20 July 2012

Move Over Rover

By Tony Jones

In November 1991, I was mentioned in the Spectator. It was a feature about keeping reptiles as pets, and I had sold a Leopard Gecko to Spectator writer Anthony Daniels. I was in my late teens at the time, working at what was then the largest reptile collection in Europe, 'The Serpentarium'. Mr Daniels described me perfectly:

"There was something special about the three men who worked among the reptiles. One of them, the youngest, was dressed in the aggressively ugly clothes that the young seem to favour; in other circumstances I might have dismissed him as a lout. But all three men worked in a way one so rarely sees in England: with evident love for what they were doing."

The Serpentarium closed some years ago. My passion prevailed, however, and I have worked now with reptiles for more than 25 years. Some might consider it an obsession, and it appears I am not alone.

This year reptiles will probably become the UK's most prolific pet, ousting dogs the number one spot. The modern family has precious little time for dog walking, and even less inclination for pooper scooping. Finding a pet sitter to cover holidays is a hassle. What today's family needs is a low maintenance pet. Slither forward, the reptile.

Despite enduring a bad reputation since Genesis, reptiles have been kept as pets for centuries. The earliest examples date back to the Tower of London menagerie, founded in the 13th century. Records of reptile breeding date back to 1828, when a pair of pythons (probably Burmese) mated and laid eggs in the same collection. Sadly we do not know if the eggs hatched.

In 1625, William Laud, then Bishop of London, purchased a Spur-Thighed Tortoise, which he kept at the Palace of Fulham. Eight years later, he became the Archbishop of Canterbury and the tortoise moved with him to Lambeth Palace, where it lived for another 120 years. In 1753 its long life was cut short when a gardener accidentally cut off its head. The shell is still kept today in the library at Lambeth Palace.

The last 25 years have seen reptiles shed their menacing image to emerge as a hugely popular pet. Since 1991 the UK's reptile industry has swollen to an estimated 6.5 million animals sold a year. Reptiles are not demanding; for example, most pet lizards will happily wait a few days between feeds and snakes will fast for a week or more with no problem. They won't pine for you while you are away, crap on your carpet or devour your slippers. As long as someone provides fresh water a couple of times a week, your reptile friend won't even notice you are gone.

Traditionalists will cling to the notion that reptiles are boring, have no personality and are incapable of forming relationships. But reptiles are fascinating creatures: any zoo keeper will tell you that visitors spend more time in the reptile house than at any other exhibit. And it is not just giant pythons and deadly serpents: consider the Veiled Chameleon, with turreted eyes and projectile sticky tongue. Did you know that, contrary to popular belief, their colour changes to match their mood not their surroundings, displaying different colours for combat, placidity and sexual readiness? Females even display specific colours when they have been recently mated. How's that for practical?

If you aspire to something a little more high-end, you may consider Britain's most expensive snake, the iridescent black and gunmetal coloured 'Axanthic' Royal Python, costing around £12,000. Or if you want a more personable creature, look no further than the Australian Bearded Dragon. 'Beardies' come when called, sit on your lap and even give a little wave if they think you'll notice. Plus, they never try to hump your leg. I wonder if Mr Daniels would like one.

First published: Spectator Magazine Diary 2011.

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