Exotic pet owners navigate rules, concerns about care



To show what potential nontraditional pet owners should think about and expect to spend, Harlin Wall, owner of Wall To Wall Reptiles, offered this example using a ball python.

The ball python gets its name because of its tendency to curl into a ball when stressed.

1. Expect to spend $30 to $100 to buy the snake from a breeder or a pet store.

2. Expect to spend about $50 for a reptile cage where the snake will live. Wall recommended lining the bottom with newspaper.

3. Snakes need a secure water bowl because they can tip bowls over. Wall uses plastic bowl containers, such as those at a grocery store deli, then inserts the plastic bowl into a PVC pipe coupler that costs about $1 or $2 at a hardware store. A regular water crock designed for pets is about $4.

4. Snakes also need a hide box so they feel secure. Wall uses a black, plastic deli tray and cuts a hole in one side and tips it upside down. He said cardboard cereal boxes work, too.

5. Ball pythons eat one mouse per week. A frozen mouse can be purchased for about $2.50. If the owner uses live prey, they must be mindful that prey could seriously injure the pet, which is why Wall doesn’t recommend rookie snake owners feed their snakes live prey. He suggests buying frozen mice. A few snakes won’t eat frozen food, but most will learn to eat it, he said.


Future ownership, importation and possession of nine large constrictor snakes is in doubt, pending the approval of a federal rule.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has published a proposed rule in the Federal Register to designate nine potentially large constrictor snakes as “injurious wildlife” under the Lacey Act.

If finalized, the designation will prohibit the importation and interstate transportation of these snakes, including Burmese pythons and boa constrictors.

None of the nine snakes is native to the United States.

To view the draft and comment on the proposed rule during the next 60 days, visit http://www.regulations.gov at Docket No. FWS-R9-FHC-2008-0015.

The impetus for the proposed rule is thought to be a population of Burmese pythons and boa constrictors living in the wild in south Florida.

Proponents of the rule, such as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and acting U.S. Fish and Wildlife director Rowan Gould, think designating the nine large constrictor snakes as “injurious species” will help the department regulate the transport of such snakes and protect the welfare of Americans and American wildlife.

Opponents of the rule, such as Grand Valley pet owner, herpetologist and reptile breeder Harlin Wall, think it infringes on Americans’ freedom to own snakes such as the Burmese python.

Wall knows Burmese pythons are living and breeding near the Florida Everglades, however, “none of the nine constrictor snakes could ever move beyond the confines of southernmost Florida’s Everglades National Park. This is because the animals in question could not survive in the climate north of the Everglades. Only the tip of South Florida, which is a sub-tropical climate, may possibly be conducive to the survival of these tropical-dwelling snake species,” he said.

Little did Harlin Wall know that when he caught his first bull snake as a child it would trigger a lifelong love of reptiles.

Now 38, Wall owns and operates Wall To Wall Reptiles, specializing in the breeding of nonvenomous snakes such as pythons and boa constrictors.

Although some people wouldn’t consider a 12-foot Burmese python a suitable pet when compared to, say, a golden retriever, Wall thinks animals such as tropical birds or reptiles make great pets.

And there are plenty of other Grand Valley residents who agree with him.

Wall estimated that in one of every 20 households in the Grand Valley, there is an exotic pet such as a python, parrot or piranha.

Wall uses the term “nontraditional” as opposed to “exotic” to describe these animals because he thinks “exotic” lumps too many animals into the wrong categories. An example of Wall’s concern can be seen in Mesa County code, which seemingly prohibits the ownership of non-domestic or exotic animals as household pets.

However, animals such as tropical snakes or birds can be purchased at local pet stores and are permissible even though the wording of the county’s Land Development Code makes it seem as if they aren’t, said Donna Ross, development services and code enforcement director in the county’s planning department.

The language in the code gives enforcement officers flexibility on a case-by-case basis, she said.

In the five years she has worked for the planning department, Ross could count on one hand the number of complaints her department has received about exotic pets. They have never taken an exotic animal away from an owner, she said.

Grand Junction’s planning code permits exotic household pets such as tropical birds, snakes and fish.

No matter the wording in a county or city code, exotic pet owners agreed that something perceived as creepy as a boa constrictor is safe and can become part of the family when cared for responsibly.

Wall, who owns several pet snakes and many more breeding snakes, prides himself on responsible handling of exotic animals. He enjoys educating children about reptiles and has given talks in School District 51 schools.

“I have always had a fascination with animals in general, but especially so with reptiles,” Wall said.

People are drawn to exotic snakes or other animals for a myriad of reasons, but no matter the reason, people should still do research about a potential pet before buying it, agreed Wall and Jamie and Thayne Page, who added a pet snake to their family 13 years ago to fulfill their then fourth-grade son’s wishes.

The Rifle couple sat down with their son to look into what type of snake would be the best for a fourth-grader to raise. They decided to purchase a ball python.

The ball python is an ideal snake for new reptile owners because of its mild temperament and smaller size, said experts at Columbine Animal Hospital, 2140 N. 12th St. Ball pythons rarely grow longer than 5 feet.

“Younger kids might think it’s cool, but a parent needs to sit down with their kid and do research,” Jamie Page said. “Go to reptile shows. Do research in books or on the Internet. ... Remember, exotic animals can be a commitment.”

For example, some lizards need a certain type of light to simulate the sun and help regulate body temperature. Some snakes would die under the same light, Jamie Page said.

Don’t research “snakes” or “lizards.” Get more specific and research the particular snake or animal you want, she said.

Some tropical birds have life spans of more than 50 years. Some pet snakes have comparable life spans. Establishing who will care for a pet in the event the owner dies or even during a routine family vacation, are important things to consider before committing to an animal, Wall said.

In addition, learning what cage is best, what food is needed, the costs involved and who will care for a sick pet are all important things to think over, no matter the kind of pet.

“Ask yourself if you are honestly capable of properly caring for the animal,” Wall said. “Doing your homework ahead of time can save you some money, as well as save you and your new pet from a lot of headaches and heartaches.”

The reward of owning certain exotic animals comes when they don’t bark at 3 a.m. or poop in the neighbor’s yard. In fact, some reptiles poop only after their weekly feeding.

But most exotic animals can’t be trained and won’t jump into an owner’s lap, play fetch or walk around the block.

And there are legal ramifications to owning certain animals, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

“Call the DOW before you get it,” said Brett Ackerman, DOW spokesman. “In the end, if it turns out you can’t have that species or need a license to get that species, it’s better to chat with us up front.”

Knowing what animals are legal, the guidelines regarding particularly animals and the best way to care for them likely would have prevented an incident similar to one last July when a 4-foot-long alligator was found in an irrigation ditch near Hotchkiss. And in 2007, a Bengal tiger was taken from a Front Range home. Four years ago, the DOW found pacu, a relative of the piranha, in Corn Lake.

The DOW is more than concerned when people turn exotic animals loose to spread disease or hurt native wildlife.

Similarly, Wall hates it that some exotic animals have reputations as being dangerous and scary.

Exotic animals can be enjoyable things to see and own when the situation is responsible, Ackerman and Wall agreed.

“My friends and family know that I am very passionate about animals,” Wall said. “Some people are naturally drawn to animals. They are always intrigued by animals, both in captivity and in the wild. Other people are not. ... As humans we all have unique interests. They say variety is the spice of life.”


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