Americans are leaning toward reptiles and amphibians as pets. I don't know just how far they have leaned because it seems to be a trend that statisticians have overlooked. But the number of U.S. homes harboring turtles, alligators, toads, lizards, newts, salamanders and even poisonous snakes is definitely on the increase.
Baby turtles are sold all over the place. Dime stores handle thousands of them. In its latest compilation the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 247,400 baby turtles were shipped to the pet market in one season. That is a heap of turtles, especially when placed against a recent estimate of the American Kennel Club that there are 22 millions dogs in the U.S.
So many baby alligators were being shipped out of Florida that the state, fearing complete loss of this interesting reptile, passed a law prohibiting their collection and sale. But where there is a demand there is a way. Now baby caymans, sharper-nosed cousins of the alligator, are being shipped up from South America. Louisiana passed a similar law protecting their little anolis, those green lizards which are sold as chameleons.
In the last 10 years the Bronx Zoo, in New York, has received 550 baby alligators as gifts from persons who tired of their reptilian pets. Others have shown up in northern streams where no alligator ever lived naturally. Sometimes, of course, these represent efforts to get rid of gifts sent by puckish friends. One rare Orinoco crocodile that had been somebody's pet showed up at the zoo. They also have received turtles beyond counting, many with their shells painted. This is bad because the paint retards growth and warps the turtle's shell.
Turtles and alligators, although numerous, are still only a part of the reptiles and amphibians which have been received into American homes. Take some recent incidents as cases in point. A young man wanted a zoo to keep his two pet rattlesnakes while he went to college. A draftee gave the bullfrog he had kept for five years to the Bronx Zoo because he couldn't take it into the Army. A man in New Jersey has 30 turtles breeding in his back yard.
Arizona had to protect its famous Gila monster because too many people were carrying them away. Now there is a $25 fine for hoisting a Gila monster; this despite the fact that the Gila is poisonous. It and its close relative, the Mexican beaded lizard, are the only two poisonous lizards in the world. But to reptile fanciers that seems to make them all the more alluring.
Dr. James A. Oliver, curator of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo, has noted the increase in reptile and amphibian pets with great interest. He describes snakes, lizards, toads and the like as "curio-ornamental" pets as opposed to "cuddly-companion" pets such as pups and kittens. If a man is harboring a six-foot python in his apartment it sets him apart from the usual run of dog lovers and canary keepers. Also it is more impressive to say on leaving a cocktail party early, "I have to pick up some meal worms for my Australian stump-tailed lizard," than to announce, "I have to stop off and get some cat meat."
Dr. Oliver says these "curio-ornamental" pets respond but little to human attention. They just prefer to be aloof and odd.
"They do learn to recognize the people feeding them," he told me, "and some do learn to respond to a given call or signal."
But that is about all you can expect. Some owners, however, claim far greater responses, most of which Dr. Oliver looks upon with the cold eye of scientific skepticism. One woman claimed her turtled talked or at least made loud noises which sounded as if it were trying to talk. She even offered to let Dr. Oliver talk to it over the phone. The scientist refused to indulge in any idle gab with a turtle on the telephone and told the woman to bring it in for a conference. She never did.