Everyone remembers it. The day they met their first large, tame lizard. That moment is met with awe, even if your not a reptile person. Wow this wild animal is sitting in front of me, benign and trusting, how amazing is that.
For most of us though, that awe is met with immediate desire. This animal is friendly and exotic. I GOTTA HAVE ONE. I mean, who wouldn't want to have the "mans best friend" type relationship with an oddball animal, or maybe just have an impressive animal to show off. Part of the joy of having a pet is sharing or showing that pet to others, sharing pictures and stories.
Sadly though, most people who go through with their desire are met with not just disappointment but almost repulsion when the animal they purchase isn't interested in riding their shoulder while they comb the beach or go to the local pet store. Animals that hide 24/7 in their cages, and panic when touched. Resulting in scratches to our sensitive palms and fingers .Worse yet, when the animal lashes out and attacks its handler with its tail or mouth. Tails can really sting and larger animals leave welts that bruise or even bleed. Lizard bites are no fun and I often describe them to people as feeling like you "hit your hand with a hammer" or "shut your finger in a car door".
In this article I'll walk you through what I've learned breeding, raising, caring for and selling these lizards to the public. I gathered large amounts of experience, and have listened and learned from ended less stories from both experienced and novice keepers. Patterns do emerge and I'd like my knowledge to help people beyond those I get to talk to in person.
I'll start out by saying that not all reptiles that are friendly are what they seem. Reptiles are cold blooded and as such need external heat to digest their food. Not only that, but they need it to MOVE around, do normal behaviors and react to your presence. A person can take a very flighty or aggressive animal, cool it to room temperature, and now a classroom of first graders can parade in and pet it and no one loses a finger. Bring the animals core temp back up and its no longer Mr. Squishy Cakes. I know for a fact this tactic is used to sell baby iguanas at swap meets all over the US. Some sellers going so far as to have a large tame animal on display and having the babies in their bins with insufficient heat. People see the tame adult (who may or may not really be tame, possibly just cold) and then are suckered into buying a baby. These people either never learn about temps and the animal remains "tame" and slowly dies, or they set the animal up correctly and are now questioning what they are doing wrong because the animal now wants nothing to do with them.
I've seen the "It was tame when I bought it" phenomenon appear for all sorts of animals, namely Nile monitors and Tokay geckos. Two animals with notorious dispositions. Often the buyers of these animals feel they've got some sort of magical connection or "the touch" and are quite proud that they can conquered such beasts. Other times is just pure ignorance and their aren't even aware of what they are purchasing. Either case the result is the same. Get the animal home, the animal now is a flighty, bitey, stress case.
Wild Caught or Captive Bred.
If you are aiming for a tame lizard, its best to buy a captive bred animal. Captive bred animals are better for a variety of reasons, namely there are less stressed than wild caught (WC) animals. WC animals on top of just having a terrifying experience of being shipped multiple times and housed in crowded conditions, are virtually always parsitized and require medication. The act of worming itself (and the vet visit for most people) is just another scary thing in this animals short life. Young brains of all animals are impressionable and reptiles can and do learn that people are scary after bad early experiences.There is growing scientific evidence in many species that stress in early parts of life with affect the adult personality (seems like a no brainer eh?)
That said it will be nearly impossible for most people to find a CB Iguana or most Varanid species. In these cases aim for long term captive animals that will readily eat in front of you at the store, before you take it home. Eating in front of you is also a good indicator that the animal is being kept at the correct temperature thus displaying its true temperament, and isn't just tame because its cold.
Fight or Flight.
Think about how you'd react if a man came at you with a knife. Would you run? Would you come at him to disarm him? If you originally would have ran, but now theres no escape, now what? You realize that hes so much bigger than you than you can't fight him, so you just sit down and wait for death?
These are the results of fight or flight. Everyone and every animal has a default setting that they resort to in a situation. These are the options;
Flight: Run from the scary thing
Fight: Attack the scary thing so it will leave you alone,
Flight first then fight: I'll run from you until I can't anymore, then I'll try and scare you away
Fight first then Flight: I'll try and scare you away and if that doesn't work after X amount of time, I'm out of here!
Shutdown; I've learned that nothing I do works to make the scary thing go away, so I give up. Eat me now.
Rituals; Ritualized aggression, posturing, flaring, hissing, gaping etc, these are all a precursor to Fight or flight, intended to scare the scary thing away without actually having to expend to much energy.
Notice how often the words "scary" and "scare" appear? That's because both skittishness AND aggression are FEAR based. The anxiety, or dare I say emotion is the same, but the animal is just handling it in a different way depending on past experiences, genes, situation, etc.
Doesn't sound fun does it? for either party. If you already have brought your lizard home, you will need to methodically tame it down. If its not home yet, really, really think about what you are likely getting into. Think of it as committing to a large dog (financially) but its got a scaredy cat temperament and wants to bite you. It will tame work and commitment, please don't take it lightly...
I'll go into how to tame down a monitor in another article. It can be done! :)