Home and Lifestyle

The abandoned and the illegal exotic pets

Impulse buying can cause animals needing rescue

Before he opened Reptile Rapture 11 years ago, Richard Allen was told to expect people to flock to him for advice on what to do for their sick, injured or refusing-to-eat reptiles. But the surrender of animals at the store by pet owners unwilling or unable to keep them has proved to be unrelenting since he opened.

"It's every day here, people come in with sick animals," Allen says. "We see a lot of bearded dragons, ball pythons. But if it's sick, we end up seeing it no matter what it is."

The animals are often malnourished or have degenerative bone diseases or bacterial infections — conditions that can require the amputation of limbs or even euthanasia.

"We often get them at the last minute when people don't want to pay for a vet bill. They're near death," Allen says.

Surrendered animals are taken to local veterinarians for medical care. If they can be rehabilitated, they are then adopted out for a fee.

"Many of our customers love the ones that need special care and want to take over, which is really a blessing," says Cheryl Allen, Richard's wife and co-owner of the store.

Another organization, Friends of Scales Reptile Rescue, is overseen by Erica Mede, fiancee of Ryan McVeigh, president of the Madison Area Herpetological Society. Mede (who also runs the MAHS Young Explorers program) says her group has 10 to 30 animals in foster homes at any given time. Another 40 rescued reptiles — either ready for adoption or still requiring rehabilitation — are housed in one location in northeast Illinois. Friends of Scales looks for "forever homes" for its animals over the border in Wisconsin, too. 

Because there are always more rescue animals arriving at Reptile Rapture than being adopted, the Allens plan next year to expand the store into the adjacent building space to better house all the rescue animals. The Allens are awaiting approval of their rescue effort as a federally registered nonprofit.

While Allen is knowledgeable about the proper care — dietary needs, enclosure size and heat and humidity requirements — of many reptile and amphibian species, he can only give customers advice. He acknowledges he is not a veterinarian.

Allen says the problem is too many people buy animals on impulse from expos and elsewhere without first acquiring the knowledge and equipment needed to house them.

"People do get animals on a whim, are neglectful and don't take care of them, then abandon them," says Noelle Tarrant, owner of Zoozort Live Animal Programs and 45 exotic animals. Throughout her 30 years as an educator, Tarrant says people have often asked her to take pets they can no longer keep.

"They're animals, not designer toys," Tarrant says. 

The responsibility of caring for an animal should be rewarding and educational. "I think empathy, compassion and having respect for animals comes through that education," Tarrant says.

Rife With Reptile Restrictions

Sometimes people run afoul of local ordinances that don't allow them to continue to keep the animals they have. 

"There are a lot of ordinances in Wisconsin. There are very few places that will allow you to have this stuff," Tarrant says, having moved to Wisconsin from New York state 11 years ago. She keeps the animals she includes in her traveling exotic animal education program on property near Wisconsin Dells. "It took me years to find a place that would allow me to have the animals I have," she says.

It is illegal in Wisconsin to keep any native species that is not subject to hunting regulations. And selling native reptiles and amphibians is prohibited without a license, with the exception of some species used as bait for fishing. Otherwise there is no state ban on owning exotic animals. Wisconsin is one of only four states with no such restrictions.

However, it is very likely that the Wisconsin city, county or township in which you live has ordinances restricting the species you are allowed to keep. 

"If you violate any of these regulations, you risk having your animal taken from you," Tarrant warns on her website, zoozort.com. 

While Dane County has no ordinance regarding the keeping of reptiles, many area communities do.

The city of Madison, for instance, prohibits venomous reptiles, all crocodilian species and any reptile longer than 10 feet. The town of Madison bans crocodilians 30 inches or longer, constrictor snakes 6 feet or longer, rear-fanged snakes (which can be nonvenomous or mildly venomous) and "poisonous insects," including bees.

Middleton has an ordinance similar to the city of Madison's. But Middleton offers residents permits for $30 per snake over 10 feet, so long as they are determined not to be wild, dangerous or vicious. As of mid-October, no one had applied for such a permit, according to Middleton City Clerk Lorie Burns.

DeForest may have the most specific local exotic animal ban. In addition to not allowing rear-fanged snakes, crocodilians or constrictor snakes longer than 6 feet, the village draws the line against poisonous insects, spiders and Komodo dragons.

MAHS keeps tabs on ordinances regarding reptiles and amphibians throughout Wisconsin. To see the restrictions in your community, go to bit.ly/2nqWhBs.

Rules May Change

Even if local laws allow you to own an unusual pet, that is no guarantee the rules won't change. No matter how secure an animal's enclosure is, neighbors may still worry that the animal could escape and harm them, their children or their own pets.

That happened in 2015 to Chad Owsley, a ball python breeder, in Slinger, a small village 90 minutes northeast of Madison. He had been breeding the snakes in the basement of his condo for about four years when a neighbor found out and tried to get the village to ban them. The village would eventually adopt an ordinance limiting individuals to owning no more than six snakes over 6 feet in length without a permit.

But to get the permit, Owsley says, "all the neighbors within a 200-foot radius of your house have to approve it. In my case that, of course, wasn't an option."

Owsley says he moved his 135 snakes out of town and got out of the breeding business. He still lives in the same condo.

This incident, well known among local herpers, or reptile enthusiasts, has discouraged some from being too public about the reptiles they keep, even when the species are common, harmless and perfectly legal. 

In recent years, MAHS successfully pushed back tighter restrictions on reptile-keeping proposed in Middleton and Dane County, McVeigh says.

"That's what we fight: constant misinformation, misconception and fear — a complete lack of wanting to know," says McVeigh. "All the fear for reptiles I run into, 100% of it is alleviated with more knowledge."

Know What You Can Own

Still, McVeigh and Tarrant agree that people need to inform themselves about local animal ordinances before acquiring exotic pets. And breeders also ought to urge would-be buyers to do their research first.

Paul Zuelke, an engineering consultant in Madison, owns Key Reptiles — his side business breeding and selling ball pythons, blood pythons, hognose snakes and yellow anacondas. All four species may be illegal depending on where their buyers keep them.

Hognose snakes are rear-fanged and mildly venomous, but the toxicity of a bite from one is rarely medically significant. Some adult ball pythons can reach 6 feet and yellow anacondas can reach 10 to 15 feet — sizes that several area communities prohibit. Zuelke says his baby yellow anacondas are likely to be smaller as their parents are both shorter than 10 feet, but that's still too large for some jurisdictions. (Zuelke doesn't breed green anacondas, the heaviest-bodied snakes in the world. They can grow to 30 feet in length and weigh as much as 550 pounds.)

Zuelke says he discusses with all potential buyers the 10-foot limit on snakes in Madison and several surrounding communities. "I think these rules are needed for inexperienced people. … I recommend two people be available for handling any snake over 6 feet," he says. Nevertheless, he says yellow anacondas "are very peaceful, easygoing pets as adults. But as babies they can be very snippy and need some extra handling and patient owners."  

Zuelke produced his first litter of yellow anacondas earlier this year, and Reptile Rapture bought five of the babies — his only buyer so far. "[They're] great animals to work with, but I won't get rich selling them."

Read more about exotic pets here.


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