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Taming reptiles

Contributors to this FAQ:


This FAQ is being compiled in response to many postings regarding
the intelligence and tameability of various groups and species of
reptiles. It is organized as a losely ordered collection of 
questions and answers. If you have experiences, corrections, or
opinions you would like to see added, please, send email to
Valerie, and your comments will most certainly be incorporated.

Questions and Answers

Q: Can reptiles become tame ?

	Short answer: YES.
	Long answer: Most will, some won't. Reptiles have not been selected
	and bred for gentle temperament, even though some heavily captve bread
	species, like corn snakes, seem mellower than wild caught specimens.

	Some species/individuals are more likely to get used to you than others.
	Some species/individuals will get non-shy and eat from your hand but 
	will never let you touch them.
	Some species/individuals will tolerate handling in return for food, 
	others will hate it.
	Some species/individuals will run, others will bite.
	...and some will be really tame and develop a taste for having their
	neck scratched.

	When buying a reptile, if you want it to become tame, buy and animal
	that seems calm and friendly. Unless you are prepared to invest a lot
	of time and effort without promise of success, don't go for the
	more 'challenging' animal.

	Some species start out friendly as babies and will develop a rotten 
	temper when they get older. Reticulated pythons have that reputation.
	But several people state, that some reticulated pythons are very 
	well-tempered, and that maybe they become less mellow not so much
 	as a character trait, but because they are handled less when they
 	get large.

	Some species, no matter how tame, can become dangerous when they get
	bigger. They can hurt you, when they get angry or scared. And they
	can potentially kill you, if they mistake you for food.
	No matter how tame your animal gets, expect to get bitten or scratched,
	occasionally, if the animal is upset or scared. Use tongs for
	biters, and gloves.

	Remember: ALL REPTILES ARE WILD ANIMALS. Treat them as such, and you
	can avoid trouble.

	Note: When you purchase a 'calm and friendly' animal, make sure the 
	animal is not sick. If an animal is too friendly or sluggish, while
	all other animals in the tank are scratching and biting, you may
	be looking at an animal with health problems. (Of course, if the
	animal has already been handled by the current owner, then it may
	be tamer than other animals of the same batch.)

Q: Do reptiles like to be petted ?

	Some do, some don't. I know several boas who love to be petted, even on
	their head, after they develop a taste for it. And that is the key: many
	reptiles don't take naturally to being petted. But once they get 
	used to it, they often start to like it.

	Many snakes will like to cuddle in warm, dark places, like t-shirts.
	If your idea of petting is an animal curled up on yur stomach inside
	your shirt while you are reading a book, then a snake is a good pet for

	Turtles and tortoises are not cuddly, but many like their 
	belly scratched, i.e. the bottom of their plastron, and
	they will definiteky express their pleasure. "I had a chance to
	pet some young Galopagoes tortoises in June.  They go 
	off to Never-Never Land if you scratch the jaws and neck."

Q: How do I know, my animal likes to be petted ?

	Your animal likes to be petted if: 
	  * it does not run away given the option
	  * does not try to avoid your touch
	  * goes to sleep in your arms
	  * stays around for more if you stop
	  * visibly relaxes as you go
	  * doesn`t hiss or bite

Q: How smart are snakes ?

	VERY stupd! They animals they eat are a lot smarter than they are
	(provided they are alive).
	They can learn certain associations, though. Most notably, if you
	always drop food into the cage, the snake will associate opening
	the cage with the coming food and eventually bite the first thing
	that comes in when the lid opens, including your hand. 

Q: How smart are turtles and tortoises ?

	A lot smarter than snakes. Turtles can learn a lot of little 
	things and routines, given enough time and food rewards.

	Turtles are creatures of habit - they don't like change at all.
	If they live in a stable environment, they will learn where to
	get food and that it comes from the refrigerator, where their
	water dish is, where their favorite pooping place is (and you
	can put paper there), and that you are the source of good things.
	The latter can result in a turtle that will follow you around
	the room or the yard in order to coax you into scratching its
	head or giving it food.

	One person informed me, that his wood turtles are potty trained,
	will walk up to the frige if they are hungry, and go to the
	bathroom and sit in front of the tub until they get the bath
	they desire.

	All my water turtles know that food comes from the kitchen, and
	they also can tell fingers from food quite easily, if they want to.
	I believe, some turtles have a concept of fun/play, i.e. doing 
	something of no practical value because it gives them pleasure or
	entertainment.(Ever tried to play Submarine with your Slider ?)
	"Henry learned that the nozzle on the garden hose will be either
	bright orange or bright yellow. After a while, I started leaving 
	the hose running a little, so he could drink when he wanted to."

Q: How smart are lizards ?

        It depends on the species.  Anoles and  most geckos
        are not very smart at all.  Others, such as some iguanas, are
        quite intelligent, and some monitors are very smart--almost 
	as smart as, say, a parakeet.

        Igs seem to be _reasonably_ intelligent.  de Vosjoli, in the 
	Green Iguana Manual, relates the story of a herpetologist for a 
	major zoo who once saw an iguana hit a tree with its tail, and 
	two pieces of fruit fell off.  Then another iguana ran up and 
	ate both pieces.  The first iguana bit the second on the foot, 
	and the second ig ran away.  This, he said, was the most 
	intelligent thing he'd ever seen an iguana do. 

	Iguanas can definitely learn through experience and recognize
	simple cause and effect relationships. It takes time and
	patience, but several people have reported success with
	leash training and potty training (always put the iguana in
	the same spot to do it, and eventually it'll do it when put
 	in that spot).
Q: Do reptiles recognize individuals ?

	Definitely, but not all to the same extent. It is well known that
	turtles and tortoises distinguish between people. Snakes that get
	mostly and often handled by the same person will recognize that
	person and prefer him/her over others.

	And Nile monitors are used as 'watchlizards' in some parts of
	Africa, as they learn to recognize the person who feeds them.

Q: What do I do if I get bit ? Does it hurt ?

	Depending on the size of the teeth and the animal it will hurt, bleed,
	and be a mess.

	All of us have been bitten. It comes with the hobby. 
	Disinfect the wound, get stitches if necessary, and do not make a 
	big deal of it, especially not to your doctor. Or do you want 
	legislation forbidding *your* pet because it bit one person ? 
	(Nevermind that no-one thinks of outlawing dogs or cats
	because they bite and scratch).

	Do not blame anyone else, when you get bitten, not even if it is 
	someone else's animal. If you get bit, it is usually your fault or 
	nobody's fault.
	Never sue a store, if their pets bite you - you wanted to hold their
	animal in the first place, didn't you ?

	Sometimes a snake tooth will be lost, when it bites.
	This is a normal part of life. If one is left embedded in
	your skin, treat it as a splinter, though a tooth usually
	comes out easier than most splinters. Reptiles are physiologically
	incapable of having rabies, a definite advantage over dogs and

	Most turtle bites are pinches and will not draw blood. Larger
	tortoises can have a good bite, though. Especially small 
	children's soft hands should be kept in a save distance.
	The most unpleasant part of being bitten by a SMALL turtle
	is often, to get the animal off. Turtles will clamp tightly,
	and they are good at it! A bite from a LARGE turtle or
	tortoise is very painful.

	Note on SNAPPING TURTLES from an attentive reader (
	" The common snapper get up to 30 lbs and CAN remove fingers.  They are very
	fast and their necks are loooong (anything within 1 shell diameter of the
	front edge of the shell is in danger).
	    I have 'not seen' one strike at my hand.  I did 'not see' his head move
	because it was SO FAST that I must have missed it during a blink.  Lucky
	for me, the hand was at the extreme edge of his range and his nose just hit
	the center of the back of my hand.
	    The allegator snapper get up to 300 lbs and can remove a significant
	portion of a hand or foot.
        "While it's true that it's most likely a myth about biting off a foot,
        I have met two people in my life (grown male, both fisherman in Oklahoma)
        that have had their fingers ripped clean off by alligator snappers. And
        have a friend missing a realitvely large chunk of his arm from an alligator
        snapper that he raised since it was a baby, these guys are probably one of
        the worst turtles as far as intelligence goes. The pretty much snap at 
        anything that moves."

Q: My reptile is skittish. How do I tame it ?

	With a lot of patience.

	Once the animal tolerates you walking by the cage, changing
	the water bowl, feeding, and cleaning, you can try and touch
	it gently or even catch and hold it. If you pay attention to
	your animal, you will learn when it is comfortable and
	when not.

	Start out slowly; you do not want to frighten the animal from 
	the beginning! Start by holding it for a few minutes at a time,
	a few times a day, and just picking it up, not holding and restraining 
	it.  When (and if!) it has gotten to the point that it doesn't try to 
	run away after you pick it up, try taking it out of the cage and 
	actually holding it.  It will probably squirm or try
	to get away; restrain it *gently* until it calms down, hold it a few 
	seconds longer, and then place it back in the cage.  
	The idea is to get it through its small brain that being held is not 
	preparatory to being eaten!

Q: How do I know, the animal likes me or what I am doing ?

	The hypothalamus is the part of the brain where most of
	our emotions come from. All reptiles have one, so they
	have feelings. Since they cannot talk, we don't
	know for sure, what feelings they have beyond the most
	basic ones.

	The most basic emotions are fear, aggression, and pleasure.
	I don't think anyone will argue, that reptiles don't have
	these feelings and express them. They avoid what they
	fear, attack what makes them angry, and seek out what is

	If you create an environment that is comfortable and
	pleasant, and you do things to your pet that make it
	feel comfortable and pleased, then the reptile will
	'like' you in the sense that good things come from you,
	and therefore it wants to be with you. 

	In general, you will know quickly, if you do something
	your reptile does not like: it will try to get away or
	even bite.

	Whether reptiles have more complex feelings, like 'liking',
	is a hard question, and I would give a guarded 'yes' for
	turtles, but I don't know about others. In order to
	like someone, the animal has to distinguish between people
	and clearly prefer some over others. Turtles do
	tell people apart, and they prefer some people over others.
	I noticed to my surprise, that there are people my friendly
	snake does not like for no reason I can make out.

	One person relates that he has a very social turtle: When
	he reads a book on the floor, the turtle comes by and
	climbs on his back. He'll sit there for up to 15
	Make up your own mind, and you are probably right ...

Q: How do I potty train my reptile ?

	In general, you can't potty train the animal. It will train you.
	Many reptiles follow a daily routine which also includes
	eliminating. Just put paper where the animal usually does *it* and
	you should be fine most of the time.

	There are exceptions and stories, though: Supposedly, water
	monitors can be litter trained, and Leopard Geckos tend to
	use the same part of their cage all the time. Many reptiles also
	show a strong preference for eliminating into their water dishes.

Q: How often should I handle my animal ?

	The more the better, but not so much that the animal does not get to
	sleep or eat. Especially new animals should be left alone for the first
	few days or weeks, until they develop a rhythm and eat well. 
	Then handle for a short time maybe twice a day. Watch the animal. 
	If it is too stressed, reduce handling.

	Of course, to tame the animal, you do have to expose it to some stress.
	Before you start the taming, make sure your animal is well-fed and
	settled in. Then a few days of unsettling won't be harmful.

Q: Should I buy a nippy or shy animal, if I want to end up with a tame one ?


Q: Can snakes learn to do tricks ?

	NO. Yes. Maybe.

	One reader taught his snake to come to him, when her pats the ground.

Q: Can turtles learn to do tricks ?

	YES. Just use your imagination, time, and treats.

Q: Can lizards learn to do tricks ?

	Not really.  Many will learn to eat from your hand, or lounge
        around on your body, but that's about it.

Q: Can I make my animal stay in the yard ?

        No. Reptiles generally come and go as they please.

	A good fence will keep turtles and tortoises in.

Q: Can I put my reptile on a leash and go for walks with it ?

	Some lizards can be trained to walk on a leash. I have
	heard of iguanas and Savannah Monitors being able to do this.
	You would use a cat or rabbit harness for the purpose.

	Turtles and tortoises should never have their shells
	perforated in order to tie them to a leash ! Not only do
	they not understand the concept of a leash, the damaged
	shell can get infected. Also, the shell is live bone, and
	the procedure is not pleasant for the turtle, to say the least.

Q: So, which reptiles are know to tame easily ?

	Note: There are individual differences even within the species. 
 	I have 2 corn snakes. One is as tame as they get, and I can do 
	anything I want to him, the other one is shy and hates to be 
	touched, even though she recognizes me very well.
	There are always exceptions!

	Corn snakes and most other rat snakes
	King Snakes
	Milk Snakes (most colubrids are fine)
	Boa constrictors
	Red eared sliders
	Snapping turtles (but large ones have a nasty bite).
	Ball pythons
	Some monitors, like Savannah Monitors, but it takes time
	Burmese Pythons (But they get big, which makes handling harder, and
 	   an adult can harm a person. Not ideal cuddling pets!)
	American species of box turtles
	Ball Pythons

Q: Which reptiles tend to stay shy ?

	Note: There are individual differences even within the species. So, if
	you have a tame Emerald Tree Boa, I envy you!
	There are always exceptions!

	Vine Snakes
	Most small lizards
	Tockay Geckos
Q: Which reptiles tend to be aggressive ?

	Green Tree Pythons
	Emerald Tree Boas and other species of tree boas (big teeth!)
	Anacondas, especially green ones
	Some Monitors, like the Nile Monitor
	Reticulated Pythons, can be bad tempered, but several people told
	  me about theirs being tame and friendly. Definitely not a beginner's
	  animal, though.

Q: Which reptiles are not recommended for the general public ?

	Gila Monsters (venemous and illegal)
	Rattle Snakes (can be tame and gentle, but one bite is enough)
	Any front-fanged venomous snake
	Crocodiles and Alligators (though there are reports of tamability
	  for Muggers and some other crocodilians if raised from infancy).
	Kommodo Dragons
	Horned toads (they become tame but eat only ants)

Reader Testimonies
================== writes: 
    My Sudan Plated lizard is the tamest thing I have ever seen, he eats
    well, from my hand, and on his own, he doesnt run, he doesnt mind being
    touched ANYWHERE, he likes me to remove his old scales for him :)
    he also knows a couple of "tricks", he comes when you look at him and
    pat the ground/bed/whatever your on, and he will stand up(momentraily)
    for food you hold up for him, he is verry inteligant :)
    best 30 bucks I ever spent :) , and he was tame from the start and ate
    as soon as I got him home :) writes:
    My Cuora turtle loves to have his shell scratched. He will dance in response. writes:
	I was reading your site and lizards are not as dumb as you say they are.
	My sudan plated lizard will come when it's called and I have trained it
	to use a litter box.
	Ike my lizrard was trained with a lot of patientce. I trained her 
	like a dog and when she does something right I feed her a cricket.She 
	soon figured out all sorts of things that I have taught her, but she 
	will only do this if I have crickets in my hand or nearby ( animals are 
	very smart when it comes to food ).As for the litter box part I don't 
	know why she does this but she only "poops" in a pie tin filled with 
	sand. I put the sand in there so she could burrow and dig around in 
	there, but she decided that's where to "go." writes:	

	I recently came across your article on the Taming and Training of Reptiles.  I
	felt I should tell you about some of my personal experiences with some of my
	reptiles.  First thing I would like to comment on is the intelligence of
	reptiles.  I recently had two adult iguanas, one male and one female.  They
	were very fortunate to have the run of an entire bedroom with only other herps
	in there.  The relationship they two iguanas had was a strange one.  The
	female was the dominate of the two.  She ate first, had the choice basking
	spots, and would push the other out of the way for more attention.  She was
	also extremely smart.  Many people didn't believe it, until they witnessed it,
	but she could recognize her name.  Now, she wouldn't come to you when you
	called but she would look at you.  Even her vet noticed this and was amazed.
	She also was able to recognize when I came in the room with bags of food or
	just bags of things.  I tested this a few times.  Would carry grocery bags
	full of paper in and nothing.  Then carry bags full of greens and she would
	come running.  I even believe that this iguana was jealous of the other
	animals.  Like I said earlier, they had free run of the room while other herps
	where in different enclosures.  Well the female iguana had a hobby.  She
	defecated on the other animals.  All of the enclosures had lids on them.  She
	would sit on the lid and go over the animal and she never missed.  It got
	really frustrating.  Fortunatly, I had a friend who was a breeder who was
	really happy to buy a healthy male and female iguana.  I later found out that
	my two iguanas took over his colony of 6 other lizards.  They became the
	dominate ones of the group.  And they kept thier dominance by using force.  He
	said in his 10 years of breeding he has never seen anything like it.  Enough
	about the iguanas.  I did notice you had snapping turtles on the tamable list.
	That is kinda risky.  I have been able to tame one, but I had to start as a
	baby.  There was one I had that accepted me.  But he wouldn't accept anyone
	else.  I kept him in a baby pool in my back yard.  He would stay in the pool
	when I came out, but if anyone else came in the back yard he would run out of
	pool and chase and hiss at them. writes:
	I read your page on taming reptiles.  I have two baby water turtles,
	which are probably red eared sliders.  They both love to have their
	heads rubbed, their shells scratch, and their belly's rubbed.  They also
	love to chase my hand and snatch food from it.  However, they are very
	shy about others.  They always follow me--they swim to where I am.  The
	run when they see others.  They will not let anyone else rub their
	heads.  One draws all the way in her shell when another person handles
	them.  My mother has taken care of them several times when I have been
	away; but, they still are not comfortable around her.  Just wanted to