Savannah Monitors as pets: friend or foe?
The savannah monitor is a large lizard primarily from Africa. They have been a popular pet for the past decade among experienced reptile keepers. Although as babies they are only 4-5 inches long, they will grow rapidly into 3-5 ft monsters that need adequate space. But are these large lizards dangerous and not pet worthy, well lets talk about my former pet & friend, Bernard.
After keeping numerous reptiles from leopard geckos, skinks, water dragons & anoles, I wanted something with some size & presence. I researched savannah monitors & frequently handled babies at a pet store that I worked at part time and became confident that I could properly care for one. So many people buy the animal with no idea how to care for it but that is another subject entirely. I grew fond of the small few month old monitor that we had at the store. Since I handled him daily he was quite tame toward me and even appeared to like when I held him, I had to have him so I bought him.
I knew I was going to get him so already had his beginner home all set up and ready to go. He had a 10 gal aquarium with some reptile bedding on the floor, an under tank heating pad, a hiding place & some stones for climbing or laying on. A shallow water dish, stick on thermometer, sliding screen lid & a domed heat lamp completed his new home. Pet stores usually carry all of this in a kit for less than 50.00 so its not too bad. Savannah monitors need a daytime temp around 80 degrees with a drop at night to the low to mid 70's. I found that putting the light at one end would give him a "hot spot" and it kept the overall temp where I needed it. At night I would turn it off and between the heating pad and the house temp it would stay around 74 degrees.
Feeding him was no problem, he was more than ready to eat every chance that I gave him. While he was small I fed him mealworms, sm. crickets & canned monitor food, all available at pet stores. Monitors love to hunt and pursue so he didn't pay much attention to food that didn't move. As they grow, their food quantity & size needs to grow with them so it wasn't long before he outgrew his aquarium. Thinking one step a head I was already working on a permanent home for him. I had a good friend who was an architect design and build me a wooden cage with all of the trimmings. It was 8ft long, 4ft wide & 6 ft tall, more than enough room for most lizards. It had a sliding glass door on the front, a built in socket for a heat bulb and strip lights on the sides, it was awesome. I prepared it the same way with the bedding, water dish, hiding place etc and as he reached full size his hiding place was made of wood because nothing store bought would work. His food was now mostly full grown mice. I would feed him 3-4 weekly. Some people would say this was cruel but thats the only way he would eat, I tried frozen/thalled out ones and moved them myself to stimulate him but he wasn't fooled. One thing to mention with food is to coat them with a vitamin supplement especially when they are young. It comes in a powder and you just sprinkle it on the crickets or mice.
Besides making sure they have adequate living conditions and food, the next important thing to do when keeping larger reptiles, lizards or snakes is daily handling. This tells the animal that you are not going to harm or eat them. Monitors trust people if handled respectfully from babies. They will test you but you have to be persistent. I remember when Bernard would breath deeply and occasionally snap at me when he was a baby but this went away quickly when he trusted me and sensed that I wasn't afraid of him. Once they are larger they are harder to tame because they have already developed personalities and most are "touch me not" Bernard had never bitten me or caused me any harm.
Sadly Bernard developed intestinal cancer and died a few years later. He started out with constipation and getting frequent enemas at the vets before they discovered the cancer from a blood test. I felt terrible because reptiles never show they are in pain until its too late, so I don't know how long he had suffered. In happier times I would love to take him with me into pet stores or to pet walks etc and see the attention he would get. It was mixed with "what the heck is that" to "isn't he cute, like a big dog", he would just lay his head on my shoulder, look around and flick his forked tongue every now and then. he tolerated people touching him, stroking his back etc, I just told them to stay away from his head for safety reasons.
Of all of the reptile pets he was my favorite. He was easy to take care of, you could hold him as much as you wanted and he would even lay in a chair while my wife and I would watch TV. The only drawback was the live mice feedings, if not for that he would be the ultimate pet. He had it all, size, personality, and good looks(for a lizard- ha ha!!). He had transformed from a 4-5 inch long cute lizard into a striking 4.5 ft 12 lb "gentle giant". He is still missed to this day!!!
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