Introduction to Handling Reptiles and Amphibians
Whether as a pet owner, breeder, or in the field of veterinary medicine, there will come a time when the handling of captive or wild reptiles and amphibians will become inevitable. Doing so responsibly is paramount, and this includes when, where, why, and how the animal is handled. There are many considerations to take into account when handling reptiles and amphibians. These include both what is best for the animal, and the keeper as well. The ultimate goal is to reduce stress and risk of injury to the animal, while also meeting the goal of the handling session.
There are varying schools of thought regarding whether or not reptiles and amphibians should be handled unnecessarily, that is, strictly for human benefit. There are sound arguments on both sides of the aisle regarding this. The ethics of handling reptiles is beyond the scope of this article; however, all viewpoints will be considered herein and it is left up to the reader to adopt the practice found most suitable.
When to Handle Reptiles and Amphibians
The occurrences of reptile and amphibian handling can be divided into two genral classes; handling for the benefit of the animal, and handling for the benefit of the handler. There are of course situations that can align with both classes simultaneously. It is ultimately left up to the keeper to decide when and if handling is necessary. All considerations discussed herein should be evaluated before working hands on with reptiles and amphibians.
One of the most common instances for handling reptiles and amphibians is because they are pets and keepers want to form a bond with them. Many reptiles and amphibians that are accustomed to human contact will begin to seek out attention. Reptiles are far more intelligent than ever thought and are capable of recognizing people and things. It has been proposed that handling pet reptiles and amphibians could be as stimulating and enriching to them as it is to the keeper.
The amount of handling tolerated by any specimen will be dependent on species, age, history, and individual demeanor. Generalizations can be made, but ultimately it is the behavior of the reptile or amphibian that is of the most importance. Assumptions are often made regarding the placidity or defensiveness of certain species or groups of species, but these should be guidelines only. Individual temperament will vary from animal to animal, and only time and experience will provide the keeper with the knowledge to handle unknown animals with confidence.
Reptiles and amphibians intended to be pets should be allowed ample time to acclimate before any handling attempts should be made. Specimens should be displaying normal behaviors such as basking eating, drinking, etc., prior to socialization attempts.
Special care should be taken when handling young or inherently fragile specimens. Many lizard species are capable of autonomizing, or shedding, their tails when grabbed roughly or if the animal is sufficiently startled. As a rule, reptiles and amphibians should be allowed to rest in the hands and be only gently restrained. Animals should be allowed to move freely within the keepers reach. Species that are prone to great leaps, crested geckos (Correlophus ciliatus) for example, can be allowed exercise with a jumping hand-to-hand technique. Snakes can similarly be allowed to move freely from one hand to the other, and then repeated.
As a rule, handling of amphibians should be kept to a minimum. There a several species common in the trade that will tolerate brief handling sessions, but readers should be discouraged from making it a regular practice. Some examples include white’s tree frogs (Ranoidea caerulea), horned frogs (Ceratophrys sp.), Phylomedusa sp., and tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum). Delicate species such as tree frogs, newts, and family Dendrobatidae should be handled only when absolutely necessary.
Handling amphibians requires additional preparation and considerations. Having sensitive and permeable skin, amphibians should be handled only minimally and with the epitome of caution. Clean, well rinsed hands is a minimum requirement when working with amphibians. Zoological institutions and serious hobbyists will often employ latex gloves to further protect the animal and prevent cross contamination.
Maintenance and Rehoming
Display-only or defensive specimens may not be handled on a regular basis; however, the time will come when these animals require being moved to a new enclosure, or removed from the enclosure for terrarium maintenance. When working with these animals, special tools and techniques may be employed.
For controlling intractable snakes, a snake hook or pair of snake tongs is ideal. With proper training this is a safe and effective means of handling dangerous snakes. It must be kept in mind when using tongs, it is easy to exert significant force through the handle. Injury can easily occur when animals are handled carelessly, as snakes have delicate spines. Again, proper training and experience are key to a successful encounter.
Skittish and quick reptiles and amphibians can be captured using a deli cup to trap the animal, and a lid gently slid under the container. This is a great way to work with day geckos (Phelsuma sp.) and other species with delicate skin. Fish nets are not recommended as animals tend to get tangled and stressed quite easily.
Handling Reptiles and Amphibians in the Field
Enthusiasts who seek reptiles and amphibians in their natural habitat, are most notably known as “Herpers.” The term “herp” is a derivative of herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. This comes from the Greek, “herpeton,” meaning “creeping animal. “
Herping is growing in popularity as more hobbyists turn to their own backyards and wild areas in search of specimens to observe, photograph, or collect. When in the field, it may be necessary to manipulate animals either for safety, relocation, or closer study. Working with wild reptiles and amphibians is not much different than working with their captive counterparts, however there are some caveats worth examining.
First and foremost, the fact must be respected that these are wild animals. The herper may be the first human being the animal has even encountered. They are not accustomed to people or to handling. Wild animals of any kind should be approached as slowly as possible, both for safety’s sake as well as to ensure the best chance at viewing or collecting the specimen. The safety of the reptile or amphibian should be a priority whenever handling any herp, captive progeny, or wild.
There are certain handling tools that the experienced herper takes into the field. Among these are light gloves, a snake hook or pair of snake tongs, and monofilament noose rigs for collecting lizards. There is a sub version of snake hooks called a “field hook.” These are more L-shaped than hooks, and are designed to be used not only for controlling animals but also for manipulating debris and cover, such as logs and rocks.
Handling Dangerous and Venomous Reptiles and Amphibians
It is the firm belief of the writer that venomous herps, and others capable of severe injury, should only be kept and handled by the most seasoned keepers. Many accidents occur every year, and these events put the herp community under the regulatory microscope.
Many states and jurisdictions have laws dictating what “dangerous” animals may be kept by the public. Some of these regions have internship and mentorship programs in place to assist keepers in learning proper handling techniques. Keepers interested in keeping potentially dangerous reptiles should seek out local resources to help prepare for the responsibility of owning such species.
Reptiles in this category include more than just venomous snakes. It should not be ignored that many common pet store species such as monitors, tegus, or iguanas, grow into powerful animals that are capable of causing significant damage to the human body.
People keep reptiles and amphibians as pets, displays, and breeders mainly because they enjoy the animals and want to provide the best for them. Handling is a basic need of reptile and amphibian keeping and is part of proper and humane husbandry practices.
Following basic guidelines and making informed decisions when working with these animals will benefit both the keeper and the kept. Human-herp interaction is the foundation upon which any socialization or bonding will occur, and simply a necessity when working with reptiles and amphibians.