Border seizure highlights exotic-pet abandonment
By CHELSI MOY
Tribune Staff Writer
Reptiles are by no means cuddly animals, yet a trend in the last decade has more exotic-seeking pet owners trying — often unsuccessfully — to care for these cold-blooded creatures.
Once the itty-bitty baby snake hits six feet long, pet owners begin to second guess their exotic-pet decision. Finding a reptile rescue shelter is no easy task.
Last week’s episode at the Sweet Grass and Coutts, Alberta, entry into Canada is a prime example of how a unique, exotic creature is abandoned at the first inconvenience, said Dave Pauli, regional director of the U.S. Humane Society’s Northern Rockies Regional Office.
Authorities at the border crossing apprehended five snakes from a 24-year-old California man entering Canada. Two of the snakes were six feet long.
When presented with the option of either obtaining the proper exporting permits, storing the animals with a local veterinarian or turning the snakes over to federal authorities, the man abandoned the reptiles at the border.
"It boggles my mind that someone could be so callous," Pauli said. "It shows part of the problem with these animals. They are exotic animals with convenience."
Another example of reptile abandonment occurred just outside Kalispell a little more than a month ago.
An 11-year-old boy came across a five-foot alligator at a pond in Evergreen. Frightened onlookers ended up shooting the creature with a bow, then tying its snout shut with fishing line and slitting its throat.
Federal officials later ended up shooting the creature to put it out of its misery.
Pauli has worked at the federal agency for 26 years, but recently noticed an increase in the number of abandoned alligators and Caimans, or dwarf alligators, in the region’s eight Western states: Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
"I’m running out of places to ship alligators," Pauli said. "Nationally, the system is overloaded also. Few people are physically, mentally, emotionally and financially able to care for these unique critters."
The snakes confiscated at the Sweet Grass port last week were sent to a reptile rescue mission in Zortman.
The rescue mission, Mostly Scales, Snakes & Reptiles, rehabilitates abandoned venomous and nonvenemous reptiles. It is one of few reptile sanctuaries that exist in the Northwest, Pauli said.
Inspired by the late "crocodile hunter" Steve Irwin, Director Angela Boland established the reptile hospital four years ago.
"They’re not cuddly critters, but they need help just the same," said the 34-year-old, who transformed her love of reptiles 18 years ago into a full-time job.
The shelter has 30 reptile species on hand and houses everything from turtles to alligators and venomous rattlers. Boland keeps 300 to 500 frozen dead mice on hand at any given time.
"There’s not a room in my house without a reptile in it," she said. "Except for maybe my bathroom, and even that changes."
The rehabilitation process takes approximately four to six months, she said, and after that, Boland will try to find the reptile a new home. Some native species are released back into the wild.
The two red-tail boa constrictors and three ball pythons delivered last week by U.S. Fish Wildlife and Parks officials from the boarder were dehydrated and had mites, Boland said.
"People purchase reptiles and don’t realize how much it takes to care for them," she said.
Ellen Schubarth, owner of Jack’s Pet Center, 508 Central Ave., said the demand for reptiles as pets started a decade ago when captive breeds became more readily available and the equipment to care of these creatures improved, she said.
Jack’s Pet Center sells mostly small, native reptiles to an equal number of men and woman.
Schubarth argues that often reptiles are easier to care for than dogs or cats because daily feeding is not necessary; most make fewer messes and don’t need the same amount of social interaction, she said.
But exotic-seeking pet owners have a tendency to overlook the fact that many reptiles require live rodents to eat and strict temperature and humidity control, Pauli said.
"We are talking more zoological-type habitats, and sadly, very few people can set up their animals in that way," he said.
This can lead to frustration, and subsequently, neglect and abandonment.
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