Smitten with reptiles


Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 30, 2006 at 10:15 p.m.
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Ben Cole, 29, of Gainesville keeps 40-50 snakes year-round for breeding purposes, including this patternless albino pine snake. Cole, a biological scientist in the Molecular Genetics Department at the University of Florida, got his first snake while still in high school. He has up to 600 babies of about 30 species in the summer, and uses some profits from the hobby to acquire exotic species.<

JARRETT BAKER/Special to The Sun

Facts

Tips for keeping snakes

Snakes need a heat lamp to regulate their body temperature.
Arboreal snakes enjoy hanging from tree branches and vines. Buy sanitized vegetation from a pet store.
Never use cedar chips as a floor. They are toxic to most snakes.
Snakes sit in their water bowl to loosen skin when shedding.
Read about your species' particular needs.
TIPS FOR KEEPING LIZARDS While a lizard may be inexpensive, chances are getting all the correct equipment is going to be costly. Do not trust the pet store to tell you about the correct equipment. Do your own research.
Keep in mind how big your lizard will get - those cute baby iguanas grow into 5-6-foot giants that can inflict a lot of pain by whipping you with their tail if they don't like what you are doing.
Some lizards (Green Anoles, Bearded Dragons, Blue Tongued Skinks and Leopard Geckos) are better for beginners. More challenging lizards to care for are Chameleons, Geckos, Iguanas and Savannah Monitors.
For lizards, providing appropriate light and heat is vital to their health. Make sure you know how much your lizard requires.
Be careful to minimize the risk of Salmonella, which is definitely an issue with lizards. So be familiar with proper handling.
For lizards that eat crickets, buying in bulk and keeping them or raising your own is a convenient way to feed.

Steve Wegener has a 7-foot python under his stairs.
Don't worry. It's his pet, Hurley. Hurley is a tangerine, yellow and white albino Burmese python. Wegener also has a Ball python, the 4-foot long black, beige and brown Roxy.
While Hurley and Roxy might not everybody's version of a cute and cuddly pet, those who keep snakes can grow very attached to their slithering friends, and many people thoroughly enjoy the life of a reptile owner.
Snake owners must take precautions, however.
Scott Hardin, exotic species coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says snakes can grow very fast.
"A person might buy a Burmese python when it is a few months old and it will be one foot," said Hardin. "That python will be 6 feet in a year, and 12 feet in two years."
Hardin says Burmese pythons can reach up to 14 feet, while reticulated pythons can reach a maximum of 16 feet, and green anacondas 30 feet.
"What's eating rats the first year can get up to eating chickens the second year," said Hardin.
Hardin says that reptiles can also get nasty dispositions as they mature. Pet owners often solve the problem by turning animals loose in the forest.
"Right now we have a breeding population, an expanding population, of Burmese pythons, in the Everglades," said Hardin.
Hardin says there have been no incidents of human injuries from non-venomous exotic snakes, but that the pythons may affect imperiled native species.
"It hasn't happened yet, but there are some mangrove fox squirrels in that area which are a species of concern. Those pythons aren't going to be picky. They'll eat what's before them," he said.
Captain Linda Harrison, a co-chairman of the Captive Wildlife Technical Advisory Group of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, however, says that some snakes will not survive because they don't have the proper diet.
"They can slowly starve to death. It is harmful for the animal itself," said Harrison.
Harrison advises returning large reptiles to a pet store or selling them to another owner.
"Before I got a pet, I would be aware of the species' characteristics - how big it will get and what its needs and requirements are," said Harrison.
Wegener, a senior in advertising at the University of Florida, got used to having reptiles by catching turtles.
"When I was growing up, our neighbors had these ponds. We'd go and catch turtles and bullfrogs there," said Wegener.
He kept the turtles he caught: red-eared sliders, box turtles, and river cooters, in a baby swimming pool in the backyard.
"I caught them in the summer and let them go in the winter," said Wegener.
In 2002, Wegener enrolled at the University of Florida. He bought Roxy that fall.
"I always wanted to get snakes, because I was told I couldn't have them," said Wegener.
Roxy became pretty popular. "She used to go around to parties at night," said Wegener.
"I'd have her on me, and all the girls would want to hold her. I'd pass her off to someone else and pick her up later," said Wegener.
Hurley has also visited the campus. He prefers to listen to Wegener playing guitar.
"He likes the vibrations. He'll always come over and try and get in the guitar," said Wegener.
Kevin Chadbourne, in contrast, usually keeps his snakes in their cages.
Chadbourne, a lab worker for the Animal Care Services at the University of Florida, has two green tree pythons, each about four feet long each. He also has one five-foot carpet python and two Jurassic kingsnakes.
"They're in locked cages, and everybody's housed separately. Kingsnakes are notorious for eating other snakes," said Chadbourne.
Chadbourne says his snakes are visually interesting.
"They do not play. It's hard to find them awake," he said.
Chadbourne says the green tree pythons are nocturnal.
"They're immobile during the day. If you came in there at 1 or 2 (a.m.), they'd be all over the cage," he said.
Dalton Belinske has no problem catching his snakes in action. They are constantly trying to escape.
Belinske, 11 and a 6th-grader at Bradford Middle School, lives near Brooker, a town south of Starke.
Belinske has cages of animals scattered around the house. His pets include Stumpy, a bearded dragon (a 18-22-inch lizard from Australia) that is missing a foot; Sugar Bear, a sugar glider (a fluffy marsupial); Burma, a Burmese python; and Houdini, a yellow rat snake.
Belinske says keeping animals is a lot of hard work.
"Houdini is the main escaper. Usually we find him within a week," said Belinske.
Belinske remembers when Cyberball, a 3-foot Ball python, escaped.
"My dad found him up behind the toilet in the morning. It scared him to death," said Belinske.
Ben Cole, a biological scientist at the University of Florida in molecular genetics, owns several species of venomous North American rattlesnakes and cobras.
Cole also owns almost 300 non-venomous snakes. They are mostly boa constrictors and dwarf pythons.
"About 10 animals are my pets. The rest I raise for money," said Cole.
Cole rents a house with several bedrooms. All except one of the bedrooms are snake rooms.
"I have floor to ceiling industrial-type racking systems with cages in there," said Cole.
"The venomous snakes are in locked cages in locked rooms, so only I can get in there," said Cole.
He has been raising snakes for 15 years, selling most of his animals at shows such as the National Reptile Exposition in Daytona Beach.
Cole says snakes are not much work. "I have it streamlined. I feed most of them once a week and the babies twice a week," said Cole.
One of Cole's favorite snakes is the Chondro python.
"They're probably one of the more beautiful snakes in the world," said Cole.
"Most are bright emerald green with blue and white markings. Some come in schoolbus yellow or lime. Through captive breeding, we can basically make them any color," said Cole.
Cole says snakes make good pets. "They do not need to be walked, and nobody is allergic to them," said Cole.
Cole thinks raising snakes is interesting because they have such a variety of colors and patterns. A snake's unique pattern is called its "morph."
Cole also believes that the experience of raising several types of snakes teaches people the value of a particular animal.
"Snakes have individual challenges and individual rewards," said Cole.

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