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Herpetology buffs are people who enjoy reptiles and amphibians. These people keep snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises, frogs, salamanders and newts as pets.

Herpetology is the study of reptiles. These animals are called "herps" for short. Herpetology buffs are often called "herpers."

Herp buffs love their pets just like anyone else might love a cat or dog. Yet they say these pets are nothing like your traditional pets.

"If you want something to cuddle and tickle and receive affection from, go get a cat or a dog," says Adam Britton. He is a zoologist and herpetology buff in Bristol, England. "Herps are not generally very social animals in the way dogs and cats are -- they usually don't like being handled, for example."

While herps aren't your typical pet, some owners say they get affection from their pets.

"They can be affectionate in a non-traditional way. Instead of running up and licking my hand like a puppy, my small iguana will climb all the way up my body and fall asleep on my neck, under my hair," says Yvette Ferry, a herp enthusiast from San Francisco. Sometimes she wakes up to find her iguana sleeping on her forehead or her stomach.

Having an iguana asleep on your neck may not be everyone's idea of a good time! Yet herp enthusiasts say they love their pets because they're different.

"They are truly fascinating animals," says Sirena Glade, a herp buff from Alsea, Oregon. "When I try to imagine what it would be like to not be able to produce my own body heat, it's impossible. I think they're intriguing and we have a lot to learn from them."

The fact that these animals are cold blooded presents many challenges and expenses for the herp owner. There are lights, thermostats, heaters and other equipment to buy to help make your iguana, lizard or snake feel at home.

"They require a lot of attention and need to be set up in something that is like their natural habitat," says Britton.

Most herps come from places like South America, Southeast Asia and Africa. For this reason, you have to create a tropical climate in your home. Depending on the type of pet you choose, you may need an aquarium, fluorescent lights and heaters. Experts say the set-up is expensive, sometimes costing as much as $500.

Feeding your herp can be a challenge as well. Snakes need live food, which means you need to keep a supply of rats and mice handy. On the other hand, lizards need insects like crickets, while iguanas are strict vegetarians, needing very specific foods.

"I've had a lifetime fascination with snakes -- I love handling them -- but I could never own one because I could no sooner feed an animal a live mouse than I could eat one myself," says Ferry. She compromised and got a green iguana.

Experts say incorrect care is the number one cause of death among herps. They say roughly 90 per cent of herps die within the first year of purchase because very few pet stores and even veterinarians know much about these exotic pets.

"The typical pet store doesn't know anything about herps and the typical vet knows just slightly more," says Ferry.

"People think because many herps are vegetarians, they can survive on lettuce and leftover salad items," says Britton. "This just isn't true and oftentimes leads to dead herps."

Guana is an adult male iguana who measures 15 inches long. His nicknames are Mr. Guana, Mr. Man and Mr. Meaty.
Courtesy of: Kim Scott

Experts say many herps have complicated diets, which requires a lot of planning and care on the part of the owner.

If you're planning to become a herp owner, experts say buying your snake, iguana, lizard, turtle or other exotic pet is the cheap part. They say the costs of caring for these animals can really add up.

"You can buy a baby iguana for $10 to $20, but your electricity bills shoot up," says Glade. "And if they're sick, vet bills are really expensive."

"I know a guy who just spent $6,000 making his basement into a crocodile habitat," says Paul Hollander, a herp buff from Indianapolis who owns California king snakes and ball pythons.

Despite what you think, most herp pets aren't slimy, dangerous animals. According to their owners, herps are dry, usually harmless -- unless you choose a venomous variety -- and interesting to have around.

"In reality, snakes are dry, most are non-venomous and even the venomous ones are more than happy to avoid people," says Hollander.

Experts suggest interest in owning herps is growing partly because they are trendy to own, but also because many people who aren't permitted cats or dogs in small apartments can keep an iguana or snake.

"I think it's a growing hobby, especially in these days of small apartments," says Hollander. "Ten years ago there were no popular magazines devoted to herps; now there are three or four."

If you really like herps, then you might consider a career that allows you to spend time with them. However, there are not a lot of jobs specifically related to herpetology. Herpetologists are biologists who specialize in herp research. Very few actually make a living breeding or dealing in herps.

There are other animal-related careers where one can interact with herps, however. As a veterinarian you would likely deal with all kinds of animals, but you'd have the option to specialize in herp care. As well, there are many jobs in wildlife conservation, such as a conservation officer.

Check out your local 4-H or SPCA to volunteer and find out about other herp-related jobs.

Getting Started

Owning herps isn't for everyone. You have to be prepared to spend time and money on them. They're not a low-maintenance alternative to a dog or cat.

"Herps require a lot of time, money and energy to keep healthy. They're not easy to care for," says Yvette Ferry.

Other herpers agree. Patricia Sherman lives in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. She has a turtle and two snakes.

"Read all you can about the animal that interests you before you acquire it," she says. "Although there are many herp species that are quite tolerant of less than optimum conditions, the majority are very specific as to their needs, and will do very poorly, or will soon die, if not provided with their necessary environment and diet."

If you're thinking about getting into this, experts recommend starting small. Even green iguanas, which start off small, can grow up to two metres in length and live for 20 years!

"For the beginner, I would suggest leopard or fat tail geckos, corn snakes, milk snakes or gopher snakes, tree frogs or land turtles," says Sirena Glade.

Experts say you should think long and hard about whether you're really into looking after a herp over the long term.

"They're not disposable pets. You can't get one with the idea that you can just give it away when the going gets rough. This is why thousands are put down every year," says Ferry.

Sherman agrees. "Don't acquire any animal for which you cannot provide proper care at all stages of its life."


American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
Florida International University
North Miami , FL   33181

New York Turtle and Tortoise Society
P.O. Box 878
Orange , NJ   07051-0878

Arizona Herpetological Association
P.O. Box 64531
Phoenix , AZ   85082-4531

Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society


Mike's Herpeto-Cultural Home Page

Colorado Herpetological Society
Herp Internet resources, care sheets, and "herp helpers"

Centre for North American Herpetology

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