Which exotic pet is right for you?
"It's more about what animal is right for you."
When booking a live animal presentation by Zoozort owner Noelle Tarrant, there’s a lengthy list of animals you can ask her to bring. It includes a large Burmese python, armadillos, lemurs, a wallaby, a skunk, a fennec fox, a kinkajou and a coati.
“I start my programs saying most of the animals I have today don’t make good pets,” she says. Armadillos and skunks, for instance, need room to dig and have demanding diets. They’re also curious and prone to “get into trouble,” Tarrant says.
Both adults and kids frequently ask Tarrant which exotic animals make good pets. On her website she suggests corn snakes, ball pythons, leopard geckos, bearded dragons and chinchillas due to their ease of care.
“It’s more about what animal is right for you,” she says. “Are you the right person to own this animal? I think that’s the question people should be asking rather than, ‘Would this make a good pet?’ ”
Jim Stelpflug of Dickeyville estimates he has produced 75,000 reptiles since he started breeding in 1990. But it wasn’t until 2017 that he got into hedgehogs. He now has 30 adults — the breeding stock for his business Tri-State Hedgehogs & Exotics. “I never imagined that these little [animals] had such personalities,” Stelpflug says. “Hedgehogs make fantastic pets.”
Because hedgehogs are shy and prickly when balled up, they can be difficult to handle. Hedgehogs are nocturnal creatures, meaning they are most active after dark. In the wild, Stelpflug says, “they run 4 to 5 miles a night looking for food. So we provide ours with a wheel” on which they will run for hours. So maybe don’t keep them in a bedroom.
“When I saw my first sugar glider over 25 years ago, it was the cuteness that first attracted me,” says Kimberley Tadder of Stoughton. “It was how they bond to you and the strength of that bond when they accept you as one of their colony.”
Sugar gliders are miniature marsupials with a membrane between their front and back legs that allows them to glide through the air like flying squirrels. Their instinct to bond with one another means sugar gliders do better in groups — so don’t expect to have just one. “The only time I will adopt out a single glider is when the person adopting has a single or other gliders the rescue glider can join,” says Tadder, who has operated the Wisconsin Sugar Glider Sanctuary & Rescue for the past 10 years.
She notes that sugar gliders have a strong odor, especially males. They also “throw food, their cage gets sticky and they poop and pee on you,” Tadder warns. And they’re also active at night, when they’re known to bark. Tadder says meeting their dietary needs is “time consuming” and some veterinarians decline to treat sick sugar gliders.
“They are more work than a hamster or a rabbit,” she says. Despite all that, Tadder does recommend sugar gliders as pets.
Several species of tarantula — of differing sizes and colors — are easy to find in the pet trade. They take up little space and are generally docile and unlikely to bite. Handling a pet tarantula should be kept to a minimum, however, not because a bite from one is life-threatening (it is not, due to the low toxicity of their venom) but because they are delicate and easy to injure.
“There are some that are better pets for handling than others,” says Ryan McVeigh, who owns 20 tarantulas in addition to dozens of reptiles. “Rose hair, Brazilian black, pink toe and Chaco gold knee tarantulas are all amazing pets. Generally, South American species are easier and friendlier than Asian, African and Middle Eastern species.”
Tegus and Monitor Lizards
As adorable, intelligent and inexpensive as baby monitor lizards often are, some species grow to be 6 feet or longer and require a lot of space, food and daily attention to tame.
Some remain small, like black tree monitors, and require vertical enclosures with ample places to climb.
Nile monitors, the largest lizards in Africa, are also arboreal but can grow to be as long as 5 feet and weigh as much as 45 pounds. These are beautiful lizards but notoriously temperamental and prone to biting, scratching and tail whipping. White-throated monitors and Savannah monitors are much larger ground dwellers and almost exclusively carnivores.
Some species of tegu, which resemble monitors but are only distantly related, acclimate very well to captivity and can be puppy-dog tame. But like other large terrestrial lizards, they require enclosures that are at least 8 feet long and 3 feet deep.
“Do I suggest people not get animals like that? Not necessarily,” says Richard Allen of Reptile Rapture. Large monitors can be rewarding pets, he says, “if you have the means and the space to take care of something like that.”
Monitors and tegus require frequent feeding, interaction and exercise outside their cages. “If you don’t have the time to spend with it, you’re going to end up with an aggressive animal because it’s not going to know you,” Allen says.
It’s difficult to generalize about snakes, as some are much easier to care for than others. Depending on the species, they can differ greatly in size. They can be sedentary or active, terrestrial of arboreal, and eat once a week or once a month. Depending on where in the world they’re from, their temperature and humidity requirements can vary. When it’s kept correctly, the lifespan of a snake (depending on the species) can be 10 to 40-plus years. That’s a commitment to consider.
Paul Zuelke, owner of Key Reptiles, breeds several species of snakes. “I chose [to breed] woma pythons because I love their colors and patterns,” he says. “I also started working with blood pythons, ball pythons and western hognose. Bloods are beautiful larger snakes that I adore, and western hognose are so cute and stay small. … [Ball pythons] are a sweet animal that also stay relatively small and have so many amazing colors and patterns.”
Zuelke breeds only nonvenomous snakes. However, hognose snakes can inject a toxic saliva that can cause an allergic reaction. Fortunately, hognose snakes rarely bite. They are more likely to display a range of defensive behaviors, from hissing and bluff striking to playing dead.
All snakes eat rodents, but most snakes in the pet trade will readily accept pre-killed prey. Needless to say, keeping frozen mice and rats in one’s freezer is a downside for a lot of people, regardless of how they feel about snakes as pets.
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