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Free-Roaming Reptile Dangers

By A C Highfield

     Pins, needles, nuts, bolts, nails, bottle tops, electric cable, paper clips, screws, string, plastic ties, ring pulls, carpet fibres…. what have these things in common? Answer: they have all contributed to the illness or death of tortoises allowed to "free roam" in a domestic environment. These animals characteristically engage in a type of behavior called "pica". The motivation for this behavior remains unclear. It may simply be the 'testing' of potentially edible objects, it may be an attempt to increase fiber or roughage content of the diet. No one knows with certainty. However, one thing we do know is that it can kill, or at best result in the necessity for emergency abdominal surgery. Domestic environments and free-roaming tortoises are accidents waiting to happen.

     Some free-roaming tortoises have decided to chew on live electric cables - with devastating consequences. Not only have animals died, but also, catastrophic fires have been started. Other free-roamers have electrocuted themselves when urinating too close to live electrical appliances.

     It is also virtually impossible, in a domestic setting, to provide adequate environmental conditions, particularly for high humidity species, such as tropical tortoises (or Green iguanas). Such species typically require relative humidity levels of 55-60% at 30ºC (86ºF) - levels that would very quickly result in the removal of any wallpaper and the destruction of all fabrics.

     Free-roaming animals are also candidates for being stepped on, trapped in doors, or crushed by falling items. Additionally, all such animals have the potential to spread salmonella organisms and parasite spores throughout the house - a dangerous and irresponsible practice for animal and human inhabitants alike.

     To maintain animal and human safety, restrict reptiles to completely secure areas. Provide large terraria, both indoors and outside (weather permitting), and design all such terraria with both safety and correct environmental maintenance in mind. Avoid loose-trailing electrical cables, protect all heat lamps from contact, use a safe and appropriate substrate. Ensure that dangerous items such as metal or plastic objects that may be ingested are NEVER left lying around.

     If you think your pet has eaten such an object, seek veterinary help without delay. Surgery can often prove successful - but only if undertaken before serious internal damage results. The sooner you seek help, the better the prognosis.

© A. C. Highfield/Tortoise Trust 2001