Taking a Walk on the Wild Side

Eschewing cats and dogs for reptiles, birds, small mammals and spiders can be rewarding (your bearded dragon may wave at you), but it isn’t for everyone

A a lot of people want to be different. Maybe they have an unusual car, or perhaps their fashion sense makes them stand out in a crowd.

Or maybe they set themselves off by the type of pet they own.

Not content with the typical (and oh, so ordinary) choices of dogs or cats, some pet owners pursue the scaly, slithery, eight-legged or feathered. Still others stay with the warm-blooded, four-legged variety, but eschew canine and feline companions in favor of ferrets, rabbits or guinea pigs.

But what’s the attraction? Veterinarian Morgan Dawkins of Windcrest Animal Hospital in Wilmington says mammals like guinea pigs appeal to some people because they’re a small, domesticated mammal that is out of the ordinary. “Generally, across the species there’s just something that’s different” from cats and dogs, he says.

And then there are people who want to own a pet but are limited by the size of their home or apartment, or because larger pets aren’t permitted in those places. Others are making accommodations for allergies they or someone else in the household may have.

“When you talk birds and reptiles, for me personally, they’re cool species that not everyone has that are interesting in their husbandry and history,” Dawkins says. “That adds a level of interest that’s not the norm.”

Small mammals also attract people because they can be allowed to run loose for short periods of time and tend to be social with humans in ways similar to dogs and cats.

Even some reptile species can be friendly, according to Mike Howard, store manager at Pet Kare II in Newark. At the top of the list, he says, is the bearded dragon, an iguana species native to Australia but popular for its social—for a lizard—nature and its willingness to be handled.

The Social Bearded Dragon

“Bearded dragons actually have personalities and act like they want to hang out with you,” he says. “My bearded dragon used to wave at me every day when I got home. It would actually come up the tank and act like it wanted to come out. A lot of the other lizards and reptiles I couldn’t say that about.”

Birds, says Dawkins, can vary in their interactivity depending on the species. It’s best to do initial research on what species you feel would work best for you, then talk to your pet shop owner to assess what equipment and food will be required.

Tarantulas, meanwhile, aren’t so much about the interaction as about conquering fear, Howard says.
“People are scared of them, so they’re like, ‘I’m going to own them so I can get over my fear of spiders,’” he says.

Another upside to exotic pet ownership is cost. Even a shelter or rescue dog or cat—including adoption fees and initial setup with equipment and accessories—can cost as much as $500. And that’s not even considering food, annual vet check-ups, vaccinations and medications to fight things like fleas, ticks and heartworms—costs that continue as long as the pet is alive.

Still, Howard acknowledges that, for some people, the $200 or so set-up cost for a lizard, a 20-gallon reptile tank and the necessary lighting and bedding can seem steep.

“People ask, ‘It’s just a $10 lizard, why does it need a $200 habitat?’” he says. “But it’s an animal that you’re going to have for several years. [The cost] is not really out of whack, but a lot of people think it is.”



Crickets and Mealworms on the Menu

Feeding reptiles is relatively inexpensive, Howard says, with most eating either crickets, mealworms, mice or, in the case of bearded dragons, the ingredients from last night’s salad.

“Bearded dragons are omnivores and will eat lettuce and tomato,” he says. “For the insectivores, you do have to make the commitment to come into the store once a week to buy crickets.”

For small mammals like guinea pigs and rabbits, enclosures can start as low as $50, with the primary costs thereafter being feed and bedding, which needs to be changed regularly. Outdoor rabbit hutches start at a higher price point, usually around $150.

But when using the term “exotic pets,” it’s important to remember that what might be exotic to you isn’t necessarily so under the law. In Delaware, there are the casual designations of the term—referring to pets that are simply unusual but legally sold in pet shops—and the term as defined by the Delaware State Code.

Under state law “any live wild mammal or hybrid of a wild mammal or live reptile not native to or generally found in Delaware” is illegal to import, own or sell without a permit from the state Department of Agriculture. Those permits are only issued for zoos or traveling circuses. Meanwhile, non-native poisonous reptiles are entirely forbidden. In both cases, special permits will be issued for animal rescue organizations.

For some, the pursuit of truly exotic pets is taken to extreme —and illegal—lengths. Daniel Stonebreaker of 3 Palms Zoo & Education Center in Clayton has an idea of just how serious the problem is because he’s had to make room among his animals for those that were illegally acquired and became problems for their owners.

Tick Tock the Alligator

The center cares for and exhibits a wide variety of rescued animals, including alpacas, raccoons and pot-bellied pigs. In most circumstances, the owner’s situation has changed, preventing the continued care of the animal. Some were abandoned, while others are injured wild animals that have been rehabilitated but can’t return to the wild.

Perhaps his most famous adoptee is Tick Tock the American alligator. Tick Tock was kept illegally and housed improperly for three years, when she was brought to 3 Palms by a Delaware state licensed animal rehabilitator.

“We do not endorse the ownership of any—in the legal sense—exotic animals,” Stonebreaker says. “That’s a lot of the headache I deal with here.”

Headaches not just for him, but for local and state officials as well. In March 2012, an alligator was spotted in a retention pond near a Dover Wawa. Delaware Fish and Wildlife officials responded, placing the three-and-a-half-foot reptile with a wildlife rescue agency.

“Retention ponds are, lots of times, nothing more than a catchall for unwanted reptiles,” says Hilary Taylor, a member of the Delaware Wildlife Rehabilitators Association and the person responsible for responding to many cases of exotic pet discovery and abandonment north of the C&D Canal.

Between the black market and exotic pet dealers on the Internet, it’s extremely easy for Delawareans to acquire illegal animals. Others are less subtle.

“I’ll get calls from people who want a cougar, and that’s just ridiculous,” she says. “You’d be surprised what people get. I never know from day to day what kind of thing is going to be here.”

Less threatening to a person’s safety but highly damaging to the environment are the seemingly benign pets that are released, she says. While many die immediately in the foreign surroundings, others survive to breed with indigenous species. The red-eared slider, a popular box turtle that’s native to Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, can breed with local turtles and spread a variety of diseases.

Surprisingly, Newark Animal Control is a frequent source of animal rescue calls when the spring semester at the University of Delaware ends. “You’d be surprised what they find—iguanas and turtles that students have just left behind,” she says. “But you can’t just take them and release them.”