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Coldblooded creatures can warm your heart

HAWS says some non-furry pets can be low-maintenance

Volunteer Sharon Mueller feeds some lettuce to Feisty, a Red Eared Slider turtle, at the Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. The organization has a number of exotic pets that are up for adoption.

Volunteer Sharon Mueller feeds some lettuce to Feisty, a Red Eared Slider turtle, at the Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. The organization has a number of exotic pets that are up for adoption. Photo By Todd Ponath

Jan. 29, 2013

It takes a special person to pass-up the puppy dog eyes and the soft purr of a cat and instead walk to an enclosure to greet … an iguana.

According to the Humane Animal Welfare Society (HAWS), there are indeed people who find their forever-friend in the eyes of a small animal. While bunnies, hamsters, or birds may be more common, reptiles can make great pets for the right owner.

Caesar, the one-and-a-half-year-old iguana, has been residing at HAWS for about a month. He's very fast and already has his own personality, according to executive director Lynn Olenik. He's also a featured pet, and is up for adoption.

Olenik explained that HAWS is an open admission shelter, meaning they accept all animals in need of a new home. The organization has been around for over 40 years taking in cats, dogs, and more recently small animals and reptiles. Reptiles, including iguanas, have become more popular pets over the years. Petco of Waukesha reports selling approximately 12 iguanas from its store each year and provides educational care sheets to those interested in getting more information on each species.

Special needs

Olenik said most owners who surrender exotic animals to HAWS underestimated the care needs or how large the animals can grow over time. Little Caesar many only be about 24 inches long now, but he will soon grow to more than 5 feet. In time, he will require a series of enclosures that provide enough room for his rapid growth.

Caesar and other reptiles like him also require special heating and light needs. Caesar specifically enjoys temperatures warmer than 75 degrees. He's also on a strict diet of leafy greens, vegetables and small portions of fruit. Olenik said it takes some owners time to adjust to the cost of meeting those needs as with any pet.

"Because they are eating vegetables, the cost of food is about the same if not a little less than a dog or cat. For the electrical requirements you are probably talking about $20 or $25 a month to provide the appropriate heat and lighting. It's pretty much in line with dogs or cats. And of course, there's annual vet care."

Olenik also said that a common problem is that most people are not aware that reptiles are not "Disney pets."

"They are an exotic pet, not necessarily a tame pet," Olenik said. "You can handle them and hand-train them to some extent but they can scratch and bite you and people aren't necessarily ready for that."

Because of this, Olenik said there may be better alternatives for small children such as a ball snake or bearded dragon that tend to stay smaller.

Rare and unusual

Olenik said reptiles do make good pets to those who are especially interested in the conversation-starting species.

"The mentality of the person who most often gets an exotic pet is more of a collector mentality than the pet mentality," Olenik said. "They are more interested in rare and unusual and are more attune to what these animals need."

Olenik said that homes with those allergic to furry animals or that have busy households may enjoy the company of a reptile.

"A busy home might have a tortoise or turtle instead of a dog or a cat because it's a caged pet and they can clean it a couple times a week, feed it every day, but they don't require daily exercise like a dog," Olenik said.

Olenik said that the goal is to find the best permanent home for all animals at HAWS. That can be a little tricky for reptiles.

"Most of the time when people are looking for a specific reptile or something, we coach them in all of the things we know the animal needs," Olenik said. "Sometimes people back off and sometimes people already know (and say), yes, I want the iguana; I am so happy you have one.'"

According to Olenik, these are also the most successful owners. If your heart is warmed by coldblooded friends, Olenik said it's important to do thorough research into the needs of each species to identify what the best fit is for your household.

She said, while more people do come in to view cats, dogs and other cuddly creatures, there is a fair amount of requests for reptiles too. Their last tortoise was only at HAWS for three days before finding a permanent home and they hope to find Caesar a home soon.

"It's always nice to come home to something," Olenik said, "even though it might have scales."

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