Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet an elderly gentleman who would, a few years later, become my grandfather-in-law. I quickly learned that he was equally eager to meet me, having heard through the family of my work with reptiles. He wanted to share stories of his boyhood encounters with snakes in Texas. Within a few sentences, our conversation took quite a surprising turn. He told me detailed tales of his multiple skirmishes with hoop snakes.
Hoop snakes are a venomous and aggressive snake native to Texas that, when provoked, will grab their tales and chase people like self-propelled bicycle tires down dirt roads. What? You never heard of them? Well, I had. I had read of them as one of many myths surrounding American snakes, like the milk snakes that would attach themselves to cows’ udders and steal milk, or rattlesnakes that can hypnotize their prey.
Hearing this old man earnestly recounting these tales as fact made me tingle with excitement, because I had never before—or since, for that matter—heard this kind of ethnozoological flight of fancy firsthand. I desperately wished I had a tape recorder with me.
Of course, myths about reptiles, while less commonly held than even 20 years ago, are persistent to this day. I hear many across my counter at the shop, and the increasing popularity of herps as pets will certainly engender new myths about these fascinating and inherently alien creatures.
For instance, I still hear with some frequency the notion that snakes will grow to the size of their cages, and no more. I think this comes from the common desire to have a very large animal in miniature. I have to patiently explain to folks who think they can manipulate the size of snakes that they are, in fact, thinking of fish. Snakes will continue to grow despite being in too small an enclosure and will only stop growing when the complications of being in too tight a cage result in health problems that eventually cause the poor serpent’s demise. Then, of course, it will stop growing altogether.
Another persistent myth involving snakes and growth is that if you feed them less often, they will stay small. There may be some truth in the statement, but it is misleading. The logical extension of this idea is that, if you don’t feed them at all, they won’t grow at all. While it is literally true, it will also end in the same outcome as the too-small cage. This notion is related to the still-common idea that snakes only need to eat once every other week or month, or once a year—I have heard all these variations. The truth is that the vast majority of snakes will thrive on a schedule of biweekly or weekly feedings, no more and no less. Underfeeding will distort a snake’s natural growth pattern and result in misshapen internal anatomy and poor health. Tell your customers: If you don’t want a snake that will get 10 feet long, don’t buy a snake that will get 10 feet long. It’s as simple as that.
Here’s another common myth I hear from reptile owners: “My iguana is potty-trained. He will only go in the cat litter box.” Just because an animal develops a behavior you approve of does not mean that you have trained it. Free-range iguanas will sometimes develop habitual toilet areas, and sometimes that works out to be a spot convenient to the owner’s needs. More often than not, it doesn’t. Either way, the habit does not relate to what the owners think they did to “train” the pet. And, by the way, free-range iguanas, subject to the variable temperature and humidity levels in any house, tend to have much shorter lives than their caged brethren.
Say My Name
Similarly, many people believe they can train their pet herps to come when they call their name. I know that monitors are the Einsteins of the reptile world, but I have yet to see any reptile, even monitors, respond to their name. They might respond to a human voice, and perhaps a specific human voice, if they have learned that a feeding is the consistent outcome of their response. Recognizing one’s own name is, however, a level of cognitive sophistication that is about as remote to a reptile brain as telekinesis is to our own. This claim is further thrown into doubt when it is made, as it often is, by snake owners. Snakes have no outer ears.
Here’s another myth: “My bearded dragons love each other. They always hang out together. They are friends.” The companion one to this is: “I need to get my tortoise a friend. I don’t want him to be lonely.” We all have a tendency to empathize with our pets—that is part of the way our mammalian brains are built. We thus tend to project our own needs and desires onto the lives of our pets. Reptile brains lack the software and hardware that allow for things like love, friendship and empathy. We see certain behaviors in them and immediately want to interpret them as driven by the same emotions as our own. Those bearded dragons are not friends. They are competing for the most advantageous hot spot in the cage. The tortoise is not lonely. The addition of a new tortoise represents nothing more than another mouth after the same plate of food, or maybe (best-case scenario) a potential mate. However, in the absence of a second tortoise in the cage, that rock in the corner will do just about as well.
Perhaps the greatest everyday myth of all that we have to contend with is the notion that, as I hear mothers tell their children every day, that snake is going to bite you. Of course, snakes can bite. However, in most circumstances, and especially in captive situations, they are wholly unlikely to do so. The easiest way to handle this wrong-headed notion is to ask mom why she thinks that snake is going to bite her child. That question tends to take her aback. If she counters that the snake might be hungry, I politely ask if her child smells like a rat. No, she says. I then explain that if something doesn’t look like food and doesn’t smell like food, she is unlikely to take a fork to it—the same goes for the snake. As long as her child smells like a human and poses no threat to the snake, biting is not a likely part of the potential encounter. While, in my heart I might want to take her to task for instilling unnecessary fear in her offspring, I find it prudent to not go there. After all, with a smile and a little positive reinforcement, you might actually turn this around and garner a customer.
Finally, here’s another myth that I have to explain to folks nearly every day: “Look, that lizard is trying to get out through the glass. He wants to be free.” Well, no. That lizard is captive bred and has never known a day of “freedom” in its life. Here’s the real deal: millions of years of evolution have not prepared reptiles for what must be their equivalent of a philosophical dilemma—glass. I can see forward. Why can’t I walk forward? What is this great invisible force holding me back? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?
I don’t know. Have a cricket.
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.