- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Move over Fido and Whiskers. The family pet takes on a whole new meaning when the critter in question crawls on eight legs or slithers on the ground like a burglar beating a hasty retreat.

Exotic pets, ranging from snakes and iguanas to ferrets and hedgehogs, occasionally replace the beloved dog and cat in some people’s homes.

The creatures often demand a series of stringent care considerations before they can thrive, but the bigger question remains just how legal is it to keep them in the first place.

Animal lovers must do their homework before bringing an exotic pet into their house. States and counties enforce their own rules and regulations regarding animal adoptions.

In the District, it isn’t even legal to own a ferret, says Echo Uzzo, who runs an educational outreach company named Echoes of Nature out of her Bowie home.

Would-be exotic pet owners should contact their local gaming officials to find out which animals are allowed to be kept in their home area.

In Virginia, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries oversees that information, while the Maryland Department of Natural Resources serves that function for its state.

The District’s Fisheries and Wildlife Division provides the do’s and don’ts for D.C. residents, but the city’s list of restrictions means most exotic pets pass muster.

Mrs. Uzzo brings exotic creatures like iguanas and turtles into nearby schools and retirement homes to educate young and old about them. She keeps more than 40 such creatures in her home.

Mrs. Uzzo says exotic pets universally need special consideration, from their dietary habits to living space issues and heating concerns.

Some reptiles require ultraviolet light to process certain vitamins.

“If they don’t have that light, they get sick. It can be sick for the rest of its life or its life won’t be as long” (as it should be), she says.

Holli Friedland, program director at the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show in Baltimore, says the most popular exotic pet nationwide is the bearded dragon.

In recent years, the iguana likely held that mantle, Ms. Friedland says, which is a positive shift since the iguana is a more difficult pet for which to care.

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, a Greenwich, Conn., nonprofit that supports both the manufacturers and importers of pet goods, completed a survey in 2002 counting the number of small animals both domestic and exotic in pet owners’ homes. The survey listed the most popular creatures, in descending order, as rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, ferrets, mice/rats, gerbils, chinchillas, hermit crabs, pot-bellied pigs and hedgehogs.

Should a homeowner want to try taking in an exotic pet, Ms. Friedland recommends corn snakes and leopard geckos.

“They stay small, and they tolerate handling,” she says. “Most people, their first pet is likely for kids. They want something they can pick up and hold. Some animals aren’t going to let you do that.”

She says tree snakes, for instance, possess sharp teeth and feisty dispositions.

The biggest problem exotic pet owners face, she says, is not doing their homework on the pets in question.

“From the animals we see, the biggest problem is food, either not enough food or not the right food,” she says.

Julia Dixon, media relations coordinator with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says that exotic pets may sound thrilling but that other pets make more sense to own.

“People can be very impassioned about their pets, but we feel strongly that wild animals should remain wild,” Ms. Dixon says. “There are so many dogs and cats that need homes.”

Becky Wajda, assistant chief of wildlife diversity with Virginia’s Game and Inland Fisheries division, says those who want to keep snakes as pets have plenty of flexibility in some states.

In Virginia, “you’re allowed to have most species of snakes without any permit or special authorization,” Ms. Wajda says.

Other animals, such as alligators, zebra mussels and air-breathing catfish belong to a list Ms. Wajda says is labeled “predatory and undesirable.”

“We feel they pose a real risk of harm to our native wildlife,” should they be released accidentally, she says.

One such creature is the brown tree snake, Ms. Wajda says, which only can be owned in Virginia with a permit for scientific or research purposes.

Some exotic creatures may sound menacing, like anacondas, but they don’t belong to the aforementioned list.

“If it escaped, it would likely die in the winter. They come from tropical regions,” she says.

Some exotic pets seem innocent enough when young but can grow into problematic adults.

Take snakehead fish, the creatures that drew plenty of local media attention over the last year.

The creatures, which can breathe air for several hours and crawl on land if necessary, were once “widely sought for the aquarium industry,” Ms. Dixon says.

Juvenile snakeheads glisten with attractive color patterns.

The fish can grow to several feet in length, and environmental experts fear the impact these aggressive fish could have if introduced into the local ecology.

Of course, not every pet owner abides by the regulations in his or her county.

The Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries division has learned about people owning alligators, piranhas, monkeys and prairie dogs, all of which aren’t permitted as pets in the state.

Exceptions can be made for special circumstances, such as a physically challenged person who uses a monkey to help with basic chores, says Jim Monsma, director of communications for the Washington Humane Society.

He says no hard or fast rules exist to qualify just what makes a pet “exotic.”

Mr. Monsma says exotic pets don’t offer the kind of companionship rewards the average puppy might.

“They don’t run home and greet you. They’re like specimens you keep around,” he says.

These animals do have a habit of straying around the city. The shelter will pick up a stray exotic about every other week — chickens are the most common, along with other type of fowl — and others come their way when people call the shelter looking to give them up to a safe home.

“Mostly, we don’t know about these animals,” he says of illegally owned pets in the city.

Arlington resident Pam Hurley, who specializes in turtle and tortoise rescue and shell repair, helps people adopt rehabilitated box turtles.

“I look for homes particularly with people willing to build pens for them in the yard and raccoon proofing over the top,” Ms. Hurley says.

She may take great pains to restore box turtles to good health, but she understands their limitations as pets.

“They’re not cute and cuddly. They’re for people who have an interest in different kinds of pets,” Ms. Hurley says.

They also aren’t appropriate for young children. Box turtles, like many reptiles, can carry salmonella.

“Children don’t remember to wash their hands after handling them,” she says, adding the creatures “don’t like being handled” anyway.

The creatures also aren’t appropriate for those squeamish about their food preferences.

“They eat whatever they can find,” including worms, slugs and crickets, Ms. Hurley says. “But it’s good to give them live food.”

Call before you buy:

Anyone interested in adopting an exotic pet should research the laws in their neighborhood. The rules and regulations can vary significantly from town to town.

The following three groups can help provide this information to potential exotic pet owners:

• The D.C. Fisheries and Wildlife Division, 202/535-2260.

• The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 804/367-1000.

m The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 877/620-8367.

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