Monitoring Monitors

Stocking monitors, a large and highly variable group of lizards, can increase a store’s profile in the pet community.


The herpetological world has been abuzz as of late with the discovery of a new monitor species (Varanus bitatawa) on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Like the other endemic Philippine monitor species, this impressive six-foot beauty is primarily a fructivore. This trait is unique to the monitors of these islands and in direct contrast to the habits of the rest of their genus, all of which are notorious carnivores.

Monitors are a large and highly variable group of lizards that hold particular fascination with people the world over. In my shop, we are no exception; we absolutely adore them. The most famous monitor is the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the world’s largest living lizard at nearly ten feet, and a notorious predator capable of taking down large cattle and humans. Not to worry, though, these monitors, like their Philippine cousins, are endangered, restricted and unlikely to ever enter the pet trade.

Most of the denizens of the herp world do not actively hunt, and those that do tend toward insect prey. Monitors, on the other hand, are active and excellent hunters, and often include in their diets such relatively intelligent prey as birds and rodents. In my opinion, active hunting, especially for smarter prey, is a key trait to the evolution of intelligence. Hunting requires both skill and a higher metabolic rate, and thus monitors are, by and large, the geniuses of the herp world.

I have seen this intelligence play out over and over again with the monitors in our shop. I’ve had monitors who figured out cage latches and I’ve had monitors come to recognize their individual handlers. And most monitor species are remarkably easy to tame, which is partially due to temperament but also requires a steep learning curve.

Types of Monitors
Not all monitors are easy to tame. Nile monitors (Varanus niloticus) are an inexpensive and commonly offered monitor that, like a professional wrestler, envisions violence as the solution to every problem. This is a shame, as these are strikingly handsome creatures with bright coloring and ornate patterns. While I have seen a few tame ones, they were the wards of people for whom taming their monitor seemed to be a primary occupation. If you have a life, don’t keep a Nile monitor.

Equally common and inexpensive, but far easier to work with, is the Savannah monitor (Varanus exanthematicus). This stout, barrel-shaped bulldog of a lizard typically calms right down and will cling to your torso. Of the larger monitors these are a little smaller, rarely exceeding four feet in length. Of the common monitors, these are the ones I would most readily recommend to novices.

Water Monitors (Varanus salvator) are also common to the pet trade, but these are true giants, often getting the better part of seven feet. Also easily tamed, these can be fantastic pets if given adequate space and access to enough water to be able to submerge. As most folks can’t provide these requirements, this is an animal that I wish were a bit less accessible to the public, and should only be sold to people who understand what they are in for.

We have had particular luck in our shop with Argus monitors (Varanus panoptes horni), a large New Guinea variety that breeds readily and has an active and interesting disposition. While not very nippy, they are typically tense and wriggly and never seem to get very comfortable with handling. On the other hand, these lizards rival Niles for beauty and make fascinating pets with curious and elaborate hunting stratagems.

Of the smaller monitors, the spiny tailed monitor (Varanus acanthurus) is much like his giant cousins in both form and behavior but rarely grows to be more than two-and-a-half feet. Adorned with an elaborately spiked tail and available in both red and yellow color phases, these afford their owners all the pleasures of larger species in one-tenth the space. Note that the smaller monitors do well on a primary diet of insects, supplemented with vitamins, calcium and the occasional baby mouse.

For sheer beauty, though, it is hard to top the complex of tree monitors (Varanus prasinus, V. beccarii, etc.), an elongated, lithe and dramatically glamorous group that vary in coloration from jet black to emerald green to lemon yellow to sky blue. Their needle-like claws and hyper personalities make for difficult handling, but their elegance and beauty make them a pricey but fantastic menagerie star.

Monitors have a reputation that keeps them from being as popular as they should be, and that reputation is largely undeserved. Like so many animals, their personalities are derived from a combination of their inherent species characteristics, individual tendencies and the abilities of their human partners to work with them. A little research will help shopkeepers decide what will work best given the store’s space, interest and clientele. I can tell you that carefully choosing monitors as a standard part of the in-stock repertoire will only increase a store’s profile in the pet community.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 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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