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Snakes, spiders and reptiles find safe haven at Woodland Park Zoo

Posted by Gigi Allianic, Communications

Sometimes animals need our support protecting their wild habitat and sometimes animals need our help finding a new home. Luckily, we were recently able to assist in two different cases where the expertise of zoo staff found a safe and appropriate new home for some very special creaturesand this story does have a happy ending.

A Gila monster is one of several venomous reptiles taken in by Woodland Park Zoo. Photo: John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo
A collection of reptiles owned by a woman who recently passed away in southern Wash. is now in the care of Woodland Park Zoo. The dozen exotic reptiles include several Gila (pronounced HEE-la) monsters, copperheads and vipers of various species.

Friends of the deceased woman asked the zoo if it could take the snakes and lizards. “As a community service, Woodland Park Zoo accepts all venomous reptiles, whether privately owned or confiscated by local agencies,” said Jennifer Pramuk, PhD., a curator at Woodland Park Zoo and an amphibian and reptile expert. “These people cared deeply for their friend who passed away and wanted to ensure that her animals went to a good home. We don’t want these animals to end up in the wrong hands or euthanized.”

The zoo plans to keep the Gila monsters and will work on placing the snakes in other zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and which have staff highly qualified to care for these species. Gila monsters are one of two known venomous lizards, the other being the Mexican beaded lizard; they are native to the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. Unlike snakes, Gila monsters and Mexican beaded lizards evolved their venom for defense, rather than for killing and digesting food. Although the Gila monster’s bite is normally not fatal to humans, it is extremely painful, and it is very important to see a doctor as soon as possible if bitten. Although Woodland Park Zoo stocks antivenom to provide accidental snakebite from all of the species of venomous reptiles in its collection, no antivenom exists for Gila monsters or for two African bush vipers that were part of the rescue. 

A young African bush viper is one of the venomous snakes taken in by Woodland Park Zoo. Photo: John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo
In a separate recent case, the zoo rescued 250 tarantula spiderlings that were confiscated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from an importer. Because Brazil does not export adult tarantulas, it’s assumed the baby salmon pink bird-eating tarantulas and white-banded tarantulas were bred from illegally wild-caught adults. These youngsters are small now, but the salmon pink bird-eating tarantulas can grow to have a leg-span of more than 10 inches at adulthood.

250 baby salmon pink bird-eating tarantulas from Brazil that were confiscated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are now in the care of Woodland Park Zoo. Photo: John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo

A young Brazilian white-banded tarantula 
Many animals, including reptiles and spiders, are threatened by the pet trade. Woodland Park Zoo works closely with wildlife agencies as a partner for consultation and providing a safe home on a case-by-case basis such as these two examples.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for people seeking homes for unwanted pets to reach out to Woodland Park Zoo; however, zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, like Woodland Park Zoo, concentrate mainly on helping endangered species. Woodland Park Zoo can’t begin to absorb unwanted pets in need of homes and refers pet owners to several organizations in the region including Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society, Northwest Exotic Bird Society and Pasado’s Safe Haven.

“People don’t realize that caring for wild animals is very challenging. Wild animals haven’t been molded for life with humans, as domesticated animals have been. Exotic animals can be aggressive or unpredictable, pose health and disease problems, and have special dietary and environmental needs that many owners are not prepared to address. We encourage potential pet owners to seriously consider the many specialized needs of animals before owning an exotic pet,” explained Pramuk. “For example, many turtle and parrot species have long life expectancies, living well into their 80s. People need to ask themselves if they can provide for the animals for their lifetime.”

At home
Are you considering adding a pet to your family over the holidays? Before you welcome a new addition into your home, it's important to be ready for the responsibility that comes along with pet ownership. And that includes understanding the needs of the species you're adopting. There are lots of resources available for owners of dogs, cats and other domestic animalsto help them provide everything their pet needs to live a safe and happy life. That ranges from finding proper veterinary care, which can be expensive, to providing a healthy diet that meets the needs of their pet. There are some animals, however, that don't make such good pets. Most people are probably not prepared to meet their specialized needs. Some of them can live for 30, 40 years or more and some can be dangerous or even illegal to own. Please make sure you do your research before committing to any new petand let's all promise not to buy or sell illegally traded animals. Remember, if you don't know where an animal is coming from, or if you aren't comfortable with the seller, it's best to walk away. Feel free to ask lots of questions to help understand where the animals are coming from. The store or seller should know whether or not an animal was born in the wild or in captivity, and if it's not clear, then you shouldn't be part of it.