Monday, July 21, 2014

Exotic pets require responsible care

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AQUATICS MANAGER Ryan Morris, of Sacramento, removes Bagheera, an 8-month-old Ambanja Panther Chameleon from a terrerium at Lee's Feed in Shingle Springs on May 16. Democrat photos by Shelly Thorene

By Ryan Morris
Aquatics Manager at Lee’s Feed

There are people who are drawn to more unfamiliar pets when the friendly and furry is no longer interesting. Exotic pet keepers are drawn to the slimy, scaly, bristly and the downright ornery.

Exotic pet keepers’ interests are as diverse as the pets they keep.

One that is coveted is the Panther Chameleon. This is one of the larger chameleons at well over a foot-and-a-half, and it is characterized by a low head tipped with a flat, scaly horn.

Contrary to popular myth, chameleons do not always change color to match their background. Instead, colors wash in and out based on mood, frequently exhibiting intense coloration and dark barring when territorially defensive or exited. When more subdued, the coloration is subtler, and it is during these quiet times that some limited background color matching may happen.

In the wild Panther Chameleons live in the seasonal forests and rain forests of Madagascar. Most specimens in the trade are bred in captivity. When on the move, chameleons often display a strange drunken gait. The waving and stumbling is thought to mimic a leaf fluttering in the wind. The way in which prey is caught by a chameleon is a crowd-pleaser. Chameleons have a coiled tongue that strikes-out like a spear gun. When presented with prey the chameleon’s independent eyes converge on it for good stereoscopic vision, and the mouth slowly opens revealing the wadded-up tip of the tongue.

A proper home for this big chameleon consists of a screen cage measuring at least 3-foot-by-3-foot filled with climbing opportunities, a drip watering system and intense lighting.

One of the most impressive of aquarium denizens is the Lion Fish, found originally on reefs all over the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The grandeur of a Lion Fish is a conspicuous signal to would-be predators that they are not worth eating. Each of the extravagant fin rays is a hypodermic needle capable of delivering excruciatingly painful neurotoxin venom.

Fortunately, a sting is not usually dangerous, but the experience is unforgettable. In captivity they quickly learn to identify their keepers. Begging for food by waggling their bodies and mouthing the glass is a common sight when entering the room.

When fed they quickly snap into a stalking behavior, intensely watching and following the food item, pushing their pectoral fins out to block escape routes, and finally striking out with their extendable mouth parts at a speed much too fast to actually see.

Lion Fish should be placed in at least a 100-gallon saltwater tank with other big fish, but watch-out … while Lion Fish are a great pet fish, don’t actually pet your fish.

Speaking of pets that shouldn’t really be touched, the Goliath Bird-Eating Spider is one of the most sought-after tarantulas by enthusiasts because it is the biggest in the world. It is asserted by experts that the bird eater only rarely eats birds. They are just big enough to be capable of it, and sometimes do, under rare circumstances.

Goliaths can grow to nearly a foot in leg span and weigh more than a quarter pound. Typical of the tarantula group, they are covered in hair.

They have strong, inch-long fangs that are kept folded away beneath a set of tiny eyes. They are known for a jittery and flighty disposition. When feeling cornered they will rear-up on their hind legs, displaying those impressive fangs with their front legs waving high in the air. During these displays a surprisingly loud hissing sound is created through a process called stridulation.

By rubbing its abdomen with its hind legs it can send a cloud of super-fine “urticating hairs” in the direction of an attacker. These hairs are almost too small to see, but they are extremely sharp and irritating to delicate tissues of the eyes, nose and throat. With all these means of defense, the Goliath bird eater rarely resorts to biting, and if it does the sting is not dangerous to humans, but it would definitely be distressing.

Bird eaters are found in the rain forests of Northern South America. Captive spiders are usually fed a diet of large crickets and cockroaches. A 2-foot terrarium filled with at least 6 inches of soft, moist soil to burrow in, and a few naturalistic decorations is all the spider needs to feel at home.

What makes these pets exotic is that they are not tamed. They are still wild animals and it is very important for their keepers to behave responsibly. Too often these exotic animals are released into the wild when their owners can no longer care for them. This is inexcusable and extremely irresponsible. In climates where these animals can survive they frequently become invasive pests.

If pet owners are not careful, we may face our own invasion of exotics. This would ultimately lead to a significant decline in the choice of specimens available in California, and would be bad for everybody. For the sake of all who love keeping and interacting with these animals, please, be a responsible pet owner.



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