If you love reptiles, it doesn’t take much to start daydreaming about reptile rescue: a few minutes browsing the local classifieds, a quick trip inside a big chain pet store, an inspirational story from Instagram. A suffering little reptile face gets stuck in your brain, and then boom — you’re idly making plans to nurse this one back to health and you’re determined that you have found your life purpose as a reptile Mother Theresa.
Whoa there, friend. Daydream and make plans all you like, but do you know what it actually takes to be a reptile rescuer? Whether it’s one or one hundred, rescuing a reptile is not easy.
Sarah Southerland from Sarah’s Bearded Dragon Rescue does. She has rescued more than 250 reptiles over the past 5 years, working with many different species of snake, lizard, turtle, and tortoise. Interestingly, Sarah is a Mormon, and she attributes her faith as one of the reasons why she rescues. And although she is an incredibly busy superwoman, I finally managed to score an interview with her for this collaborative article!
Reptile rescuers are busy people
Do you like getting a full night’s sleep? Who doesn’t, right? But say goodbye to sleep if you’re a reptile rescuer. It won’t happen every night, but be prepared for an emergency iguana pick-up from a meth house in the middle of the night, 2 hours away from where you live.
On normal days, running a reptile rescue still takes a lot of your time and attention. And the more animals you have to care for, the longer it takes. Sarah’s daily schedule goes something like this:
- 7:30am — Lights on at 7:30 am
- 10 am — Feeding
- Afternoon — Second feeding if necessary
- Constant poop checks and quick clean ups
- 7pm — Lights out
Most reptile owners complain of boredom during brumation. When you’re a reptile rescuer, brumation means vacation!
But you’re not actually on vacation. Most reptile rescuers have a day job to pay the bills, because heaven knows that reptile rescue isn’t profitable. Sarah’s an author, substitute teacher, mother, social media manager, and on top of all that makes time to answer a constant influx of emails from people around the country.
What is the reptile rescue process like from start to finish?
Every rescuer’s process differs slightly, but here’s how an average rescue goes for Sarah:
- See an online ad or get a referral from friend who saw a reptile in a bad situation.
- Try to get animal surrendered rather than paying for the animal if it’s avoidable. After all, that money is needed for vet bills and feeding other rescues!
- If the owner refuses to surrender, she might pay to get it out of an especially bad situation.
- Pick up the reptile to bring it to the rescue — sometimes this involves hours of driving.
- Intake: Do an initial health check (triage), decide what is immediately needed to make sure they survive. Sometimes it’s a saline injection, other times it’s Pedialyte in a syringe, and other times it’s just a good bath and cleaning.
- In between: Lots of poop and cleaning dirty reptile tanks!
- Once the animal is healthy, they get adopted out.
Let’s make something clear: Reptile rescue is NOT reptile hoarding, and reptile hoarding is not reptile rescue!
Reptile hoarders: These are the kind of people that reptile rescuers take animals from! A hoarder accumulates animals for their own pleasure, without consideration for the animals’ health, often keeping them in small, inadequate conditions. Hoarders produce some horrifying neglect cases.
Reptile rescues: A legitimate reptile rescue may have a lot of animals, but each animal gets quality food, regular veterinary care, appropriate habitat, and clean conditions. Probably better care than you give yourself.
In order to be a reptile rescuer, you have to get into it for the right reason: reptile welfare. Often hoarders pose as “rescues” to get reptiles for free. If you can’t answer these questions, you don’t want to be a reptile rescuer — you want to be a reptile hoarder.
- Who is your vet?
- When was the last time you actually went to the vet?
- How much do you spend at the vet?
- Are you willing to let the reptiles go once they are healthy?
You have to set limits to make sure you don’t get in over your head
It’s hard not to take in every case you see, which will get overwhelming fast. Setting limits for yourself is as much a protective measure for the rescuer as they are for the reptiles. Once you have set those limits, be prepared to stick to them. This requires excellent self-control, and can take a while to develop.
After several poor experiences with taking on iguana rescues, one of Sarah’s rules is not to accept iguana rescue cases. She also rejects aquatic turtle cases for similar reasons. This doesn’t mean that she will let an animal suffer — she simply knows her limits and outsources these cases to people who are better able to handle them. This kind of self-control is critical to a rescuer’s mental health.
The good news is that you have motivation not to keep the animals that your rescue. After all, every animal you have in your care means a space that isn’t available to one in need.
You’re going to lose your faith in humanity
Once you establish yourself as a reptile rescue, people will see you as a “get out of jail free” card. They’ll shove their reptiles on you because they don’t want it, it’s not eating, it’s mean, their kids are tired of it, they are moving, they can’t afford to feed it, etc. (See 17 Cringe-Worthy Excuses People Make When Selling Their Reptiles)
Reptile rescue is EXPENSIVE
Have you ever taken your reptile to the vet? If not, that’s probably one of the reasons why you fantasize about reptile rescue. Quality veterinary care gets costly fast. Between vet bills, food, utilities, and other related expenses, Sarah pays between $500-$1000/month. Over the past 5 years, she has spent well over $20,000 at the vet’s office alone.
That’s probably enough to pay off your car. Are you willing to make the sacrifice? If you are, and if you have a way to stay on top of and pay off those bills regularly, your credit score should be great! ?
Reptile rescue is a constant roller coaster of ups and downs
Sometimes the reptiles are just too sick to save. The owner waited too long to get help, so all you can do is hold them, love them, and keep them as comfortable as possible until they die. In many cases this requires euthanasia.
Sometimes reptiles who are fighting to survive die once they realize they don’t have to fight anymore. They die safe, warm, and loved, but it’s still heartbreaking.
You’re going to want to quit. Once things get going, it’ll hit you monthly, if not more. You’ll get tired of things dying. You’ll get tired of stupid owners. You’ll get tired of pet stores with terrible corporate policies. You just get tired and worn out. It’s okay to have a cry when you need it. This is the point when you need to take a break and focus on what you have before taking in anything else (again — self control).
And then there’s a desperate cry for help for a reptile you know you can save and you spring back into action because you love the challenge of rehabilitating sick animals. And you see half-dead, unlikely-to-live rescues become healthy and happy reptiles that get adopted out.
For example, look at this Before and After from one of Sarah’s most dramatic and miraculous rescue stories: Noel. The picture on the left was taken on December 23, 2016, and the one on the right is from June 24, 2017. He lives in Maine now and is a spoiled brat. ?
So…do you still want to be a reptile rescuer?
Sarah’s advice: “Start small and build. My rescue is a 5 year process that’s still growing. You can’t start a rescue at the same level I am at now. You have to build in to it. Start small and keep growing & developing. Keep learning. Even I don’t know everything.”
“Maybe I don’t want to be become a reptile rescuer after all. Is there anything I can still do?”
You can support your local (legitimate) reptile rescues by donating money or adopting from them. If you would like to support Sarah’s Bearded Dragon Rescue, you can donate via Paypal or buy one of her cute reptile costumes from her Etsy shop, Pampered Beardies.
Most importantly, you can support reptile rescues by taking care of your own animals. In Sarah’s words: “Do your research BEFORE you buy any animal, but especially with reptiles. And Adopt, Don’t Shop. It is not the pet store’s responsibility to tell you everything you need to know to keep a pet healthy. Their job is to sell you things and that ends when you walk out that door. There are plenty of websites that will teach you the correct ways to take care of your pets — do your research!”
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