Tis the season for fairs in New England, as well as many other parts of the country.
Time for popcorn, cotton candy, fast amusement park rides, and horse-pulling contests.
Time for hay-rides, burning leaves, and carnival attractions. It is NOT the time
or the place to buy a reptile, though. A recent caller from Vermont alerted me to
the fact that this year's carnivals are going back to an age-old "tradition" that
has long been outlawed…..the lizard vendors.
One of the most common attractions at many fairs used to be the booths that sell
iguanas, anoles ("chameleons" as they call them), and other small lizards. These
have been popular pets since the late 1950's, and have been even more popular in
the past few years with movies such as Jurassic Park and Godzilla spurring on their
popularity. Vendors found they could buy them cheap, and then offer them for sale
to fair-goers. In the past, they were often used as door or contests prizes in some
of the carnival amusement areas. It seems that this year they are back, and only
have more of them.
Unfortunately, most of the animals are ill-fated. Many people will come out of a
fair with a new animal, not understanding the complete requirements and responsibilities
of owning an exotic pet. Often the carnival workers reassure the buyers or prizewinners
that "all you need is a 10 gallon aquarium and a hot rock". No mention of appropriate
UVB lighting, no mention that the iguana may get 6-8 feet. No mention of the proper
diet, temperature, humidity, or other requirements. Most of these animals perish
within a short time from inadequate care. The ones who live often die slowly over
a period of months or years, suffering from a poor diet, small or improper caging,
and inadequate temperatures.
The fact is that in most states, the sale or giving away of live animals at carnivals
is prohibited. Most states require that any business that sells live animals must
have a permit to do. Fairs and carnivals do not bother obtaining such permits. Moreover,
they do not bother finding out and distributing the correct care of the animals involved.
But, few people realize this, and willingly walk away with an animal that rightfully
should live 15 years or more, but probably won't live 15 months. Many a parent has
been horrified at what little Johnny or Suzy picked up at the fair…A reptile is NOT
a toy, or a souvenir, and has no place in a carnival vendor's booth. In fact, the
giant snakes that are often an attraction are kept in horrible conditions themselves,
but that is another story.
Another problem with having these animals at the fair is the salmonella issue. I
was appalled when the lady in Vermont explained to me, "Oh, the vendor said that
THESE iguanas can't carry salmonella, they are perfectly safe. Not only that, but
these are dwarf iguanas that won't get over 2 feet long." I nearly passed out. The
thought of hundreds of people running around a fair with a lizard while that they
are eating popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs, and the myriad other treats found at
a fair was truly frightening. (I could just picture little Johnny or Suzy playing
excitedly with their new purchase, and going to get an ice cream or a cotton candy
to celebrate. There are no washrooms, of course, but the children rarely think of
that, anyway… The little hands go from the lizard (that has been sitting in its own
feces for days) straight into the bag of goodies…..) The odds of getting a salmonella
outbreak in those communities are enormous with irresponsibility like that. ALL reptiles
CAN carry salmonella, and many DO without ever showing a symptom. Eradicating the
salmonella from the reptile has no effect, and the bacterium shows up again in a
matter of months. It appears that some reptiles actually need it in their systems,
but we are not sure yet what for. Moreover, there are no "dwarf" iguanas.
Folks, please be aware that this activity is not lawful in most areas, nor is it
an ethical thing. If someone wants a pet, they need to research it extensively prior
to getting it. They need to know what its needs are, and make sure they can meet
them, and THEN they can go find an animal. I have yet to see someone do this kind
of research, then decide to pick it up while eating their hot dogs and fried dough
at the fair. Be responsible: let your children know that under NO circumstances should
they bring home a live animal from a fair or amusement park. Encourage the toy lizards
and snakes, and if they are really interested, promise to research them later and
decide if it's a good idea. And, if you see such a carnival vendor, do the responsible
thing and notify the local authorities and complain.
The carnival that was involved in the Vermont episode had literally several hundred
tiny baby iguanas for sale for $5 each… they sold out. My soul cried all night weeping
for those little ones that I could not save, as well as the many people who will
now have a bad experience with their first reptile and be turned off forever. Perhaps
I can help this way. Please do your part.
Bonnie Keller is the Founder of the VA Reptile Rescue, Inc., as well as the Founder/Past
-President of the NH Herptile Society. She can be reached by e-mail at: info at vareptilerescue
dot org (Take out the spaces and " marks, replace the "at" with an @ sign, and the
word "dot with a period.)