Daily baths, natural stone floors, misting nozzles, heat lamps, a cool pool, fresh greens. No, this isn’t a luxury resort spa — it’s the life of a kept reptile.
What leads some homeowners to cater to these toothy, scaly, often-maligned beasts in this way? Call it cold-blooded love, maybe. It all comes through in the clear, simple excitement in their voices and in their pet reptiles’ sometimes extravagant, customized living quarters.
Keeping reptiles in a residential setting requires more than devotion, to be sure — it’s a science of controlled humidity and finely-tuned temperature gradients, and specialized food, vitamins and supplements. It ain’t easy.
According to the American Pet Products Association, 4.6 million U.S. households have made the effort to take care of 13 million pet reptiles as of 2011.
Making iguanas at home
Last summer, at his family’s new home in Tucson, Ariz., retired Silicon Valley electronics engineer John Binns, now founder and CEO of the International Reptile Conservation Foundation (IRCF), designed and built a 270 square-foot vivarium attached to his house to accommodate his five huge rock iguanas, a large iguana species native to the West Indies, and six green iguanas.
"If you haven’t seen them before," said Binns, "they’re just like dinosaurs."
Chuckwallas. Photo: ©2012 JOHN BINNS.
The vivarium includes six indoor and five indoor/outdoor cages, an antique cast-iron claw-foot tub, skylights, and intricate temperature regulation controls to hold his iguanas. He baths them daily.
Indoor enclosures in Tucson, Ariz. Photo: ©2012 JOHN BINNS.
Small "doggy" doors allow the rock iguanas, which are kept in the bottom row of the stacked 2-by-2-by-4-foot cages indoors, to sun outside in a modified dog kennel built of heavy-gauge wire mesh. Sometimes, they get the run of the house and sun by Binns’ backyard pool.
Izzy, a Cuban rock iguana, peers out of a doggy door. Photo: ©2012 JOHN BINNS.
A green iguana basks in the sun at poolside. Photo: ©2012 JOHN BINNS.
It’s not easy keeping large iguanas. Rock iguanas can grow to be 20 pounds or more and can live up to 60 years. After a successful career in Silicon Valley, Binns’s conservation work with IRCF and owning iguanas "allow me to put something back into the earth," he said.
Actually, the cost of keeping the iguanas was what prompted the move from a five-bedroom, large-lot, upscale home near San Jose, Calif., where he and his wife Sandy had been living. The utility bills were too high, he said.
A green iguana perches on a branch in this photo of its former home in San Jose, Calif. Photo: ©2012 JOHN BINNS.
An iguana rests on a rock in this photo of its former home in San Jose, Calif. Photo: ©2012 JOHN BINNS.
Since reptiles are ectotherms — they’re dependent on their environment to regulate their internal temperature — Binns said he was spending about $1,300 to $1,500 a month in electricity bills to power heat lamps to warm the reptiles in that Pacific Ocean-cooled locale.
In Tucson, the undiminished burning desert sun does a lot of the heating work — his electricity bill, he said, has plummeted to about $300.
Outdoor enclosures in Tucson, Ariz. Photo: ©2012 JOHN BINNS.
Still, the iguanas might have had it better, digs-wise, in San Jose. By Binns’s account they lived like kings. Binns had converted a bathhouse into a freestanding vivarium and built another companion vivarium nearby from the ground up.
The stucco, copper-roofed buildings were each about 330 square feet and had stylish round windows, internal shutters and tile floors.
Gavin Brink’s collection of about 30 Latin American snakes at his 1,400-square-foot three-bedroom, 1.5-bath home in Lake Forest, Ill., might not have it quite as good, luxury-wise, as Binns’s iguanas did in San Jose, but their granite and marble floors and natural stone walls and ceilings don’t fall far behind in style.
Snakes occupy this home in Lake Forest, Ill. Photos courtesy of Gavin Brink.
Something is slithering. Photo courtesy of Gavin Brink.
In all, Brink estimates that more than one third of his house will be given over to snake habitat, or roughly 50 cages, when a basement remodel is completed. As of now, his snakes claim two of his three bedrooms and a portion of a hallway.
“This has really driven me,” said Brink. “I’ve already spent substantially more than I make, but I do it because it’s what I love.”
He already has laid down an umber-brindled marble tile floor in the basement. When done, he estimates that he will have tiled 1,000 square feet of his 1,400-square-foot home. Tile’s more expensive, said Brink, but it looks good and cleans up easy.
An alligator in the tub, two in the basement
Benton, Ark., resident Jeremy Thompson, who owns a 1-year-old American alligator — a species that is legal to own in Arkansas and many other states — said the gator is right at home. "My girlfriend takes a bath with her sometimes," he said.
Thompson said he wouldn’t try that because the alligator can be "nippy." He bought the pet gator from a dealer in New York for $75, including $60 for next-day shipping.
He said he was much more comfortable with his 2-year-old, 2.5-foot male pet alligator, Dozer, which disappeared this past summer from his backyard.
Thompson believes Dozer, who he handled daily and had grown close to, hopes he was stolen, not picked off by a predator such as a golden eagle, bald eagle, osprey or other large predator known to roam the Arkansas skies. He doesn’t want to think of Dozer dead.
Thompson plans to keep his new gator, unnamed as of now mainly because of her orneriness, he said, into adulthood, which could mean taking care of a 10-foot-long, 400-pound beast.
Now, he keeps his 1-foot-long lady, which he handles daily, in a 60-gallon aquarium indoors — there is a round metal trough in the backyard, which measures 6 feet in diameter, that will allow the alligator to enjoy the sun during the summers.
Alligator kiss. Photo courtesy of
Thompson said his dream is to train her (or another pet alligator), so that when she’s an adult she’ll be docile and friendly enough so that he can keep her in a farm pond on his property or a friend’s property and go swimming with her.
Many states allow private ownership of exotic animals; eight have no restrictions whatsoever, including Ohio, Alabama, and Nevada (view a map that shows the various exotic ownership laws by state here). Last year, Zanesville, Ohio, was the scene of a tragic event in which dozens of exotic animals were released from a private reserve, with law enforcement officers killing many of the animals.
When it comes to exotic animal ownership laws, "Reptiles often fall into this amorphous status," Coppola said.
Thompson said that one of the things that drew him to own an alligator, besides his fascination with their power and his love of animals, was that they are one of the few reptilian species that are capable of learning.
Jim Nesci, who lives in a Chicago suburb, said he definitely agrees that alligators can learn. He owns Bubba, an 8-foot-long, 200-pound American alligator, and Bubba’s girlfriend, Cruella.
Bubba and Cruella live in Nesci’s 2,700-square-foot basement-turned-reptile showroom, along with about 30 or so other animals, including a huge Aldabra tortoise, a 20-foot-long albino Burmese python, a seven-foot-long, 60-pound water monitor lizard, and others.
He runs tours through his basement; thousands of people a year make the visit.
Bubba, according to Nesci’s account of him, behaves like a dog. He comes when called, is generally docile, roams the house when Nesci’s at home, and obeys various commands.
Nesci talks about Bubba like he’s an old friend, and the tone of his voice indicates respect. "Alligators have seen the dinosaurs come and go, and that’s no accident," he said.