Since CHET’s main focus is education, I wanted to address those considering entering our world for the first time. All of our members will attest to how great reptiles as pets can be. The variety of species available is amazing. Most species are currently developing into more amazing morphs. Each species has it’s own characteristics and individuals will demonstrate their own personalities. Some species have incredible lifespans. Tortoises (which happen to be illegal in Tennessee) can live 100 years, some snakes can achieve 30 while some lizards only live a few years. Because of all of these factors, care and research are key in choosing your first, or next, reptile pet.
Your first decision, after choosing reptile, will be which species fits your desires and lifestyle. Patterns, physique and attitude make each a unique choice. Each species, be it snake or lizard, has a fairly specific set of needs. Chances are, there is an online forum for whichever species you might be interested in. Often times these will be your best chance for finding information on care, attitude and potential problems for a specific species.
Housing requirements, temperature, lighting, humidity and diet are all things you need to understand before making your decision. Enclosure size ranges from something the size of a 10 gallon aquarium to basically needing its own room in your house. Some species can live in a fairly low enclosures that has plenty of floor space. Others are better suited to an enclosure with a fairly small foot print but plenty of room to climb. Most reptiles need external heat to thrive. Some require belly heat, a heat source under the enclosure. Others require basking heat, an overhead heat source that simulates basking in the sun. Lighting requirements range from no light necessary to a full spectrum light which provides both UVA and UVB. Different species originated in diverse areas of the world. A desert reptile requires virtually no humidity while tropical species can require very high humidity, sometimes as high as 80 to 90%. Reptiles can be fully vegetarians, requiring fresh greens, fruits and vegetables; insectivores, eating crickets, mealworms and roaches; carnivorous, eating mice, rats and small birds; or any combination of these. There are even species specialized to eat only fish or only toads. All of these things need to be understood before you make your final decision.
Snakes are available in a wide variety at the present time. Venomous snakes, rattlers, copperheads and such, are illegal to begin with and something only a very experienced handler should ever attempt. Some of the most spectacular snakes in the world are the venomous species though. The only venomous snake that can legally be owned in Tennessee are the hognose and the garter snake. Both are only mildly venomous, it has been compared to a severe bee sting, and rear fanged ( as opposed to the classic front fang we all envision). This is why they are allowed where the others are banned. As far as I know all the non venomous species are legal to own in our state.
Burmese Pythons, Reticulated Pythons and Anacondas are definitely not something a first time buyer should EVER consider. These are called giants for a reason and therefore require a very experienced handler. While, in my opinion, boas are one of the most attractive non-venomous snakes, they can reach some pretty impressive proportions. Most beginners are not prepared for an animal which can reach 12 feet long. Ball pythons are considered a good beginners snake because they never reach massive size, are extremely docile (with proper care and handling), and are fairly easy to upkeep. For those interested in a more active animal, there are several species of colubrids currently available as pets. Corns, rats, milks, and kings are all available in a wide variety of morphs and patterns.
Lizards offer, by far, a larger variety of choices. Anoles are down right cheap, but are short-lived and take a lot of work to make them handle able. Several species of geckos are out there. They range from the terrestrial leopard and fat-tails to the arboreal crested, gargoyle and day geckos. Bearded Dragons are a very common first lizard. For a first time keeper, I would suggest a leopard or crested gecko or a beardie as these are fairly easily tamed to where they can be handled.
Several lizards, that are readily available, should be avoided as first pets. Iguanas, while impressive to look at, are more difficult to maintain and tend to be pretty aggressive. They will use those long tails as a very effective whip as well as bite and scratch. Tokay geckos are beautiful animals but tend to be very flighty and aggressive. Any of the monitor lizards as well as tegus are poor choices for an inexperienced keeper. These animals can reach massive size, are more aggressive and pack a nasty bite.
In closing, reptiles can be incredible pets, but should NEVER be an impulse purchase. If you are considering joining the reptile community, please do your research before making any purchase. There is a vast amount of information on the internet to help you make your choice. Don’t rely on just one site as a definitive source of information but compare the advice from several different sources to make your choice. And please don’t think a seven or eight year old is responsible enough to care for a scaly pet without parental support and input. If you know somebody who keeps reptiles, pick their brain! While this community is full of self-righteous egomaniacs that will quickly, and rudely, point out what you are doing wrong; many of us will go out of our way to discuss our animals and proper care with you.