Monitor Lizards

Monitor lizards can be great pets, as long as consumers choose the right breed for their lifestyle.




There are certain members of the reptile kingdom that immediately elicit a deep and emotional resonance with humans that is part fear, part wonder and part awe inspiring. There are king cobras, mighty in their legitimate danger, and intimidating in their size and behavior. There are Nile crocodiles, huge and cunning, lurking in the river as they lurk in our imagination. There are Jackson’s chameleons, like tiny dinosaurs, alien from their snouts to their tails. There are anacondas, like real-life dragons. There are Galapagos tortoises, primordial and ancient. In this elevated pantheon of reptiles, none seems more resonant than the K omodo dragon, the huge, swaggering lizard whose rarity and remoteness makes it seem even more fiction than fact.


Komodo dragons are more properly called Komodo monitors. They are the largest of the monitors—and in fact the largest of all lizards—a group which includes several other giants and an abundance of small representatives. As it happens, this group is among my favorite of all reptiles. They are sleek and graceful when small, ponderous and powerful when large. They are as beautifully designed as sharks or scorpions, elegant, and often graced with beautiful patterns and colors. But mostly, I love them because they are the brainiacs of the reptile world.


Most predatory reptiles famously sit and wait for their meals. They tend not to be active hunters. Not the monitors—they are typically active foragers and stalkers. This behavior engenders a higher metabolic rate and a commensurately bigger brain. Monitors will often be seen walking about their habitats, alertly checking the corners of their cages, digging through substrate and eyeing even the ceiling, as if bugs might magically appear from above. More than any other reptile, they will be seen pawing and clawing at the glass. Many people will think this is an attempt at escape; rather, it is merely an attempt to keep foraging, thwarted by this mysterious substance through which they can peer, but not go forward.


Because of their heightened awareness and intelligence, monitors can, like only a few other reptiles, come to learn specific human individuals as their keepers and food source. Thus, they can develop a level of human/herp comfort and rapport that few other reptiles can offer. And that is why they are amongst our most popular pets.


As I said, monitors are a large and varied family, but there are some constants throughout the family. They need large and well-furnished cages that include hiding spots and climbing branches. Almost all monitors like it hot, and all but one—which is available only to zookeepers—are strictly carnivores. They are Old World animals, exclusive to Asia, Africa and Australia. The three most commonly seen in the pet trade are Savannah (Varanus exanthematicus), water monitor (V. salvator) and Nile monitor (V. niloticus).


Savannahs are deservedly popular. They are reasonably easy to tame, tend to be inexpensive, and get big enough to be impressive—around 4 ft.—without ever getting so large as to take over your house. They are grassland denizens and like it hot—80 to 100 degrees across their enclosure. They are built like tanks, low to the ground with quite a heft.


Waters and Savannahs share a similar taming ability and value, but they can get enormous, and your customers should think twice before making a commitment to an animal that can get up to about 9 ft. in length. As their name implies, they will only do well if provided a large area of standing water and will spend a large portion of their day wading.


Niles are also inexpensive, and for a reason. The only tame ones I have ever encountered belonged to people who have multiple hours each and every day to devote to handling their pet. Give them any less and they will be a handful and will be perfectly happy to teach you the meaning of pain. In fact, Nile monitors are one of the few animals I have seen that will stroll across a cage purely for the pleasure of giving you a bite. They get around 5.5 ft., so this can be quite a problem. To their credit, they are beautifully patterned with lemon yellow markings on a black background. That selling point and a cheap price will sway some people, but they will probably learn to regret the decision.


Equally beautiful is the argus monitor (V. panoptes horni), whose sandy variation on the Nile’s pattern includes flecks of white, red, orange and tan. They have a similar size and form, but—while a bit high strung and nervous—will settle down fairly easily and end up a fun pet. They are less common and very desirable, and thus, a bit more expensive.


Similarly expensive, but still really great are the black throated (V. albigularus ionides) and white throated (V. a. albigularus). These resemble Savannahs but are close to double the size. Like Savannahs, they are easily tamed and are currently my favorite for classroom presentations. Too big? Spine tailed monitors (V. acanthurus) grow to 2 ft. long, and—while fast and wily—do tame down. Highly variable in color, the red phase in particular is stunning. Like so many monitors, these are commonly captive bred, which produces better, healthier animals, richer colors and are not injurious to the status of wild populations. Timor monitors (V. timorensis) are similarly sized and lovely, though less often the product of captive breeding.


And, still, there are more! Crocodile monitors (V. salvadorii) are true giants, longer even than the Komodos, but more slenderly built, as they are arboreal. They too tame well, but are still only recommended for seasoned professionals. They are named for their dentition, so, any bite—even from a hatchling—can produce a serious wound.


For many years, a rough-necked monitor (V. rudicollis) named Bear was my in-store companion. One day a week, we would close the store, and I would spend that day cleaning, feeding and watering every animal we had. When I would come in, I would first open Bear’s cage while I assembled all my tools and supplies on a cart for the day’s work ahead. Bear would amble out, find me and slowly follow me throughout the store. Every once in a while I would throw him a treat. He was a great companion; not so much a conversationalist, but he sure did get me to talking. At the end of the day he would climb up my leg and into his home. I would bid him good night, lock up the shop and see him the next day.


Now, I am not one for anthropomorphizing reptiles, but if ever there was one that could substitute on some level for a dog, that monitor was it. I really do believe their potential as pets has yet to be realized, even among fans of our cold-blooded pals. More so than iguanas, tortoises or boas, a monitor can be your friend. PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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