Reptiles in the Far North

Reptiles in the Far North is a Guest Post by Marcy L. Sowers of MS2 Enterprises.

Reptile Keeping in the North?

Like many reptile keepers I stumbled onto reptiles quite unexpectedly. I had bred African Cichlids for some time and was quite knowledgeable about them. My local Alaskan pet store offered me two tiny bearded dragons that had arrived from the breeder, mangled and missing limbs and parts that one would consider essential. They told me that they knew I would take good care of them. I told them we would think about it; I had already named them. After giving my husband doe eyes for about two hours we went back to the pet store, asked some questions and purchased everything (or so I thought) we needed for them. I did some research and low and behold I needed more things. Things I couldn’t even find in Alaska!

This began my online ordering experience and search for the least expensive ways to get the proper husbandry, dietary and emergency supplies for my reptiles.

Setting Up Reptiles

After getting my reptiles set up in enclosures that had the proper thermal gradient and UVB requirements I realized that at some point I would need to consider emergency heat and UVB should the power go out for extended periods of time.  We also have periods of time where avalanches take out our electric lines from the hydro-electric plant and our electric rates go up 500%.  For those time periods having a generator and smaller halogen basking lights would be an effective solution.  For short-term heat, I purchase the reptile shipping heat packs by the case, most often 72-hour and enough to heat each reptile for a week’s period of time.  One of my dear friends Yvonne Lesusky-Hancock also made this video on Facebook, showing how to increase the ambient temperature of your room with just tea lights.  This could be a tremendous help in dire conditions.

Alaska Mountains

Alaska _ Air Conditioning?

Having expanded my reptiles to now include crested geckos I also have to consider the heat in summer.  Most Alaskans do not have homes with air conditioning. Believe it or not we do have weeks where temperatures get into the mid-nineties.  So, what could one do to avoid an overheated crested gecko (or Alaskan for that matter)? I have several options that would be helpful.  I have the old, put a fan in front of a bowl of ice and put it in front of the geckos trick. But seeing as how I about melt in the heat myself at I found this particular video and am going to create several of these for the house during excessive heat periods of time.

Even more chilling for me was the cost of feeding my reptiles appropriately!

I was quite shocked how much two young dragons could eat! Paying $20.00 for 10 dozen crickets was getting quite ridiculous and soon I discovered ordering them by the thousands.  This time period for my dragons and I was where I truly began researching feeder nutrition and how I could do things better for them.  Not much was available at the pet store and I wasn’t going to settle for that as my only option. So in addition to purchasing feeders online, I have my own feeder colonies.  Some of them are just back-up in case my supplier is out, weather is bad or money is tight.

Feeder Breeding Insects

Now I know that in Canada blaptica dubia are illegal, but if you live elsewhere and they are legal, I couldn’t stress enough how much they reduce your overall cost and provide quality feeders. I started a colony and it has been a godsend for my reptiles.

Breeding your own crickets is an excellent option as well, it is not incredibly difficult, but it does take time and effort.  Most people complain that breeding crickets just stinks.  There is a certain smell associated with crickets, but I can assure you, you can mitigate that with certain steps. Sanitation is critical, not only to reducing dead loss, cricket health and avoiding most of that dreaded cricket stench! Crickets are not the cleanest creatures and they will defecate anywhere including their food and water dishes. I changed out food and water crystal dishes daily and removed and debris (dead, exoskeletons and frass) and had virtually no smell.  Completely sanitizing the tank or tub between batches is essential as well as using fresh egg crates or drink carriers. Some will say, “Oh just get some egg crates from the restaurant after a weekend.” With all the effort I put into my reptiles I did not want to chance my reptile’s food source with any contamination source that might have been avoidable.

I also started my own meal worm and super worm colonies. These are both relatively easy to do. I typically purchase my mealworms for my leopard geckos, but having a small colony just in case is very reassuring. Our weather is so un-predictable that sometimes flights cannot get in for weeks. Having these extra sources of food at hand reduces my stress immensely. I always save my pupated meal worms and add them to my colony of meal worms when they have turned into beetles.

Something I try to share with every person that is just getting into reptiles, and even some that are established who haven’t thought about this is never recycle feeders. I never take a pupated meal worm (or uneaten dubia or cricket) out of a food dish and put it into my breeder colonies. Nor do I take a feeder out of one reptile’s enclosure and feed it to a different reptile. It might be a bit on the overkill side but I want to ensure that in the event that one of my reptiles had a parasite I do not want it transmitted by oral fecal route to the other reptile or the feeders and the rest of my reptiles!  All uneaten insects either crushed or disposed of by putting them in a Ziploc bag and in the freezer (or both).  I am also very careful about wax worms. Some may not know that wax worms can decimate a bee hive so I am very careful about disposing of them appropriately.

Veterinary _ Alaska

Veterinary care in Alaska is a challenge. In my community there are no Veterinarians that specialize in herpetology. In fact, when I brought a rescue Chinese Water dragon into a local vet, he asked me is that an iguana? I have had to teach myself quite a bit about their care, reach out to reptile care experts and connect with a veterinarian who is extremely helpful. In the event I have a reptile with a serious issue, I have several experts I can consult with, who would be willing to share with my local vet a plan of care.

I perform my own fecal floats and have a microscope that will take digital pictures and video and can coordinate with the qualified experts I trust in conjunction with my local vet.  There are resources that can be used to do fecal float tests by express mail as well as other tests.  These resources and fostering a great relationship with a veterinarian who is willing to work with a reptile specialist via distance can make a huge difference, not only to the reptile owner’s peace of mind, but perhaps to the life of one of your reptiles.  Develop this relationship before the emergency exists; cultivate the resources and connections before you need them for the benefit of your reptiles.

Emergencies _ Reptiles

Something that is also not just unique to living in Alaska consideration, but should be a consideration for every herper is true emergency planning for fire, evacuation or some other type of natural disaster.  I also have set out plans in the event of my death, might be morbid but given that I truly care about what happens to my reptiles I want to have a plan for them in the event something does happen to me. Living in Alaska does make some of this a bit more logistically more difficult.

In the event of a fire, have a fire plan. What would you do?  Do you have a reptile bug-out bag?  What does it contain?  Can you support your reptiles for a week with it?  If you had more time to evacuate and had to move all of your collection how would you do it?  In addition to what I have on hand for my family for emergencies I keep extra bottled water on hand for the reptiles, food that I can feed them and extra heat as I mentioned earlier.

pogona vitticeps

Courtesy of Marcy L. Sowers

Something that some people may or may not think of is what would happen to my reptiles if something happened to me? Living in Alaska poses some difficulties as there are limited shipping months.  I have a designated person(s) who would be in charge of my reptiles in the event something happened to me.  My family knows this is the plan.  They would purchase her ticket to and from Alaska so she can handle everything in regards to the reptiles.  Having shipping supplies on hand in advance is important.  Now, given that shipping can only happen during maybe 5-7 months of the year, what happens if my demise is in mid-winter and it is 34 degrees Farenheit?  Well, that has already been taken into consideration.

Fortunately, I have fostered a great relationship with the veterinarian (as I talked about above).  Alaska Airlines (as with most major airlines) needs to have a health certificate for EACH animal before they can fly.

This is where this relationship and him knowing how my reptiles are cared for and their health is critical, even if he is not a herp veterinarian.  Each reptile would need a health certificate, be boxed according to industry standards and the box(es) would go into a large dog crate(s) and would take the 2 hour and 25 minute flight to Seattle where they would be shipped Overnight Express mail via Reptile Express with whom I have an account to the person who I have willed all of my reptiles.  This is a lot of planning for the event of what if?  Just imagine though, I hadn’t the forethought to do so.  My family would be grieving and looking at my reptiles saying, what the heck do we do with these?  The thought of them going on craigslist here gives me the shudders!

With the influx of some of the larger pet stores into our communities there are more reptiles introduced into Alaska.  I have am committed to sharing information with other Alaskan reptile owners on proper husbandry, diet and some of the other big issues that go along with being responsible reptile owners in Alaska.

There are many reasons why it takes more effort to own reptiles in Alaska or any northern extreme.  It is possible, doable and to do it properly takes extra effort, love and passion.

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