Snake Charming and Herp Handling: How to Train Your Exotic Pet

Love Dog
In This Chapter
  • Training and taming your exotic pet
  • Picking up reptiles, amphibians, tarantulas, and other exotics in the safest way
  • Knowing what to do if a herp bites

Can you really train a snake? A spider? A hermit crab? Well . . . sort of. Adopted exotics often don’t trust humans, and for good reason. Although you probably can’t get your iguana to do back flips or even coax your snake to rise up cobra-style from a big basket while you play a flute, you may be able to accustom your herp to handling, and you may even get your pet to actually enjoy the occasional scale stroking or shoulder taxi. However, if you adopt an exotic pet, please do so with the recognition that your pet may never be comfortable being handled, and you really can’t do much about it.

Remember

If you want to try and tame your herp, just remember that training herps and other exotics requires a certain amount of common sense, caution, and restraint. These animals aren’t like fuzzy kittens and wiggly puppies that just can’t wait to crawl into your arms for a snuggle. Handling an exotic pet the same way you handle a domesticated mammal can injure, traumatize, and even kill your poor creature.

This chapter tells you what you need to know about how much and in what way you can and should handle your exotic pet, so everybody remains safe, sound, and comfortable in each other’s company, and it provides you with vital information in case your exotic herp bites you.

Exploring the Possibilities and Limits of Exotic Taming and Training

Taming an exotic seems relatively straightforward, and you usually don’t think of exotic pets as experiencing complex behavior problems. In fact, exotic behavioral consulting isn’t a big field, because these wild creatures aren’t really amenable to the kind of advanced behavior training domesticated animals respond to. They’re wild, and their behavior is centered on survival. An experienced herp hobbyist recognizes that. This wild spirit is a central part of what has mystified and fascinated humans about reptiles, amphibians, and other creepy-crawlies for thousands of years.
Many pet owners are programmed to think that pets need human touch to thrive. However, your exotic pet can live happily for the rest of his natural born life if you never, ever touched him. Unlike mammals, especially the domesticated ones, that love to be touched and even need to be touched for health and happiness, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and other exotics are neither mammalian nor domesticated.
In fact, your exotic’s little brain registers being touched, at an instinctual level, as step one in a process that inevitably ends in a fight to eat or be eaten. That doesn’t make it easy to start off on the right foot when you’re trying to get in touch, literally, with your new exotic.
The good news for you is that many exotics can discover that touch by humans doesn’t inevitably end in being served up for lunch. Although not everyone agrees that exotic pets can be exactly trained, many do agree that exotics can, to some extent, be tamed.

How to recognize a tamed exotic

You just adopted an exotic pet from a shelter or rescue. You think it is perhaps the coolest looking pet you ever saw. But how can you tell whether your new pet is tamed?

Remember

A tame exotic doesn’t freak out and experience unhealthy levels of stress in the presence of humans. Some even become quite receptive to human handling and will crawl onto your hand to be stroked or carried around. But if your exotic pet scrambles around, quivers, hides, hisses, or tries to bite whenever you come near, he probably isn’t tame. Because stress is unhealthy for pets, keeping an untamed exotic can actually be an unpleasant experience for everyone — your pet will become stressed every time you walk into the room, and you, in turn, will be stressed knowing your pet isn’t thriving. No, your iguana, ball python, tarantula, or hermit crab is never, by any stretch of the imagination, going to behave like a dog, a cat, or even a hamster. But you may be able to tame your exotic animal to tolerate your presence in the room without cowering in fear or gearing up to attack.

How to tame your exotic

If your adopted exotic isn’t tame, you may wonder what you can do about it. This section helps you get started taming your new pet. First, assess what you want out of taming, and what you think is possible with your individual exotic. Do you want to be able to hold your pet every day and have him enjoy it? With an exotic that is already used to humans, this task may be relatively easy to do. If your exotic is already an adult and scared stiff whenever you look at him cross-eyed, your dreams of a python scarf or iguana on a leash may not be realistic.
Or maybe you don’t mind so much if you don’t hold your exotic often, but you don’t want him to suffer from stress whenever you have to handle him once in awhile, such as when you have to take him out of his enclosure to clean it. This goal is realistic and important.

Remember

Taming an exotic is simply a matter of handling the animal frequently without scaring him. Just remember before handling your pet that some adopted exotics may have already experienced trauma associated with the presence of and handling by humans, and the simple fact is that many exotic pets won’t ever be very tame. If your herp associates being touched with fear, he probably will try to defend himself or at least hide from you. But if you always move slowly, pick him up gently, and avoid waving him around in the air or passing him around the room at a party, he can discover that you aren’t anything to fear. He can also discover that your hand isn’t food. He may get used to the smell of humans and eventually (probably) tolerate the occasional handling.

Remember

Stress isn’t good for exotics, so if you can at least tame them enough so they relax in your presence, you’re doing them a great service. Exotics still can be healthy, interesting pets even if you don’t touch them all the time. Simply make your presence known, feed them regularly, keep their cages clean, give them enough space to move around, and spend time near them. For the ones that do accept it, or are only a little bit nervous about it, handle them for brief periods every day. The longer they live in your presence without harm or fear, the tamer they’ll become. Just don’t force anything. Enjoy your herp for what he is and what he can do, and if nothing else, you can let him live out the rest of his life free from abuse and neglect.

Warning!

Avoid handling some exotics, such as venomous herps and spiders, very large snakes, or individuals that tend to be nippy. Children, amateur hobbyists, or anyone who feels uncertain definitely needs to avoid handling these kinds of exotics, because they generally aren’t good candidates for adoption anyway, unless you’re an experienced herp hobbyist.

Handling Your Exotic Pet

Check out the following sections for a rundown on the various types of exotics and how well they respond to handling, with tips on how to get your exotic used to this essentially mammalian form of intraspecies bonding.

Warning!

Always wash your hands before and after picking up your exotic pet. You have bacteria on your hands, and you don’t want to pass it along to your animal. If you have food on your hands, you can smell like food and accidentally confuse your near-sighted exotic, who may try to take a bite. A perfectly honest mistake, mind you. You also don’t want to pass on any of your exotic’s germs to anyone else, or take on any of your pet’s germs yourself.

Snake couture

Why do people hold — or wear — their snakes? Is it for show? To shock people? Is it to fulfill some basic human need for touch? Feeling that muscular coil curl around your wrist and giving a little squeeze is definitely an interesting experience, and if you’ve never worn a 12-foot Burmese python around your shoulders or wrapped around your waist, you’re missing out on one of the weirder experiences life has to offer (see Figure 23-1).
But think about it . . . snakes don’t hug each other or ride around on each other’s backs. They may even think you’re just as curious as you think they are, and larger snakes like pythons and boas, being generally mellow sorts, are fairly adaptable and often are open to handling. However, face it. Don’t ever think for a moment that your snake requires this kind of interaction. It’s really just for your own sake.
Figure 23-1: Some snakes don’t mind coiling around you or taking a ride out in public, but don’t pass the snake around or lose track of him. Be a responsible pet owner.
Because you sometimes need to remove your snake from his enclosure to clean it, however, and because you may want to get a better look at him, you need to know the right way to handle your snake and to identify when your snake doesn’t want to be held.

Warning!

If your snake feels frightened, threatened, or particularly hungry, or if he is getting ready to shed his skin and can’t see very well (eye caps also are shed so the snake’s vision gets blurry just before it sheds), he may rear back, or even hiss at you. He doesn’t want to be held. Seriously, come back later. Or give him some lunch first.

You can’t always tell when a snake is ready to strike, but when they strike, they move quickly. Sometimes they simply curl their heads back slightly toward their bodies so they have a length to use in springing forward, but they rarely open their mouths or look ready to sink their teeth into you, like you may see cobras doing in action movies. Do, however, remember that when a snake has its head and the first part of its body extended in a straight line, it is not able to strike, but a snake with its head retracted and waiting can strike at any moment if he feels the urge.
Remember these points when helping your snake get used to being picked up:

Move slowly and be respectful. Although people who are frightened of snakes — and many are for some reason — think it may sound absurd that they can actually be the scary ones, snakes do get scared whenever they’re suddenly picked up and flailed around.

Use a hook. Some snakes are nervous or nippy with human hands but easily accept being scooped up by a metal snake hook (see Figure 23-2). They are available from pet stores that specialize in reptile supplies, or look for them on the Internet at Web sites such as www.tongs.com. After the snake is used to the hook, you can transfer him from the hook to your hands.

Pick up the snake by placing one hand around the snake behind the head and then supporting the heaviest part of the snake’s body. Don’t be alarmed when your snake curls around your arm or hand. He’s holding on and doesn’t want you to drop him. Put him where he needs to go or admire his beauty for a moment. Move slowly so you don’t startle the snake.

Slowly put him back down. Place him in his cage slowly, head first or all at once. Pick him up every few days, and your snake may become accustomed to the procedure, even if he doesn’t particularly enjoy it. Some don’t mind at all, particularly the mellow ball python and small corn snakes.

Warning!

Don’t handle large aggressive snakes, venomous snakes, or giant snakes more than 8 feet long if you’re alone. If these guys decide to argue about the merits of snake handling, you don’t want to lose that argument.

 Figure 23-2: A snake hook is a handy tool for moving a snake without actually touching the snake. 

Lizard love

Some lizards seem to think that humans are fairly interesting and come to you while in their enclosures to look at you, even jumping against the glass or climbing the screen as if desperate for interaction. Some iguanas can be socialized to the extent that they actually seem to enjoy being with people, being handled and petted, and getting attention from humans. They even seek it out. Other smaller lizards may lose all fear of you as they seek you out in the hopes of food or an interesting show of expressions.
Every individual is different, and only you can test your own pet’s limits and tolerances. Whatever they are, be patient, be flexible, and continue to work with your pet, remembering that not all exotics can be tamed, but all exotics deserve a healthy life.
Many iguanas, in particular, are waiting for second homes and have reached adulthood without ever being tamed. They may never be comfortable being touched or held, and can bite, scratch, and whip you with their tails out of fear. These iguanas need patience and the willingness to let them climb around in a large enclosure without constant human harassment.

Warning!

If your lizard scrambles madly around the tank to get away from you, or hisses at you and tries to whip you with his tail, assume that he isn’t in the mood to be handled. Iguanas that hiss, flare their dewlaps (the flap of skin on the throat of some lizards), or try to bite don’t want to be held or bothered.

Talk to experienced iguana keepers about the best way to begin handling these large wild reptiles if you’re determined to tame yours to minimize his stress. Brief daily handling is the trick, but doing so can be dangerous without someone with experience guiding you. For more information on how to tame your iguana, check out Iguanas For Dummies by Melissa Kaplan (Wiley).

Younger lizards are easier to sell on the whole handling concept. To pick up a small iguana or other lizard like an anole, gecko, chameleon, water dragon, or bearded dragon, gently scoop him up and hold him firmly but loosely around the body. If he is wiggly, put your other hand loosely around his neck. For very small lizards, cup your fingers into a cage. For larger lizards, scoop them up with one hand and use the other hand for support under the chest, just behind the front legs.

Warning!

Some lizards have defense mechanisms to escape when they’re afraid — anoles can drop their tails and geckos can split their own skin open. When handling these little guys, be careful. If your lizard drops his tail or splits his skin, put him immediately back into his enclosure. If you still need to move him, coax him into a container. Don’t worry, his skin will heal and his tail will grow back — this can take a few weeks or months depending on the animal and the extent of the damage — even if it doesn’t look exactly the same. But it is a shame to damage your pet and scare him to the extent that this happens.

Warning!

Iguanas, tokay geckos, monitor lizards, tegus, and other large lizards can be dangerous, so don’t handle them — or adopt them at all! — unless you’re confident in your abilities. They have sharp claws and teeth, and strong jaws, and iguanas have long tails that can painfully whip you.

Turtle touch

Turtles don’t necessarily like to be picked up, but many of them don’t necessarily mind it, either. If you need to move your turtle, gently grasp the sides of his shell with one or both hands and lift slowly. To put him down, lower him down slowly and when his feet touch the ground, let go of the shell.
Turtles live up to their reputation as slow movers, and because they can’t really get to you while you’re holding their shells, nor would they usually try, they aren’t as dangerous as some of the larger lizards or a large snake in a bad mood. Still, if a turtle pulls his head and limbs inside his shell, he is trying to tell you, in his best Greta Garbo impression that he wants to be alone and that this is not the time to harass him, get him to eat a piece of lettuce, or pass him around to your friends. Put him into his enclosure and let him be.
An annoyed turtle can also bite, but turtle bites are more likely when they mistake your fingers for food. Aquatic turtles may mistake your hand for a tasty fish when in the water but wouldn’t make the same mistake when on land. A land tortoise may nip your finger by mistake when you hand him a tasty bit of fruit. Turtles can be a bit near-sighted, but they are not generally aggressive.

Warning!

Snapping turtles and soft-shelled turtles are another story, however. These guys can deliver nasty bites and should not be handled by amateur hobbyists. In fact, they don’t make good adopted pets unless you’re experienced at keeping herps.

To discover more about turtles, check out Turtles & Tortoises For Dummies by Liz Palika (Wiley).

Touchy toads and feely frogs

Remember

Washing your hands before you pick up any amphibian is particularly important because their porous skin is so susceptible to contamination. Use cold water and leave your hands wet — amphibians like cool temperatures and hot hands can be very uncomfortable for them. Dry hands can scratch their delicate skin resulting in an infection.

Frogs can be jumpy and hard to hold onto, so scoop them up carefully around the waist, if you must. But take a hint: If a frog is jumping away from you, that means he is not eager for any cuddling. In general, frogs don’t want to be and shouldn’t be handled. Try especially hard never to touch small delicate frogs like dart frogs, only because you can injure them. Poison dart frogs are poisonous in the wild but in captivity, they lose their poisonous coating after a few weeks, so you don’t have to worry that your frog will slay you. Still, their delicacy makes them unsuitable for any kind of handling. Instead, guide them into a small container and move them that way. Remember to keep them in a moist environment when you’re cleaning their cages. You can grasp salamanders and newts around the waist to move them. In general, amphibians aren’t aggressive and don’t bite, but you don’t want to hurt them or scare them, so remember to move slowly and be gentle. Don’t handle them more than you have to.

Tarantula taming

What can be more startling than having a giant spider creeping up your arm? Some people really groove on these guys and think a tame tarantula is an incredibly interesting pet. The mellower and more popular pet spiders — most notably the Chilean Rose Hair — usually are easy to handle if you move very slowly and handle them gently.
To pick up your tarantula, follow these steps:
1. Coax a spider onto your hand by tapping it gently from behind.
Use a pen (see Figure 23-3) or a soft spidery paintbrush to urge your tarantula forward — the feel of the brush is similar to the feel of another spider and less startling to a tarantula.
2. Lift your hand gently.
Or, if your spider is very tame, you can pick him up gently by the body, behind the front legs, as shown in the second part of Figure 23-3.

3. Hold him loosely in an open palm.

Figure 23-3: Carefully coax a tarantula into your hand to pick him up (left). Or pick him up gently by the carapace, the spider’s body (right).

Remember

Tarantulas look large, but they’re fragile, so stay close to the floor or a tabletop. A drop to the floor can injure or kill a tarantula. Move slowly and keep your other hand handy if your spider wants to play musical palms, or you want to encourage him not to explore the nice dark space down the front of your shirt.

 4. To set him down, place him gently into his enclosure with all eight legs on the ground.

Warning!

You can easily tell when your tarantula doesn’t want to be held or bothered. Tarantulas rear up with their front legs as if getting ready to strike. Don’t pick up your new tarantula until you’re sure that he is docile.

As for other nonherp exotics, unless you’re an experienced hobbyist, don’t try to pick up any scorpion or centipede because they are venomous. Scorpions brandish their stingers in a menacing fashion. They mean business. Centipedes may not reveal their displeasure until it is too late. You can pick up your hissing cockroach gently if you must, and he may not care, or he may hiss at you, but he won’t bite.

Hermit crab handling

Hermit crabs are social guys and do best in groups of three. Unlike some of the other exotic pets, they find interaction interesting, but you need to handle them gently and carefully. They can be seriously injured or killed if you drop them, so sit on the floor when holding them.

Tip

Pick them up by holding their shells, and then set them gently on your open palm. Let them crawl around your hand for a few minutes every day, and they’ll soon get used to you. Keep a close eye on them, because they may scoot right out of your hand. If your hermit crab hides in his shell or pinches you, take a hint. He isn’t in the mood for socializing.

Dealing with a Herp Bite

So you touched your herp even though he gave you signals that he wanted to be left alone, and he bit you. Well . . . welcome to the club. Exotic pet hobbyists with years of experience all have their bite stories to tell. Whether you get a snake stuck to the end of your finger or a mad iguana mauls your arm, you probably discovered what not to do next time. In the meantime, animal bites can range from the incidental to the get-to-the-emergency-room-right-now. Here’s what to do if it happens to you:
1. Don’t panic.
Easier said than done of course, but panicking only makes you feel worse, and if the animal is still hanging on, it may make him hang on tighter. If the animal doesn’t let go, try to relax. Put the animal on the ground and don’t hold on to him. If you relax, he’ll relax his grip and let go, but it might take a few minutes, so calm down and try to relax. Bigger snakes are more likely to take several minutes to let go, because they usually bite accidentally when confusing you for food. It takes a while for the snake to figure out that it has gotten hold of the wrong thing. Don’t struggle or pull, not only because it will encourage more pressure (for constrictors), but also because you can dislodge teeth, even leaving them in your skin.
2. When the snake lets go, put him into his cage and securely fasten the top. Stay calm.
3. Wash the bite thoroughly with soap and water.
4. Apply pressure to a bleeding wound and call the doctor.
If you don’t think the bite is serious enough for the doctor, put antibiotic cream on it and watch for signs of infection, such as red streaks, swelling, or discharge.

Remember

If the bite is very bad or is on your face, have someone take you to the emergency room. Be sure the animal is securely locked in his tank before you leave the house.

5. After you have taken care of your own wound, keep an eye on your animal to make sure he didn’t get broken teeth or a mouth wound from biting you.

Warning!

If a venomous animal bites you, immediately go to the emergency room. Don’t wait around, wondering if the bite is serious or not. Expect aching, swelling, a rash or hives, temporary paralysis, itching, or even breathing trouble, depending on how you react to the venom and how bad the bite was. Some arthritis in the joints may be permanent after a bad venomous bite.

by Eve Adamson

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