by Ruth Lawrence
Ruth Lawrence recently met with Lee Hollman, secretary of the East Sussex Reptile and Amphibian Society to discover how members educate the public and eradicate fear of these unusual pets.
Lee explained that East Sussex Reptile and Amphibian Society (ESRAS) is part of the umbrella organisation the Federation of British Herpetologists or FBH, which promotes the wellbeing and proper welfare of the animal as well as sharing knowledge and information. “We get asked the same questions at our shows,” he said, “namely ‘does it bite?’, ‘is it venomous?’ and ‘is it safe?’ and we find that interaction with the animals soon reduces or eliminates fears.” Although most of the society’s members keep their own animals, many don’t and simply wish to learn more or offer to provide temporary fostering for animals in need of a new home. Children are enthusiastic members and start to learn responsibility by caring properly for their unusual pet. The society re-homes animals for free within the club and any potential keeper has to become a member, which ensures the animal will continue to receive the best care and its keeper belongs to a support network.
Three of the most common exotic species kept as pets are Corn snakes, Royal pythons and Mediterranean tortoises; Corn snakes originate in SE and central USA and are extremely popular due to their docile nature, moderate adult size and huge variety of colours or ‘Morphs’. In the wild they usually live for around six to eight years but this can treble in captivity and is one of the reasons they often need to be re-homed. Lee mentioned that, “people don’t realise how long some species live and if a young person goes to university or leaves home, the parents often don’t want to be responsible for the snake once that happens.” Royal pythons are popular for the same reasons, stockier than the Corn snake, they originate in Africa and range in size from three to six feet long, while tortoises are relatively easy to look after and can live outdoors in the garden.
ESRAS members keep some of the most unlikely sounding pets; the Hissing cockroach being one of the most unusual. Growing to three inches long, it is an excellent climber although it cannot fly and emits several types of hiss depending whether it is communicating disturbance, distraction or aggression. Male Giant Atlas beetles grow to five inches long, have large horns on the head and thorax and spend most of their lives as a grub before emerging for the rest of their several month adult lives in beetle form.
Scorpions, Praying mantises and Geckos are among the menagerie that members take to shows to educate the public and schools to familiarise children, who are inevitably fascinated with these exotic creatures they can touch and interact with. Owners can now keep their pets in what is known as a ‘bioactive environment’, which means that instead of housing the animal in a standard vivarium, they live in something that mimics a section of their natural habitat. This may include a ‘clean up crew’ of specialised insects that keep the space (or ‘terrascape’) clean naturally and special lighting that more closely replicates natural light.
ESRAS has worked with the BBC’s ‘Live and Deadly’ show and has stands at major shows and science festivals in its educational role. Lee told me how members can help at shows and become involved in what can be an extended social network with the animal’s welfare at its core. The club has a monthly meeting, usually on the first Wednesday of every month, with September being the exception, at Falmer Village Hall at 7.30pm throughout the year (please check the website for details), which usually involves a talk, ‘bring your animal’ nights, photo competitions and discussions, all washed down with tea and cake.
Once a year, members have the opportunity to enjoy a subsidised trip to the FBH conference and Reptile Expo in Doncaster and there are extra social events in the summer and Christmas. Members can take part in shows at the Brighton Science Festival and at ‘Bright Sparks’ at Hove Park School every February, while September brings the Laughton Autumn Show on the 9th-10th and Hurst Festival on the 17th. Membership costs an exceptionally reasonable £12 per year for an individual with discounts for couples, families, students and children and the club is run entirely on a not for profit basis. ESRAS’s membership ranges from Hastings to Worthing and Haywards Heath making it a wide reaching club with all the benefits that sharing knowledge and expertise can bring.
Lee emphasised how the club is run mainly for the education of its members and the public, which translates, into proper care and welfare for the animals that lie at the heart of ESRAS. “We try and help people with phobias, particularly snakes,” he told me before remembering how at a show, two ladies had kept returning to the ESRAS stand who were terrified of snakes. By the end of the day they were handling a 15ft Reticulated python and it’s this kind of transformation that makes public education so rewarding for the keepers of exotic animals. Children love to interact with all creatures; conquering their fears leads to increased confidence and a sense of pride. Nurturing an animal is an invaluable skill for later life, fostering responsibility and perseverance.
As most snakes eat rodents, mice and rats are bred specifically as their food; they are humanely killed before being frozen and sent to the owner who thaws them out before presenting them to the snake. Crickets, locusts and cockroaches are also bred as food for lizards and other invertebrates – and some keepers breed their own prey specifically to feed their pets.
Lee told me that 98% of these exotic pets are now bred in captivity which might include operations ranging from an individual to a large company. This accounts for the increased longevity of many captive species as their natural predators or diseases are no longer an issue when they will never live in the wild.
I asked Lee when his fascination with exotics was first ignited. He described how he got his first, an Amenalistic Corn snake at 13, a female who he named Teeny. His Dad got a Carolina Corn snake while Lee moved on to a Black Pine snake called Jet before obtaining a pair of Blonde Burmese pythons. ESRAS’s chairman, Dave Breden, keeps a pair of Reticulated pythons called One and Two, the quirky names explained by the fact that the male is a Purple Albino with a number ‘one’ in the scales behind his head!
Most of the reptiles are solitary and need their own enclosure and they vary in their enjoyment of human interaction. Lizards apparently develop more dependency upon people and Bearded dragons seem to enjoy human company and being played with; their ‘beard’ remains brightly coloured when they are in a good mood but turns black if they are agitated.
The advantages of joining ESRAS are legion; “nothing replaces one to one interaction and sharing information,” Lee explained. “Online info can be conflicting and our keepers have years of experience that they are happy to share with any new owner.” When an animal is re-homed to a member, support is always on hand and reassurance is a phone call or an email away and the club promotes good keeping and as best a life as possible for the animals.
I wondered whether some people expand their collection of exotic pets too far. Lee told me of a house abandoned by a tenant who had amassed a huge collection of Tarantulas before leaving it to be discovered by the horrified managing agents. Needless to say, there followed a substantial challenge to re-home the spiders but thankfully, most exotic pets are found new keepers relatively easily within the club. The rescue figures for exotics are small compared to cats and dogs, which tend to be young animals bought on a whim and tragically just as quickly abandoned. People consider the consequences more carefully when taking on a snake or lizard and a creature such as a giant Millipede is so unusual that the decision to keep one is unlikely to be taken lightly.
ESRAS currently has one of the largest memberships in the country with seventy individuals ranging from youngsters to people in their seventies. Lee told me that they are always looking for new members with or without their own animals; people can always temporarily foster animals between homes and get a feel for which species ignites their interest the most. Some members keep their pets in enclosures in a dedicated room while others keep enclosures or vivariums as part of the human living space so they can enjoy watching and interacting with the animals.
Making the decision to keep an exotic animal should be an extremely careful one, many originated from humid, hot places and conditions as close to their natural climate must be the aim if they are to thrive. Tarantulas for example may die during their moult if the humidity drops below 50% or if they are left without water for long. They require temperatures of between 21 and 24 degrees centigrade, which will mean a heated tank must be provided. Many die in the first few days of ownership because their new home hasn’t been prepared properly. The owner owes it to any animal to learn as much as possible so that its life, which will sometimes run into decades, is as good as possible.
Animals have no choice about who decides to own them and the more that they are kept in captivity, the greater the need for proper management, care and the improvement of suitable conditions for each species. ESRAS has a dedicated section on its website for over fifty exotic species, including care sheets and information. However, the best path is to join the club, go and meet keepers before you embark on any potential step to becoming an owner. Unless you are totally committed to the animal’s continued lifetime welfare, its better not to take the route to ownership and perhaps temporarily foster animals in need of re-homing, which would be a valuable role to become involved in. Whether as admirer, enthusiast, fosterer or keeper, ESRAS can help you make informed choices, improve your knowledge and offer support and you will meet others who share a fascination with some of the most unique animals you are ever likely to experience.