of the lizards seen in pet stores. "We'll see pretty much everything under the sun," McCarthy said. He said due to wrong conditions or negligence, reptiles have come into his office with fractures, injuries or illnesses because people did not know how to care for the animal. "They don't do their homework ahead of time," McCarthy said. He urges people to educate themselves about the pet they choose before buying one, noting the reptiles may provide some companionship but nothing like cats or dogs. "Can they form a bond with you?" he asked. "I'd have a hard time believing that."

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