Reptile Thermostats Explained

•September 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

By Tony Jones
9th June 2009.

Carpet Python 1
Temperature control is one of the most important aspects of reptile husbandry.   Before the introduction of solid state electronic thermostats in the late 1980’s, innovative herpers were forced to adopt and adapt technologies from other fields in an attempt to control the micro-climate inside their vivariums.  Thankfully there are now several different types of reliable and effective thermostats to do the job to in a variety of applications.

The On/Off Stat.

These stats are the most basic budget option available to the herper and are the minimum standard I would hope to see in any vivarium set up.

Approximate Retail Price: £35

How they work:
These basic stats control temperature by switching the heat source on and off.  If the unit senses a temperature in the vivarium that is too cool it switches the heater on.  When the temperature reaches the upper level of tolerance it switches the heater off.
•    They are the best value thermostat available and so there is no excuse to have an uncontrolled heater in your vivarium.
•    They can be used with any type of heater.
Whilst having any type of thermostatic control by far preferable to having none, the ON/OFF nature of these stats raises several issues.
•    As heat sources are either fully on or completely off, this can create a noticeable fluctuation of temperature between the two phases,
•    When the heater is fully on it will be generating a great deal of heat which therefore increases the risk of burns, particularly if the heater is unprotected.
•    As most vivariums are heated using spotlight bulbs, the intermittent switching on and off of the light can prove stressful to both the vivarium inhabitant and to humans trying to watch TV or sleep in the same room.
•    The constant switching on and off will mean that bulbs will blow more often and need to be replaced.

The Dimming Thermostat.

A much more effective thermostat option is the dimmer stat and it is no surprise that these are the most popular stat by far, despite costing a little more.

Approximate Retail Price: £55

How they work:
Dimmer stats control temperature by supplying power to the heater incrementally.  The easiest way to explain it would be to assume the heater source to be a spotlight bulb.  If the temperature in the vivarium is too warm it supplies less power to the bulb and so the light will dim.  Conversely, if the temperature is too cool it will supply more power, therefore brightening the bulb to provide more heat.  They work in exactly the same fashion with other heaters too, such as heat mats and ceramics.
•    Dimmer stats are much more accurate than on/off stats. The constant feedback and adjustment keeps the temperature stable and effectively eliminates fluctuations, making them the preferred option for most herpers.
•    In addition to eliminating temperature fluctuations the dimmer stat negates every one of the other negative points of on/off stats too, i.e. less burn risk from ferocious heat sources, less blown bulbs to replace and less flashing lights stress.
•    Dimmer stats are exceptionally versatile and can be used in any application with any animal and with any heating equipment.
•    None to speak of, although in some applications there is a marginally cheaper stat that will do an equally effective job.  See below.

Box Out:

When setting up a vivarium with a dimmer stat and spotlight bulb it is important to use the correct wattage heater.   If the spotlight bulb is very bright or very dim it could indicate a problem.  A constantly bright light indicates that the bulb and stat are working too hard to keep the temperature at the desired level.  A higher wattage bulb will more easily achieve the temperature and will function at a safer ‘half dimmed’ level.  A constantly dim bulb indicates the wattage is too high and is kicking out so much heat that the stat needs to keep it very dim to hold the temperature in check.  It is far better to choose a wattage that operates in the centre of its range, not too bright, not too dim.  This allows the thermostat enough scope to increase or decrease the heat if necessary and means the vivarium is lit for viewing without increasing the risk of burns from ferociously hot bulbs.

Unexpected and unusual changes in brightness should always be investigated too as this could also indicate a fault such as an inadvertently nudged temperature dial or unit breakdown.

Pulse Thermotats.

Despite being less versatile than dimmers, pulse stats are often used in more advanced vivarium set ups because of their specialism.  Being exceptionally good at the job they do at a cheaper price than a dimmer makes them a hit with the more discerning herper.

Approximate Retail Price: £45

How they work:
Pulse stats regulate power to the heater by pulsing at differing intensities.  If the temperature is too low it pulses quicker at a higher intensity; when too cool it pulses slower and less intensely.
•    As with the dimmer stat the feedback and power supply are on a constant loop giving immediate temperature adjustments and minimum temperature fluctuations.
•    They are slightly cheaper than a dimmer stat.
•    Because of the pulsing nature by which they supply power, these stats can only be used with non-light emitting heat sources such as heat mats and ceramic heaters and cannot be used with spotlight bulbs.

So why are Pulse Stats so popular?
Most hobbyists will justifiably content themselves with coloured bulbs to minimise the effects of heater spotlights remaining on at night.  However, accurate photoperiod management (or the amount of light and dark your reptile sees) is another important aspect of reptile husbandry, particularly for breeders.  In advanced and breeding vivarium set ups, spotlights are often replaced with non-light emitting ceramic heaters which enable keepers to regulate the photoperiods more effectively, utilizing only natural light or fluorescent tubes for viewing. Pulse stats can control ceramic heaters perfectly well and so these are a good choice for this type of set up.

Optional Extras.
The three units outlined above are the most popular thermostats in use today but there are a handful of different varieties, variations and enhancements available too.  Some manufacturers offer thermostats that sit inside the vivarium rather than mounted on the outside.  Whilst this feature disposes of the need for separate temperature sensor cables it does also increase the risk of the temperature dial being turned by the inhabitant. (Although some brands solve this problem with dials that require adjustment using a screw-driver.)  Another downside is that these types of internally housed thermostats are less easily cleaned with water if the animal craps on it.
Another optional feature is an automatic night-time temperature drop option.  This can be activated with a timer unit, but some stats even incorporate a light sensitive ‘magic eye’ that triggers the drop when ambient light drops below a certain level.  The most advanced thermostats have the ability to manage temperatures in several vivariums at once, some using computer link ups to monitor and adjust each temperature separately.

Belt and Braces.
When thermostats fail the results can be disastrous.  Reptiles can tolerate relatively low temperatures for quite extended periods of time but temperatures even a few degrees above optimum can kill if the reptile is not able to escape.  Some thermostat manufacturers use components that (in most cases) ensure that should the unit fail it will default to the OFF position thus helping to avoid deadly overheating should the heater be stuck ON.
Another way to avoid this rare but devastating problem is to utilize a trip switch device which will kill all power to the heater should an upper temperature level be reached.  Fan units are also available to extract excess heat and kick in at a pre-set temperature level.  Both of these items of equipment can be ordered from your reptile supplier.


Retention Tool-kit.

•June 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment


Inviting lapsed or cancelled members back for another go – member retrieval – can bring in a few extra bucks.  But if that member receives the same old service they were getting before they quit, you are likely to get the same result.  If you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got.

The same goes for members too.  If they return to the club with the same approach they had before, then they are likely to trip over the same old problems that caused them to lapse in the first place.  If they have the same workload, the same childcare problems, the same level of motivation then there is likely to be only one outcome.

Although the member is ultimately responsible for their lifestyle change it is important that we make the transition as smooth as possible.  The first three months are tough times for new exercisers but we, “the experts”, should already be wise to the problems that they face. We should already be doing everything we can to make their life easier.

Your retention toolkit could include some of the simple tips outlined below.

1. As they leave the gym, ask the member when you will be seeing them next.

Most people do not plan their workouts in advance and consequently rely on spare time becoming available.  Trouble is, for most of us there is no such thing as spare time.  In order to simplify our lives we tend to fill our days with the same habits and routines we always have done.  There is often no room for exercise unless it has become a habit (Great!  But rare.) or unless we plan it in advance.  Prompting members to think about their next visit helps to reinforce their commitment to a session, and each session helps to create an exercise habit.

2. Let members write their own programme.

Members don’t need any more reasons not to attend, so eliminating exercises that they don’t like can eliminate barriers and detonate excuses.  The member is much more likely to find a programme agreeable if they wrote it themselves.  So long as the instructor ensures that the programme is effective then everyone is happy, and happy members are less likely to quit.

3. Promote the 10-Minute rule.

We all have days when we just don’t feel like doing a workout.  Some of us go home; some of us go to the gym anyway.  Usually, within a few minutes we are enjoying our workout and we’re glad we showed up.  Advertise the 10-Minute Workout rule to help those who feel their motivation slipping.  Turn up, do a 10-minute warm up and see how you feel.  If after 10 minutes you’re still not up for it then call it a day and head off home.  Most of the time they’ll get into the swing of things, do a full workout and feel rather pleased with themselves for doing so.  Less missed workouts helps build a stronger exercise habit.

4. Make sure they carry their membership card.

Our lifestyles are so complicated and involved that it is no wonder that members forget to plan their exercise and activity sessions.  Our old routines take over and before we know it we have another week of poor gym attendance.  This is no way to build a habit.  If only our members could be prompted in some way.  Maybe something they can keep in their wallet for them to see every day.  If you use Tesco, you may have noticed how many people carry their loyalty card on their keyring – thousands!  Multiply that nationwide and you have millions.  I can think of worse business role models than Tesco, can’t you?

5. Set SMART goals.

How can we deliver a good service if the member is unsure of what they want to achieve?  The bog standard goal that every member recites is “get fit, tone up, lose weight” but these terms are ambiguous and often mean different things to different members.  Make sure your instructors set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic,  and Time-framed. If a member can then measure their progress and see the results clearly then they are more likely to stick with it.

6. Use the One-Set-Max principle.

Although the jury is still out for seasoned exercisers, new exercisers can make great progress with just one set. Who cares if they could make little more progress if they did three?  We know that long arduous workouts lead to drop-out, so let’s avoid that.

7. Reward good attendance.

Stop spending money on incentives for new members and start rewarding the ones you have.  Run a league table of top attendees and reward the ones at the top.  T-shirts and water bottles should be for loyal members instead of bribes for Johnny-come-latelys.  Recognition and reward is a big part of building a habit.

Published: Fitpro Business.

Bog Standards – A Guide to Boat Toilets

•June 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment


Get any group of boaters together and it won’t be long until the conversation turns to toilets.  This is meant most literally as boaters discuss the myriad of toilet types available and their inherent maintenance issues.  Whether ordering a new boat or browsing for second hand vessels there are several choices to be made when considering a loo.

Pump-out or cassette?

Boat toilets are not like regular land toilets.  By their very nature boat toilets cannot be fed directly into the sewers and will need to store their contents for disposal at some later time.  This invariably means a second encounter with your bodily waste and so it is worth considering which toilet system you prefer. Your choice of toilet typically comes down to two options – Pump out or Cassette.   Cassette toilets have a small removable unit in the base where waste is collected and stored.  Pump-out toilets rely on a larger immovable storage (or “black water”) tank, often located beneath a bed or integrally in the bathroom.

Cassette Toilets

Cassette toilets are the most popular option for boaters and there are several reasons for this.  Firstly they are often the cheapest to install with basic models costing around £70.  These will usually be plastic construction with smaller volume cassettes and water reservoirs, and have lever or plunger pump flush systems.  Whilst units in this price range are entirely functional there are more luxurious models available with features such as electric flush and larger cassette options.  The purchase price is not the only saving to consider when you choose a cassette toilet.  Emptying the contents of your cassette into a sanitary disposal point is usually free whereas there is almost always a charge to pump out a black water tank.

Another important benefit of a cassette toilet lies in the ease with which they can be emptied.   A pump out toilet needs to be taken to a pump out facility in order that it may be emptied.  Sometimes this is not possible; for example if you have broken down or if the weather prevents you from moving your boat.  If your tank is full and you are nowhere near a pump out facility then you are in deep doo doo!  Thankfully, with a cassette toilet you can always take Mohammed to the mountain.  Removing the cassette for emptying at the nearest facility is much more convenient if your boat is immobile for any reason.  Many boaters also keep spare cassettes, just in case they are caught short.

On the downside, cassette toilets are sometimes considered a little uncivilised by the uninitiated.  The integral storage unit of cassette toilets means their appearance differs from conventional land loos, leaving guests puzzled and your pan full.   Emptying a cassette is an experience that many find objectionable too, and a full cassette is quite a weighty load to carry if the disposal point is any distance away.  Eroded seals in the unit can also cause problems, although all seals are relatively cheap and easy to replace.  Most cassettes have a ventilation pressure valve which can stick shut if the seal is worn.  This can cause a build up of gas pressure and a vapourous release when the toilet is next used and flushed.  Ageing seals in the cassette can also allow unpleasant leakage.

Pump out toilets.

Those desiring a more conventional looking toilet will often plump for a pump out system.  These look much more like the toilets you would find in a house and this is often reassuring for those new to boating.  Indeed, even some experienced boaters prefer pump out systems, not only for the aesthetic benefits, but because emptying them is much less of a “hands on” experience.  Emptying your black water storage tank means a visit to a pump out facility where there is almost always a charge.  (Usually around £10 – £20.)  Once paid, emptying involves simply affixing the hose to your storage tank outlet and switching on the machine; the contents are then simply sucked from the tank into either a large tanker unit or directly into the sewers.  Many boaters find this to be a much more agreeable process to endure than the emptying of cassettes.  Staff in private marinas will often perform the procedure for you whereas BW provides automated facilities (which are credited using a pre-payment smart card or token) and you perform the task yourself.

Pump out toilet installation costs vary depending on the type of tank and the type of toilet you choose, and there are many variations to choose from.  “Dump through” systems sit atop a black water holding tank which is usually made of steel.  Prices for toilet pans vary from £180 for the basics to £600 for the most regal model.  The pedal flushing systems of most brands are universal across the range and so paying more money for your toilet buys you a pretty pan rather than any increased reliability.

Vacuum and compressed air toilets are becoming increasingly popular as they seal off the waste from view once flushed.  This complete disassociation is an attractive benefit for those who prefer a “home from home” toilet experience.  As with all toilet system benefits there is a price to pay for convenience and these systems are expensive compared with the other available options.  A vacuum loo will cost between £1000 and £1400 for the vacuum generator and pan combined, whereas a compressed air system will knock you back £2000.

As some pump out toilets can be sited apart from their storage tank it is worth considering that the pipe-work has the potential to store up to four flushes worth of waste before it arrives at its destination.  Michael Punter, from Lee Sanitation, recommends a “rise and fall” method to routing waste plumbing.  “The waste hose should rise steeply as it leaves the pan before falling gradually into the top of your black water tank.  A vacuum or compressed air flush will easily push waste over the apex of the pipe. It can then travel downhill at its leisure into the waste tank, thus avoiding it being stored in the pipe-work for any period of time. It’s also a good idea to keep waste pipes away from hot water plumbing in order to avoid drying and blockages.”

Costs and convenience are not the only variables to consider when comparing pump outs with cassettes.  Pump outs are more prone to blocking than their cassette cousins and this can be a monumental problem.  All manner of items can disagree with your pump out toilet and visitors are often the unwitting culprits.  Disposable nappies, sanitary towels, tampons, condoms and moist toilet tissues are amongst the countless objet d’art removed from blocked pump out loos.  It is easier to say what you CAN put into a pump out than to list what you can’t, and the list is only two items long.  The first is anything that has passed through your digestive system, namely faeces and urine.  The second item is common or garden toilet tissue.  Boaters with delicate derrieres should be aware that luxury and quilted toilet tissue does not break down as readily as do the more “value” brands.  Vacuum toilets also have a reputation for being prone to blockages which are usually due to over-enthusiastic tissue usage or plumbing installation problems.

Blockages can also occur when the contents of your tank harden.  This can happen if your tank is left for a period of time or if you forego the use of decomposition fluids. This allows the contents of your tank to dry out, solidify and collect at the bottom.  Quality toilet tissues can exasperate the problem until the lumpy sediment collects and solidifies to such an extent that it cannot be sucked by the pump out machinery.  The tank outlet eventually becomes blocked and remedying the situation can be a truly unpleasant experience. Whilst blockages are rare and mostly avoidable, pump out owners invariably have a story to tell about their toilet tribulations.

There are several ways to address the blockage problem, none of which can be called a joy.  Those with a “dump through” facility can utilise a stick or a length of flexible cable with which to palpitate the blockage, the aim being to break it up to pieces small enough to pump out.  Another method by which to do this is to use a pressure washer, but be sure to take care to avoid any splash-back!  Caustic soda and sulphuric acid can be used as a last resort, but be sure to confer with an expert if you decide to go down this road, particularly if your tank is plastic or has no vent system.

Some pump out toilets have macerator units fitted which grind up any waste before it is stored with a view to negating blockage problems.  Whilst anything which helps avoid a blocked toilet must be applauded one must care to avoid blocking the macerator itself as foreign objects can cause the unit to seize.  Consider also that it is impossible to access black water tanks through a pan with a macerator unit.  Most experts consider a tank with a sealable inspection hatch to be a useful insurance in any pump out set up.

Finally, eroded seals can be a problem with pump out toilets too as water from the pan can leak through faulty seals into the storage tank.  This can quickly fill a black water tank if the flush water is pumped from the main water supply tank.  Again, replacement seals are cheap to buy and although replacing them on a pump out system is a little more work, it is entirely do-able by those with the nose and the inclination.


Storing any amount of bodily waste for any amount of time will generate some smell.  There are several ways of dealing with this problem with the most common remedy being chemical warfare.  There are several brands of chemical liquids available for use in both pump-out and cassette systems, most of which are blue in colour and/or name.  These formaldehyde based fluids can be mixed with the water used to flush or used as a solution added directly into the storage tank  but whether you actually like the resulting chemical smell is a matter of taste and tolerance levels.

Flushing dump through toilets can release the gasses that build up inside sealed black water tanks and the odour can be quite offensive.  This can be negated by fitting a breather hose from the top of your tank, venting directly outside your boat and most new boats are fitted with these as a matter of course.  Breather hoses allow methane to escape gradually from the tank and not build up in the first place. They should be at least equal the diameter of the inlet pipes as this allows equal displacement volumes of air and waste when flushing and pumping out.

Eco-Friendly Toilets

Boat life is often conducted in close synergy with nature and so it is not surprising that chemical free eco friendly toilet systems are becoming increasingly popular.  The simplest way to achieve this is by replacing formaldehyde solutions with the more environmentally friendly nitrate and oxygen based products which essentially speed up the natural de-composition process.     Brewers yeast tablets are also effective in the fight against smells but be aware that the residues left behind by conventional chemicals stop both yeast and nitrate fluid systems from working.  Boaters wishing to make the transition from formaldehyde to more eco friendly options usually purchase a replacement cassette, although a period of abstention from chemical usage and some vigorous rinsing may do the trick.     It is more difficult to rid black water tanks of formaldehyde as they tough to rinse and cleanse effectively.

Composting toilets are becoming more popular on boats too, with a variety of systems being available.  With some care they can be wonderfully effective in avoiding both smells disposal problems.  In a nutshell they work by allowing oxygen to do its job of drying and composting the waste and most utilise sawdust as a means of ensuring desiccation.  Obviously liquids (such as urine or less solid faeces) can cause problems for the drying process and if you don’t dispose of your wee separately then you’ll need to use much more sawdust to keep the compost dry and aerated.  Other systems include a heated or fan-dried composting compartment which helps to evaporate the urine more quickly.  In my view these systems miss the point entirely by using energy to power the units and doing a poor job of composting to boot.

In reality, most composting boaters don’t actually compost their waste on the boat, but transport it ashore to decompose there.  The toilet systems I have seen in use are simple bucket and chuck-it affairs, usually comprising of commode type throne which is emptied to a compost heap ashore.  But many people forget that by forgoing use of the mains sewerage system entirely, composters do not add to the environmental impact of sewerage farms. Along with the reduced chemical impact on the environment, composting toilet owners also save water (by not flushing) and seem to grow the most delicious strawberries.


Many thanks to Michael Punter from Lee Sanitation, Bob Mills from NB Elijah and Darren from NB Dunster for their advice and information.

Box Outs

Sea Toilets

Sea Toilets were popular on boats before it became illegal to dump sewerage directly into the waterways system.  These lever flushing toilets are still available but must now be pumped into a storage tank.  Although some older boats still have overboard pumping sea toilets fitted, the Boat Safety Scheme means that alternative toileting facilities must available.

Water Usage

Toilet Type Average Water per Flush
Dump Through 0.5 – 1.5 Litres
Macerator 2.5 Litres
Vacuum 0.5 – 1.5 Litres
Compressed Air 3 Litres
Lever op Sea Toilet 4 Litres

Top Toilet.

Top of the range vacuum cassette toilets closely resemble a conventional home toilet with a floor standing ceramic bowl, but can cost around £1100

Self pump out equipment

Self pump out kits do exactly what it says on the tin.  The kit is either operated manually using a lever or is powered electrically and pumps out the contents of a black water tank into the disposal points used by cassette owners.  This usually negates the cost of using traditional pump out facilities but is more a hands-on approach.  A few BW disposal facilities (usually septic tank based) are not free for self pump out users as the volumes being discharged are closely managed.

Toilet Tissue.

Recycled toilet tissue is becoming more robust as manufacturers are increasingly using bonding agents.  The guys at Lee Sanitation recommend a simple test to see how appropriate your brand of tissue is for boat loo use.

Put two sheets of toilet tissue into a pint glass of water and stir well.  If the tissue breaks up easily then it is boat approved.  If it stays in sheets then give it a miss!

Breather Hoses.

Most of us do not notice any smell from the breather hoses which vent outside our boats, but if you would like to spare the noses of delicate passers by then you may wish to fit an inline carbon filter.

Toilet Trouble 1. Bob – Leeds Liverpool Canal. West Yorks.

A friend of mine was carrying his full cassette to be emptied one summer afternoon when he slipped and fell on the towpath.  As the cassette hit the floor it burst open, covering him with the contents, which was unpleasant enough.  However, his sympathies lay with the guests on the restaurant boat moored directly next to the incident who were attempting to enjoy an al-fresco lunch.

Toilet Trouble 2. Ruben – Erewash Canal.  Derbyshire.

My parents enjoyed occasional days out on my boat in the summer but my mum was particularly wary of my dump through pump out loo.  They came to visit one weekend and on arrival my mum rushed to use the loo after the long journey from London.    I was a little worried when she called my dad for help and even more so when I found out why.  Somehow my mother had managed to drop her car keys into the pan and flush them into the poo tank.  I was left to retrieve them while they retired to a nearby pub for lunch.

Published Waterways World Magazine – June 2009

Tony’s Top 5 Reptile Care Tips.

•May 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

For the past twenty years reptiles have been the fastest growing sector of the UK pet industry.  Whilst retailers may be familiar with the care and husbandry of more traditional pets, you may be surprised to hear that caring for reptiles is not as tricky as you first thought.  Tony Jones gives us his Top 5 Reptile Care Tips to help keep your herps in tip top condition.

1.    Water Bowls.
Providing clean water is an obvious part of caring for any animal and this is especially true for reptiles.  Clean water should be offered daily and soiled bowls should be replaced and disinfected on sight.  Many reptile diseases and infections are commonly transferred through shared water bowls so always disinfect bowls before using them for with another animal.

A weekly disinfection routine is recommended and most large collections have enough bowls to cover a “one to wash, one for water” rotation process. Your reptile wholesaler will be able to recommend a selection of suitable disinfection products.  It is common to see lime-scale rings around the inside of bowls where the local water supply is hard.  Whilst this is not considered to be problematic in itself it can indicate that the in house disinfection protocol is less than regular.

Drowned crickets can be a problem in vivariums housing insectivorous species so be sure to provide some type of escape ladder in the water bowl.  Filter wool or floating lollipop sticks do the job wonderfully and some manufacturers even offer aesthetically pleasing options that can be stocked and sold to discerning customers.

2.    Overcrowding.
Most reptiles and particularly wild caught specimens carry parasitic load.  In the wild and in ideal captive conditions these parasites are kept under control by the animals immune system but overcrowding can create an imbalance.  Overcrowding will not only cause a parasitic concentration, but the inherent stress will damage the reptiles’ immune systems too.  Parasites can then overwhelm the host causing illness and probable mortality.

It is advisable to house as few animals in each vivarium as possible with one to each viv being the ideal.  If you do need to house several animals together then providing plenty of hides will enable animals to retreat from stressful encounters with their cage mates.  Provide shelters across the entire temperature gradient in the enclosure to ensure the animals do not need to make a choice between their security and temperature needs.

3.    Escapes.
Escapes can be a death sentence for reptiles.  The microclimate inside their vivarium will differ greatly from the environment outside and so great care must be taken to prevent escapes.  One of the first things I was ever taught about reptiles is that “If they can, then they probably will” and I have lost count of the number of reptile pets I have met that are named Houdini.

The most common means of escape is the fault of the keeper.  Failure to secure the door of the vivarium is by far the most common cause of escapes and is entirely avoidable.  Another similar problem occurs when either the inhabitant or an unwitting observer manages to accidentally open the enclosure unnoticed.  Again, this can be easily avoided by fitting some kind of latch or locking mechanism.

Unsuitable enclosures are another common means of escape.  Ventilation holes and mesh should be fine enough to deter even the smallest captive and should be regularly checked to ensure it is still securely fitted.  Escapes between badly fitted sliding glass doors are another popular modus operandi for escapees so be sure that you fit the correct thickness of glass into the correct width runner.  Even then it is not unknown for slender snakes to flatten themselves enough to creep between the sheets of glass.  Garter and ribbon snakes are notoriously good at breaching the perimeter in this way and many keepers fill the gap with plastic runners or foam beading.

4.    Overheating.
Temperature is the most obvious factor in the care of reptiles but many are surprised to learn that excess heat is far more dangerous than excess cold. Reptiles can withstand cold conditions for quite considerable periods of time but excess heat can kill in minutes.  Uncontrolled heat sources in confined spaces can quickly cause a problem and so it is recommended that every vivarium is thermostatically controlled.

Summer temperatures can also cause problems if vivariums are exposed to direct sunlight.  A thermostat can only control the heat source within the enclosure and cannot cool a vivarium that is overheated by the sun.   Providing shelters or burrowing opportunities can be a great help and these should always be provided but keepers should take care to position their vivariums away from direct sunlight.  It is not unknown for keepers to be caught unawares when the temperature rises by just a few degrees in the spring and so regular monitoring is highly advisable at this time of year.

5.    Gut loading
Invertebrate live foods such as crickets, locusts and mealworms must be gut loaded to ensure their nutritional quality.  The exoskeletons of these live foods are of little dietary value and so it important to ensure that the digestive system is packed with goodness.

Live foods are fed a high nutrient diet prior to being dispatched from the breeder, but after just a few days on your shelf the bugs will have excreted the contents of their digestive systems, leaving the empty exoskeleton shell.  Gut loading formula foods for all bugs is available from your wholesaler and it is vitally important to feed your bugs before you feed your reptiles.  Although your insectivorous reptile stock would likely be sold before any problems arose from poor nutrition, gut loading is nevertheless a point of good practice, if not only to promote the necessary products to your customers.

It is also advisable to remove or kill any uneaten live-food left in vivariums at the end of each day as these bugs will likely have digested and excreted their gut loaded quality.  If left overnight these bugs will feast on the only moist substance available to them, ensuring they become gut loaded with reptile faeces.


1030 Words.    Published Pet Product Marketing 2009

Small Mammals

•April 11, 2009 • 2 Comments
Rats make suprisingly good pets.

Rats make suprisingly good pets.

“Go ask your uncle Tony!” was all I heard from across the kitchen as the excited 6 year old came rushing towards me.
“Sam’s mum bought her a rabbit and I want one too.”  said Emily. “Can you get me a rabbit Uncle Tony?”
I thought for a minute, sure I had owned rabbits in the past, but these had been mostly frozen ones to feed to my pythons.  I’d never kept a rabbit as a pet and I wasn’t sure I was the best person to ask about how to keep them.  I find it strange that I seem to be asked every wildlife, pet and animal query my circle of friends can dream up.
“Leave it with me,” I said “I’ll see what I can do.”

To be honest, I didn’t know where to start.  I don’t know much about rabbits and the only pet ones I had seen lived outdoors and had a hutch and a garden to play in.  As Emily lived in a second floor apartment with no garden I wasn’t sure a rabbit would be her best choice.  But hey!  What do I know?  I’m a reptile breeder.  I decided that the best course of action would be to consult some people who DID know.  First stop: Simon at Simon’s Rodents

“I see!” said Simon when he heard of my quest.
“So what do you suggest?” I said in desperation.
“Where do I start?” he responded, and took a deep breath.
“Rabbits can be kept indoors believe it or not, but not every family is happy to do so.  There are plenty of other options, but it depends who’s doing the maintenance what they like.”

Over the next half an hour Simon regaled me with a list of animals, highlighting their pro’s and cons.  The usual suspects were there such as Guinea Pigs, Mice, Rats, Rabbits and Hamsters which were apparently easy to keep and low maintenance.
“This is usually the starting point for kids who want a pet but aren’t old enough for a dog or cat. Russian Hamsters used to be popular, but nowadays they are a bit in-bred and are a little more nippy than they were.  A better option is the newly domesticated Winter White Dwarf Hamster which make great pets.”

I made a note.

Being a bit of an exotics fan myself it wasn’t long until the interesting species joined in the conversation.  I’d seen Sugar Gliders on exotics price lists but never really known what they were.
“They’re an Australian Marsupial Squirrel” said Simon with authority.  “There’s a few people breeding them and they’re not difficult to keep, but perhaps a little too involved for kids.  They’re more of a specialist’s project really.”
“What else is there like that then?” I asked, getting a taste for the extravagant.
“Well Gambian Pouch rats are fun and great to observe, as are Black Ship Rats, but these don’t particularly like being handled, they’re more of a display animal if you get my drift.”

I couldn’t imagine Emily being happy with something she couldn’t play with and so I crossed these off my list too.  By now however I was becoming interested in getting something like this as a project for myself.
“Duprasiis are a fun little animal and could be right up your street” he said, reeling me in.
“Du – what?” I said, thoroughly out of my depth.
“Duprasiis!” he laughed.  “It’s sometimes called a Fat Tailed Gerbil. They don’t burrow like your common or garden Gerbil and they eat crickets.   You can tell from the name that hey store fat in their tails and they get most of their liquid requirements from live-foods such as crickets.  You use crickets for your lizards don’t you?”
“Y, yeah!” I replied, realizing that I’d almost committed to a purchase!
“But getting back to the kids pet” I body-swerved “What else is available?”

From then it became a bit of a blur with the conversation hopping from Pygmy mice, (which are apparently the size of a £1 coin) to Dwarf Mice, neither of which are good for cuddling and so were discounted.  Chinchillas and Chip-monks got a mention too and were similarly disqualified for being un-cuddle-worthy.
“These are more suited to adults who like interesting pets.” said Simon, clearly enjoying the conversation.

“We’re back to square one then.” I remarked
I was admittedly a little disappointed.  I was quite looking forward to introducing a Fruit Bat or a Skunk into Emily’s home, just to see the look on her mum’s face.  Unfortunately neither if these was realistically a good idea and so we were back to discussing Hamsters and Guinea Pigs.
“I’ve got an image to uphold though Simon!” I said disappointedly.  “I’m well known for sending her mum squealing into the kitchen when I turn up with some weird and wonderful animal.  It’s not a reputation I’m willing to sacrifice.  I need something that Emily can easily maintain and handle regularly but will upset her mum sufficiently to keep us both happy.”

“I think I have just the thing!” said Simon with a grin.

The next week I turned up at Emily’s house to deliver her new secret pet.  She knew it wasn’t a rabbit (you have to leave them to settle in for a couple of days before you can handle them apparently and Emily agreed that his was far too much to ask!) and so she was excited to see what kind of cool pet Uncle Tony would arrive back with.

“Before I bring your new pet in you have to make me a promise!” I said as I sat down at the table
Emily nodded excitedly.
“You have to promise me that you will look after this pet yourself and not expect your mum to do it for you”
Mum nodded approvingly
“You have to promise me that you will read everything you can find about them and call me if you have any problems at all.”
Emily and Mum nodded together.

As we walked out to the car to collect the equipment Mum turned to me and gave me a hug.  “Thanks Tony, I knew we could rely on you.”
I said nothing and stifled a smirk.
We spent some time setting up the cage and providing food and water and bedding etc.  The tension was mounting as everyone gathered around the small vented cardboard box that had been sitting on the table waiting for the moment of truth.
Slowly I pulled open the flap and let the creature climb slowly and tentatively onto my hand.
“What is it?” said Emily, squinting her eyes.
“It’s….it’s…IT’S A BLOOMIN RAT!!!!” squealed Mum as she ran into the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.
“Oh it’s lovely!” said Emily as the bronze and white rodent crawled into its cage.  “I love it!”
“We have to have words Mr. Jones!” came a shout from the kitchen.

My work here is done!

Published PBW News – 2007

Tattoo Prejudice.

•April 10, 2009 • 4 Comments

Latina - Tattoo Jam Aug 2009

“Prejudice is a great time saver.
You can form opinions without having to get the facts.”

E.B. White.  1899 – 1985.

Judging people based on their appearance is a useful sociological tool, so much so that most of the process is conducted subconsciously and automatically.  It can be an accurate character-assessment short cut as people’s appearance choices are often reflections of their internally held beliefs and motivation.  From hair style to clothing, the car you drive and the colour of your lipstick; your choices say a lot about you.  Errors do occur however, when the interpretation of cues is affected by social or historical factors that are no longer relevant.  (For instance, the traditional skinhead style of dress is rarely affiliated with racist beliefs in today’s scene.)  The rapid rise in tattoo popularity observed over the last two decades has diluted the historical stereotype beyond recognition and a new tattoo culture has emerged.  Unfortunately, many people’s viewpoints and opinions have failed to keep pace with the changes we have seen and prejudices are still commonplace.

“O Lord, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand.”
William Penn.
(Champion of liberty and peace. 1644 – 1718)

The astonishingly rapid rise in popularity has undoubtedly led to some progress and social acceptance.  Media coverage of tattooed celebrities and sports personalities has increased to the point where even tattoos and tattooers themselves are enjoying primetime television exposure.  It seems that tattoos have become part of fashionable mainstream culture whether we like it or not.  Whilst some of us may lament the daring and rebellious exclusivity we previously relished, perhaps we should be thankful too, as familiarity can help to break down the associated stigmas.

But despite a meteoric rise in popularity, many still view tattoos and tattooed people with disdain and ink fans frequently face prejudices that affect their work, social life and relationships.  The people I spoke with whilst researching this article exhibited a range of opinions spanning a wide spectrum.  I was interested to find out if the ones who expressed a prejudice could substantiate their position with reasoning or fact.  Whilst some respondents hinted towards the historical criminal and working class stereotypes, most could not offer any basis for their opinion.  When pressed, the common response would be that they had been influenced by their parents, peers or by society’s opinion as a whole.  Most also conceded that they realised their views were not wholly accurate, but admitted that they continued to hold them anyway.

Some Tattoo Statistics.

•    Life magazine: estimated in 1936 that 10 million Americans (approximately 6% of the population) had at least one tattoo.
•    Harris Poll: A survey conducted in 2003, nearly tripled those numbers and estimates that 16% of Americans now had one or more tattoos.
•    National Geographic News: stated in April 2000 that 15% of Americans were tattooed (Approximately 40 million people.)
•    Esquire Magazine: estimated in March 2002 that 1 in 8 Americans was tattooed.
•    Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: A 2006 a study done found that 24% of Americans between 18 and 50 are tattooed; that’s almost one in four. And the survey showed that about 36% of Americans age 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo.
•    Paw Research Centre: according to a 2006 survey, 36% of those ages 18 to 25, and 40% of those ages 26 to 40 have at least one tattoo.

Not only are tattoos becoming ever more popular but also they are transcending their traditional working class roots.  The osmosis of ink into the middle and upper classes is on the rise and every artist I spoke with said that their studio caters for people from all socio-economic and demographic groups. Indeed most considered this fact to be unremarkable and were puzzled that it could be thought noteworthy nowadays.  Theresa Gordon-Wade works out of Lifetime Tattoo in Derby. “It’s gotten to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if Barak Obama came in for some work!” she laughs.  “We get all kinds of folk in here from every kind of background.  If you’re trying to find a pattern or a pigeon hole then you’re wasting your time.”

Given the volume and variety of people with tattoos today, the old fashioned stereotypes that society clings to cannot possibly be accurate. My own research unearthed some quite disturbing viewpoints, where respondents used words like violent, criminal, stupid, dirty and unprofessional to describe those with tattoos.  These opinions may be prejudiced and inaccurate in most cases, but we are still affected by them nonetheless.

Unlike those who face racial or sexual prejudice, tattoo enthusiasts do have choices.  One way to avoid the prejudices tattooed people face would be to not get a tattoo in the first place.  For many though, this is simply not acceptable as the right to make choices of personal taste should be fervently protected, so long as they do not affect anyone else’s happiness or lifestyle.  That said, in choosing to have a tattoo we must understand the choices we make may invoke negative reactions.  It would be foolish to expect everyone we encounter to have an open mind and a sensible attitude, and so perhaps we should consider how we can pro-actively deal with prejudice, rather than simply bemoan the fact that it happens.

For those who already have tattoos the simplest way to avoid negative reactions is to keep them hidden from view.  This is of course dependent on many variables, from the size and location of the ink to the type of clothes you wear, but it has proven to be a successful strategy for many, particularly where parents and employers are concerned.  Many feel that it is preferable and considerate to spare parents the upset of finding out about their ink if they are not of a generation or culture to understand.  Others feel that it is better to bite the bullet.  One respondent recently decided to tell her mother about her collection of tattoos after almost ten years of hiding them.  “I was sick of the stress involved in being constantly on my guard.  I had to be careful which clothes I wore in the summer and I was always worried that she would catch a glimpse of them somehow. I thought that a couple of hour’s worth of stress when she found out was preferable to another 10 years of secrecy and hiding.”

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity.”
Dale Carnegie.  1888 – 1955.
(Author & Lecturer.)

Those worried about the reaction of employers often choose to hide their ink as a means of avoiding prejudices in the workplace.  It is difficult to balance the desire to be treated fairly with the risk of losing one’s income or job prospects and so concealment is often the path of least resistance, especially when the consequences are so severe.  Thirty nine percent of Americans believe employers have the right to deny employment based on appearance factors such as weight, body art and hair style¹.  Neither is it illegal in UK employment law to discriminate against body art and it is worth knowing where your company stands on the issue. The difficulty occurs when covering tattoos is either impossible or unacceptable for the wearer, as employers could react unfavourably, either overtly or covertly.  It is a difficult choice for employers to make if there is conflict between avoiding unfair prejudice and the need to promote customer satisfaction and a supposed professional image.  In most cases though, employers will be tolerant of all but the most “objectionable” tattoos if the performance of the employee is good. I would be preferable if employers were able to encourage a more considerate company culture based on performance, rather than one that perpetuates prejudice.

A recent survey found that:

•    36% believe tattoos and piercings should be forbidden in the workplace.
•    41% would not hire someone with visible tattoos and piercings.
•    43% of companies had a policy concerning visible tattoos and piercings.

Source: Proceedings of the Academy for Economics and Economic Education, Volume 10, Number 2
N.B. Women’s ears were excluded from these surveys and statistics.

The Everlasting Job Stopper

Working in formal or corporate settings can prove tiresome if owning body art becomes a criterion when evaluating performance and some prefer to negate the problem entirely.  Bold tattoos on hands, face and neck are becoming increasingly commonplace and although things are changing slowly, choosing to have tattoos in these places can dictate employment options.  The desire for the Everlasting Job Stopper tattoo should be weighed against the desire to work in a specific industry or environment and an understanding that job plans can change much more quickly than a culture of prejudice.

At the other end of the scale there are those who have no desire to work 9 – 5 in a restrictive and prejudicial culture and prefer to work where their appearance is not an issue.  Apart from the obviously attractive self-employment option, there are many industries where tattoos are not part of the recruitment or appraisal process and a great many tattoo fans choose earn a living in this way.  These industries often exist on the outskirts of modern popular culture and can be amazingly diverse and interesting places to work.  One employer I spoke with confessed to actively favouring body art and “general free thinking” when evaluating employees and applicants.  “Conventional and normal just makes me think boring and in my line of work, boring doesn’t sell.  Conventional people are just the same as everyone else and you can’t expect an exceptional performance from an ordinary person.”

A pro-active approach to prejudice.

Prejudice against a person based purely on the ownership of a tattoo is unjust.  If a person’s behaviour is unacceptable then any remonstration should be directed towards the individual, and not infer all tattoo owners.  Those who have been unfairly treated simply for being tattooed may justifiably feel angry or saddened, but the response to prejudice should be carefully considered.  Aggressive or confrontational reactions serve only to perpetuate the prejudice and will not usually bring the desired (long term) result.  Equaling the score will not fix the prejudice problem.  We should perhaps look to the opposite end of the spectrum and ignore completely the behaviour of those who are prejudiced.  Instead we could look to influence those who have yet to form a solid opinion.

Appearance choices do not define a person; they act merely as an indicator of preference.  Whilst appearance can often be a reliable reference, a person is truly defined by their behaviour; the things that they say and do.  (Even the things one professes to believe are merely “good intentions” if not borne out by one’s actions.)    Children who have yet to form a viewpoint and adults who currently sit on the fence are influenced by their experiences and the role models they encounter.   If you own a tattoo then you are an ambassador for western tattoo culture whether you like it or not.  Actions and behaviour will influence the opinions of those who have yet to form a prejudice.

“A minority group has “arrived” only when it has the right to produce some fools and scoundrels without the entire group paying for it.”
Carl T. Rowan 1925 – 2000.
(Civil Rights journalist.)

It is understandable that people are comforted by the things they find familiar and many aspire to the conventional lifestyles and opinions depicted in the media.  Conventionality is an easy way to garner approval and a sense of belonging and so is not surprising that those immersed in a strictly conventional lifestyle will sometimes feel threatened by anything from outside their comfort zone.  Confidence and comfort are environmentally specific traits and tattoos are not usually part of the environments in which strictly conventional people are comfortable.

This magazine documents the fabulous diversity of tattoo culture.  The tattoos displayed here are wonderful examples of how tastes, fashions, compulsions and motivations differ, even within the world of tattoo ownership. Most would agree that diversity is to be welcomed and applauded and the fact that tattoos are not yet a familiar part of traditional conventional western culture does not excuse prejudice.  Just because body art is not comfortably appreciated by convention does not mean that its exponents should be treated unfairly.

Not everyone will LIKE tattoos, just as not everyone LIKES mullet haircuts, polyester shell suits or Westlife; and vive le difference! But to attack someone’s personality for their choices of taste is unjust and unacceptable.  The amount of energy you expend in addressing prejudice is a matter for you to decide; ignore it, or hide from it, or fight it.  Whichever you see fit.  But I think we should understand that our behaviour is the factor on which we should ideally be judged.  It is up to us to ensure that we conduct our lives in a way that we can be proud of, whether we are fans of body art or not.

References & Sources:
¹ Scripts Howard News Service. Ohio University. 2005.
Pew Research Centre for People and the Press.
Proceedings of the Academy for Economics and Economic Education, Volume 10, Number 2.
Department of Communicative Disorders. University of Louisiana. Is perception reality? Employers’ perspectives on tattoos and body piercing.

Anecdote  (Box Out.)

Samantha was gorgeous; I mean really stunning.  Not in a typically plastic Hollyoaks type way, but she just had something about her.  I couldn’t tell you what it was to this day but I thought she was sexy as hell.  The way she walked, her laugh, the way she told a story, all of these things just added to her appeal and I was smitten.  And she liked me too I could tell, after all I’m quite a catch myself!  (If you like that kind of thing!?)  We got on like a house on fire and even her friend had mentioned that she’d never seen Samantha look so happy with a guy.  It was going great.

It was a typically English November with the weather alternating between four different types of wind and rain.  Samantha and I had been on a few dates already and each time it had been fabulous.  The first was to a kooky little café bar on the outskirts of town where we sat talking for hours until closing time.  As she said goodnight and climbed into the taxi I found myself smiling and content, eager to see her again as soon as possible.  I didn’t have to wait long; as I walked towards home my phone bleeped with a text message inviting me to dinner the next night.   The horizontal rain and freezing cold winds did nothing to dampen my spirit.  The next two dates were a continuation of the first and I found myself dizzy with the beautiful aching one feels after spending the evening with a girl you realise you are falling for.  It would take more than dark clouds and thundery skies to wipe the smile from my face.

Apparently Samantha had reserved the right to do that herself.

It had been an unusually bright and dry day when we next met for dinner in town.  We enjoyed a feast of fabulous Thai food and once again talked the night away until closing time, not noticing the weather outside had become ferociously stormy.  As we stood outside the restaurant taking as much shelter as was available in the doorway, we considered our options for getting home and soon resigned ourselves to a walk back to my house, some half a mile away.  In the bright and dry early evening light Samantha had looked stunning in her shawl and headscarf, but as the wind and rain swirled around us she looked decidedly unprepared for the walk.  She didn’t take much persuading to accept my mac and I concluded that chivalry was a fair exchange for a cold and wet trek home.

Once there I disappeared into the bathroom to find a towel and pulled off my wet shirt.
“Oh my god!” came the exclamation from Samantha.
I honestly thought she was impressed with my physique.  I swear, that was truly my first thought, but when I looked round I could see that she was far from impressed.  She had a look of pure disgust on her face and was backing away.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, concerned.  My mind was swimming as I grappled for some reason she may be so taken aback.
“Those tattoos!” she replied, still with the stunned and horrified look on her face.  “You’ve got tattoos!”
“Well, yes.” I said, a little puzzled.  “What’s the problem?”
“I didn’t know you were like that. You don’t seem the type.”
“And what type would that be?” I asked.  To be honest, I was a little annoyed.  After all, they’re just tattoos, and quite good ones at that.
“I don’t know, but I didn’t think you’d have tattoos.  I just never thought about it, you have them all over you!”

The next few minutes really sealed the end of our relationship.  I was courteous enough to pull on a t-shirt as Samantha explained how she hated tattoos and everything they stood for. How she saw them as branding for low lives and criminals and how she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to scar their body in such a way.  She said they looked cheap, tacky and how people who had them must hate themselves and their bodies for them to deface it in such a way.

It seemed that our conversations over the last few weeks had told her less about who I was as a person than she could deduce from my tattoos.  All the stories, the deep and meaningful conversation, the shared viewpoints; all of this was washed away and meaningless as she whitewashed her opinions of me based on the fact that I had tattoos.

I was a little sad as the taxi arrived to take her home.  Not sad that she was leaving, or that we’d probably not see each other again; just sad that there are still people in the world who judge a person based on how they look rather than how they behave.  I wasn’t sorry to call time on Samantha.
It seems we had each made some terrible errors of judgement when we decided we liked each other.

Published – Skin Deep Magazine.   April 2009

Madagascar, Mauritius and Round Island – Part 1. (Nosy Hara.)

•March 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment
Nosy Hara - off Madagascar.

Nosy Hara - off Madagascar.

Back when I was a kid I used to dream of hunting for reptiles in far off exotic places.  I would let my fantasy run wild each time I fell in love with a new species, imagining trips to their country of origin and discovering them in their native habitat.  I’d read books about Carl Kauffield chasing reptiles in Florida or listen to Mark O’shea lecturing about being bitten by snakes in Papua New Guinea and be green with envy.  I wished more than anything in the world that I could do that.  I desperately wanted those experiences for myself.

My love of reptiles has only grown over the years, and so have my fantasy herping trips.  My list of places I want to go has grown too, Brazil, Australia, India… the list is endless.  Then sometime in 2005 I decided to stop dreaming and start doing.  It was time to live the dream.  I could not have known at the time, but the actual journey would surpass even my wildest fantasy.

Jim Pether and I have been friends for approximately 20 years and I blame him entirely for my fantasy field trip fetish.  I remember sitting listening to his stories about far-flung places and the animals he has seen and knew that I wanted to go with him someday.  Over the years we had often talked about going somewhere together but could never agree on a venue.  Eventually we decided on the place at the very top of my list.


I have wanted to go to Madagascar for as long as I can remember.  I remember seeing my first Day Gecko and sacrificing a weeks wages for a pair.  Panther Chameleons were something I only saw in books and when I saw my first Sanzinia I was hooked. Dumerills Boas, Mantella, Leaf Tail Geckos.  It sounded like herp heaven! To go there with Jim Pether would be a dream come true and I couldn’t wait!  I started researching, finding out which species I could expect to see and making sure I could identify anything we might find.  Of course, I knew that the godfather of Madagascar field trips was Bill Love, the big Yankee herp tour leader.  His company, Blue Chameleon Ventures takes herpers out to Madagascar every year and the photo travelogues on his website are testament to Bill’s efficiency.  So as you can imagine, I was over the moon when Jim called to tell me that Bill would be joining us on our trip.  I couldn’t believe my luck!

I was already bragging to my herp friends about the trip and all of them were very pleased for me.  (Actually they were jealous as hell!)  Bill, Jim and I bounced emails back and forth, finalizing the details.
“How do you fancy visiting my friend in Mauritius?” said Jim in one email.  “He has a reptile park with hundreds of Aldabra tortoises and crocs.  It’s only a short flight to there from Madagascar”
“Why not?” I thought.  “May as well while we are in that neck of the woods!”
“Gee, you know how close Mauritius is to Round Island!” replied Bill.  “Sure would be cool to go there!”
“Forget it!” I said. “We have no hope! It’s a closed project!”

Round Island is well known to conservationists and to herpers in particular.  Gerald Durrell first highlighted its plight as a conservation issue during his visit in 1976.  Since then Durrell and Jersey Zoo have been active in restoring the island, starting with the eradication of the goats and rabbits and subsequent re-planting of native vegetation.  As a protected area, the Mauritian government restricts visitors to the island to scientists and conservationists, but that didn’t stop us dreaming.  We knew that Round Island was home to super rare reptiles, such as the world’s largest Day Gecko and the Telfair Skink.  The Keel Scaled Boa (Casarea dussumieri) is almost legendary amongst reptile conservationists as is its close relative (Bolyeria multocarinata) that has not been seen there since 1975 and is feared extinct. Both of these primitive snakes are special, as unlike the South American boas, they lay eggs.  An opportunity to see these snakes in the wild would be fantastic but there was little probability of us achieving it.  This was one fantasy too far!

Two weeks later I found an email from Bill in my in box.  “Hey guys, how do you fancy going to a small, uninhabited island off the north coast of Madagascar for a few days while we are there?  There’s a lizard I have heard of that may be un-described, it would be great to catch it, and if we don’t then hey!  It’s still a great side trip!”
“Too right” replied Jim “Count me in!”
This trip was getting out of control!

As the day of departure approached I was becoming more and more nervous.  Did I have all of the kit I would need?  Had I packed too much?  Did I know enough about the places we were going and the animals we might see?  It was daunting to think that these guys were seasoned herp hunters with big reputations!  By comparison, I was just the apprentice!  Having checked, double checked and triple checked my kit; I was dropped off at London Heathrow Airport to meet Jim.

We arrived in the capital Tana, tired and aching, Bill (who had already been in the country for six weeks) was there to meet us.  It was 11 pm and so after a quick beer and introductions it was time for bed.  We had another flight in the morning to take us to Diego Suarez, our destination in the north of the island.

Early next morning we boarded the plane for Diego Suarez, which was to include a brief stop in Nosy Be.  I mentioned to Bill that it was a shame we could not get off on this small island to look for the beautiful Nosy Be variety of Panther Chameleons.  “Don’t worry about it Tony!” said Bill nonchalantly, you’ll see Panthers that make these ones look ugly once we get to Ambanja.”  I thought about this for the rest of the flight, not sure if I could believe such a bold claim.  Nosy Be panthers are pretty stunning after all!

Not counting the taxi ride to the hotel, we had been on the ground for no more that 15 minutes before Jim found our first Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis).  The green and red male was of course the most fantastic specimen I had ever seen.  As it walked slowly up my arm I almost missed Bill walking towards me with a branch, perched on which was a male Ostalets Chameleon! (Furcifer oustaleti)  This was too much!  I snapped more than 50 digital pictures of these two animals, whilst Jim and Bill laughed at my excitement.   After a few more minutes of searching we reluctantly made our way to reception to be met by Zack who would be our guide and driver for the next few days and would accompany us to Nosy Hara.

The boat journey to Nosy Hara would take approximately 3 hours so we made sure we had enough beer for the journey and set off as soon as the tide allowed.  Soaked by the waves and half drunk on strong Malagasy beer, we moored on a beach in a small bay. Supplies were unloaded, tents were pitched and firewood collected before we settled down with yet another beer whilst Zack prepared dinner.  Our plans for a night hike after sundown were discussed over a meal of Zebu steak and rice, which for me, a vegetarian of some 20 years was something of an experience!

That night equipped with cameras, head-torch and snake bags we set off across the island, following a small, bubbling freshwater stream steep uphill towards the centre.  It wasn’t long before we were rewarded with our first herp, which we heard long before we saw.  On the edge of the stream on a small log was a Green Mantella Frog (Mantella viridis) which we had heard calling from some distance away.  After firing off a few shots it leapt away across the mulch and rocks and out of reach.  It was then that we noticed there were two more frogs within a few feet of where we stood, and that more than one individual made the calls.  Giant Day Geckos were so common that we were tempted, even then, to walk past without taking more pictures; but we had not yet reached Day Gecko saturation point and so temptation inevitably got the better of us as I used up more memory on my digital camera.

As we battled our way to the summit we were all exhausted and our rest breaks were becoming increasingly frequent.  After 2 hours of steep uphill, we came to our final stop. We switched off our head-torches and the conversation died as we were overwhelmed by the darkness and the sounds of the forest at night.  The peaceful beauty of the mountain forest left a lump in my throat and I could not have been more contented than I was right there and then.  With some reluctance we prepared for the hike home.  Trekking back to camp in near silence even searching for reptiles became secondary to soaking up the experience and appreciating exactly how lucky we were.

The next day, over breakfast, we planned our first day trek on the island.  Top of the list was the Girdled Lizard Zonosaurus sp which Bill had been keen to find.  Apparently Bill had been shown a photograph of one from Nosy Hara that was very different from those found on the mainland.  Instead of being the dull brown grey colour, the photograph showed a beautiful blue and red animal.  Unfortunately it turned out that the animal had been described as Zonosaurus tzingy only a couple of years ago, but Bill was still eager to add this animal to his tick list.

As we made our way across the island we joked at how looking for one specific animal seemed to ensure you found everything else but!  Although we found many dull females of the species, we found only one brightly coloured male.  Bill seemed very happy though and so the day’s work had all been worth the effort.

By the time I had acquired three days worth of sunburn on the island I was ready for a proper bed and a shower.  My only regret was that I had been accompanied on this beautifully romantic island paradise by two hairy arsed herpers, rather than my girlfriend.  Next stop, North Madagascar.

Published: Reptile Care Magazine