A sensible young man

Yesterday there was a young man in the store looking for a pet. I say “a pet” because it seemed to me he didn’t really know what he wanted. He asked about chinchillas. He asked about corn snakes. He asked about newts. He asked about geckoes without, I think, being very clear at all on what a gecko was, besides a lizard. (I did appreciate that he asked for a gecko, and not a geico!)

I don’t mind that he had questions to ask, and I don’t mind that he didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted. Sometimes these things take thought, and I’d rather it was more thought than less. As the questions progressed, however, it became clear that the overriding concern, the one he kept asking about, was space. He wanted something that would fit in a small space. At one point he even asked if we had crabs of some sort, as they can live in a fairly small terrarium.

I really don’t think he actually wanted a crab. I think he wanted something interesting and cool, perhaps something he could interact with, that he could fit in a fairly small space. I don’t think he had a large enough space to get any of the things he obviously found interesting and cool, because he kept asking me if whatever-it-was couldn’t live in the slightly-less-than-one-cubic-foot terrarium for its whole life.

In the end I explained to him the usual amount of space required for a leopard gecko or beardie or corn snake, and the amount of money he could expect to spend on setting it up. He thanked me and left the store petless, which was a good thing for him, and for the possible pets he’d been considering.

I have seen far too many people cavalierly assume that they could keep a corn snake in a ten-gallon aquarium its whole life. Although the number I’ve seen try it after being advised to the contrary is smaller, it’s still too large a number. I was very happy that this young man asked the questions he did, thought better of his resources and went away, perhaps to think again and rearrange his space.

You can’t keep an animal in a too-small space and expect it to stay healthy and good-tempered. A too-small space also hampers your ability to keep the environment clean and healthy, and in the end cramps your enjoyment of the animal, as well as the animal itself.

Would I have liked to sell a snake or lizard, or chinchilla, to this guy? Yes, I would. Making a living in retail has become a nerve-wracking pursuit in the last few years. I may yet make that sale, and when I do, I’m sure that the animal will be well-housed and well cared-for, simply because this young man cared enough to ask questions, and to curb his impulses.

Really, it gives you hope for people.

Posted in Amphibians, Lizards, Small furry critters, Snakes | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who started this?

The other day I was engaged in a discussion of “venomous” and “poisonous” on my word-nerd forum when one of the members posted this:

“Have I ever told you the story, related to me as true (!) of the young woman whose pet boa refused to eat and joined her in bed?”

“Oh, no!” I thought. “Please don’t let it be that ‘it was measuring her’ story again!”

Alas, it was. I first heard this one a couple of years ago, and the person who asked me about it credited the speculation to a veterinarian. Really? Even a non-exotics vet should be smarter than that about animals.

Whoever started this, I’d like to smack them up the back of the head. There are so many reasons this story doesn’t work!

First, reptiles have a really basic little brain. It handles the four Fs – fight, flight, feeding and mating. It doesn’t handle planning ahead. A snake isn’t going to think about eating unless its hungry; it’s certainly not planning meals for when it’s much bigger!

Second, whatever the uninitiated think of snakes, they are not all stomach. Part of that length – the part behind the cloaca (an all-purpose opening for breeding and defecation) – is tail. Part of it, the slender bit behind the head, is neck. The part that holds the innards is probably half to three-quarters of the snake’s length, tops, and I’ll bet not more than half of that is available for the stomach to expand into. That’s one reason a six-foot-long snake couldn’t eat a six-foot-tall person.

Third, snakes can generally manage prey that is twice their diameter. Most of the snakes in the pet trade are between one and four inches in diameter, and that four inches is on the generous side. That means that anything the snake wants to eat had better be no larger than two to eight inches in diameter, tops. Most people are bigger than that, even if only across the shoulders and hips. That’s the other reason a six-foot-long snake couldn’t eat a six-foot-tall person.

I’ve seen snakes die from attempting prey that was too large for them. They can rupture their oesophagus or their stomach. Again, most animals will not attempt something that’s too large for them. Yes, something like an anaconda could eat a human being, but anacondas aren’t available in the pet trade. Burmese pythons get pretty big, too. All the same, the largest prey animal I’ve ever heard of in the pet trade is rabbit.

The other thing that annoys me about this mythical young woman is that she lets her snake run loose in the house. That’s very dangerous for the snake, and not responsible pet-keeping behaviour. Snake-keepers don’t need her type out there, even if it’s only in an urban myth.

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Not making the connection

I spent yesterday on the set of a movie filming in Sault Ste Marie. David provided hamsters, fish, birds and an iguana to “dress” a 1950s pet store set, and was there to see that all went well and the animals were safe and well cared-for. It was a sweltering day, and we were careful that the animals all had water. (Especially the fish! Snicker!)

We were on hand for the filming of the scenes at and in front of the pet store, and knew that the characters in the film were going to picket for animal rights, and for good treatment of the animals in the (1950s) store. While they were waiting in the indoor part of the set for the shooting to start, two of the young women waved their hands in front of the finch cage repeatedly just to see the birds fly up. After they’d done this two or three times, David asked them not to tease the finches, as they were already hot enough.

The irony of it wasn’t lost on me. I’d seen some of the indoor scene, and how the actors seemed to be really angry with the (pretend) storekeeper. At the same time, the lines they said and the feelings they were portraying didn’t carry over to their real-life behaviour. Yes, they were young. Yes, we were all really hot and draggy and tired, and they weren’t allowed to show it on camera. It just struck me somehow as odd.

It reminded me of the situation with the snapping turtle that I wrote about at the end of June. In one breath someone expresses concern; in the next action, they demonstrate a lack of care, mainly, I think, through not paying attention. I don’t believe those young actors meant to distress the finches; they just didn’t think about it. It didn’t occur to them.

I’ll talk a little more about this experience in another post, because there was lots about using animals for filming that I’d never thought of before. But for now, perhaps the thing that is most surprising is that I’m still surprised by the inconsistency people show towards animals.

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There it is again…

I was checking on the toxicity of clownfish (a friend of mine believed they were poisonous, and I didn’t think they were) when I ran across this question on Answer.com.

“Is there any way to make a poisonous snake non-poisonous?”

What is it with people? There are no poisonous snakes. None! You can eat every single one. (They apparently taste like chicken. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never eaten snake.) You could probably even drink the venom if you were 100% rock-bottom, bet-the-farm certain you didn’t have a scrape, scratch, abrasion or ulcer anywhere in your digestive tract. (You can if you want – I find the idea yucky.)

What snakes are is venomous or non-venomous. Venomous snakes manufacture venom, which is used primarily for immobilizing and digesting prey and secondarily for defence. You don’t want a venomous thing to bite you, sting you or – if you’re dealing with spitting cobras – spit in your eye. (Spitting cobras have remarkably good aim, I’m told.)

Poisonous things are things you don’t want to ingest or touch. To quote “Mission Impossible” (the movie), “Hasta lasagne, don’t get any onya.” Or inya. Poison dart frogs have highly poisonous skin. Fugu – a pufferfish considered a delicacy in Japan – is poisonous, but only in certain parts. (The trick to being a good fugu chef is knowing precisely which parts. The trick to being a superb fugu chef is leaving just enough poison to give the customer a tingle in the lips, a frisson from knowing that they came that close to death.)

This is nothing but sloppy language. In the matter of whether something is poisonous or venomous, I really, really want to know which one you mean. Venomous animals need a wider berth. Don’t eat the fugu, but don’t go near the toadfish.

This is a simple distinction. Unfortunately, so many people are lazy about language.

So is there away to make a venomous snake non-venomous? Temporarily, yes – the snake can be milked of its venom to create an antivenin. Draw the fangs and you damage the delivery system; the venom won’t be applied as efficiently. Either of these is a job for experts, and really I can’t think of a reason to do the second one.

Oh, yeah, that same site told you how to tell a venomous snake from a non-venomous one (although they still miscalled them as “poisonous” and “non-poisonous”). The salient piece of advice was to look at the scales on the underbelly, particularly the lines leading down to the anus. Yeah, you go right ahead and pick up that snake that may or may not be venomous and turn it over and check out its underbelly.

I have a simpler and safer idea. Read up on where you’re going, check out the local fauna, learn which ones are dangerous and what they look like, and give them some respect, and some room.

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A contradiction

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks; I went down to Southern Ontario to Wild Ginger Witch Camp and from there to London to visit some friends.

While I was at camp, I ran into a situation which was both distressing, and deeply thought-provoking. We have a nightly ritual around a campfire, and it was my job to build and supervise the fires. On the first night I went down to the main firepit and found a medium-sized snapping turtle, paddling slowly in the sand with her hind feet. She was either digging a hole for her eggs, or covering them up. She wasn’t finished, and she wasn’t going to be finished before we had to start ritual. What to do?

My immediate thought was to move the ritual to another place. There are two large firepits at camp; we would simply use the other one. Unfortunately, I was overruled. I made the best compromise I could, fencing the turtle around with benches and leaving her a way out that would take her directly away from us when she was done.

People kept leaning in over the benches to look at her, sometimes even putting their hands inside the space. I think I was the only one who could read her signals. She wasn’t happy; these large, strange creatures (there were about fifty of us) kept milling around and making noise when she wanted to lay her eggs in peace. She clearly didn’t feel safe. Eventually she finished and left. The next night there were two turtles at the firepit, and we moved the ritual; I was relieved.

The third night, no turtles, but a second clutch of eggs had been laid right beside the firepit. Against my better judgment, and feeling rather overwhelmed by a more forceful opinion, I agreed to light a small fire on the far side of the firepit, about three feet from the nesting site. I also covered the both sites to keep them from being stepped on.

We should have ceded the area to the turtle on all three nights. One woman argued that even if I didn’t build a proper fire in the firepit (which I was pretty sure would kill the eggs in one site, at least) other campers would do it over the course of the summer. I’m glad I didn’t give in to that argument, but I still feel bad about not standing my ground. I feared that if I didn’t take control of the size and placement of the fire, someone else would make a big one close to the nest.

I know better than this, truly I do. Having been taken off guard once, I’ve now decided that if I’m ever in a similar situation, I’ll have to take a stronger stand in the turtle’s defence. I’m only sorry I didn’t do it this time.

The kicker is that most of the people at this event expressed deep concern about a quarry proposed for the area. Part of the concern was for the animals who would have nowhere to go – and in many cases no opportunity to go there if they did. At the same time these people didn’t see how that same principal applied to the turtle at the firepit.

Snappers are feared and sometimes even hated. I’ve heard people say “Aren’t you supposed to kill them? Because they’re vicious?” George, the alligator snapping turtle who lived for years at the Metro Toronto Zoo, carried in his neck lead slugs from the 1860s. I’d like to think we’ve outgrown that ignorance, but clearly we still have a way to go.

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Two words

I want to talk about dogs for a bit. I know they’re not, strictly speaking, on the menu here at The Lizard Lady, but the fact is that I deal with questions about them all the time. I’ve spent some years studying dogs. While I’m not perfect, I’m not bad, either.

I tell people you need only two words to train a dog. Those words are “consistent” and “persistent”. You must give the dog the same message, all the time. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is – until you get people into the mix.

I’ve heard it all: “I don’t want to be mean!”  “Oh, she loves her treats and I haven’t the heart to refuse her!”  “He won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”  and on, and on. Dogs that bite spouses and kids, dogs that won’t come, dogs that growl at their owners, dogs that won’t learn good behaviour. It’s almost never the dog’s fault. I had one phone call from a young woman who was trying to make her dog stop barking. Ten minutes into the call, she confessed that she’d taught her dog to bark. She’d deliberately encouraged her dog in this method of getting attention and praise, and now she wanted it to stop. Immediately.

In another call, the owner wanted me to tell him how to make his dog stop barking when he put it out to pee. Eventually I learned that the dog was a new puppy, eight weeks old, and that he was being put out alone. Imagine being thrust outside in a strange place by strangers – you’d bark, too. “Hey! Hey! Where is everybody?”

One couple, customers of ours, bought a blue merle Aussie bitch because they were so impressed with Sky. (She is beautiful, and I work hard on her training.) The problem was, they didn’t understand their girl’s signals, and thought she was being aggressive even when she was playing. No matter what she did, she was corrected. Smart as she was – and Aussies are smart – she was very confused.

Dogs do what comes naturally unless they’re taught not to. In that way, they’re just like people. They’re excellent at learning our words and our body language, and it’s up to us to make those signals clear for them. It’s also up to us to learn their signals. As dog owners, we need to understand when they’re happy, confused, frightened or in pain. Dogs like to know who’s boss. If it’s not you, it’s going to be them. If you give clear signals – never tolerate jumping up, always praise when the dog comes to you – then the dog will learn that jumping up isn’t allowed, and coming to the boss is always a good thing.

The hardest part, though, is training the people. Somehow, people think that the dog always knows what you want, even when he or she hasn’t had a chance to learn the words. Give the dog a chance. It doesn’t matter whether you say “down”, “off” or “broccoli” – if you are consistent with the word and persistent in its use, you’ll eventually teach the dog what you want her to know.


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Moving fish

It’s pond season, and in our house that means time to move fish.

I get to keep a few koi, usually ones chosen especially for me. There were five of those – a couple of kohaku, a sanke, an asagi and a doitsu ochiba. I also have a goromo coming from the store, because very few people want a dark fish in their pond. I like the dark fish.

I also got to keep the fantails, but the shubunkins and the rest of the koi went into the store this morning.

Being caught is a very stressful experience for the fish. Stress creates in fish, as it does in humans, all kinds of problems. In order to minimize the stress to your pond fish, here are a few tips.

Be calm and quiet about catching. Yes, we’ve all seen fish chased around a tank in a pet store, but that’s really not the best experience to draw on. An experienced fish-catcher keeps even that to a minimum. In a pond, use a large net, preferably one with a telescoping handle. This allows you to reach without having to move your feet (if you’re standing int he pond) or lean over (if you’re standing outside the pond). The less you move, or lean, the less you’ll panic the fish.

Move the net slowly. Try to keep it low in the pond. When the fish you want swims over the net, you should be able to raise it gently and lift the fish out of the pond with a minimum of fuss. Don’t dart with the net, or snatch it up, if you can possibly help it. Even if you catch this fish, the others will be disturbed and harder to catch.

Once you have the fish, get it quickly and gently into either the new pond, or a holding bin.  I put the net into the pond and turn it to let the fish swim out. Don’t dump a fish into the water if you can possibly help it.

If you must handle a fish, wet your hands first, and use your palms and the pads of your fingers. Cup the fish, rather than grasping it, if you can. If the fish is too large to cup, be careful not to let your nails score the sides. At the very least you’ll damage the slime coat, and you may even scratch or cut the skin.

Give the fish time to calm down before you feed them.

I hate moving house, and I’m pretty sure it’s no picnic for the fish, either. Give yourself time and be patient, and your fish will be happier and have fewer problems with the move.

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