Central Alberta Life - Monday, January 24, 2000 - by Carl Hahn
OLDS - Anyone who has seen movies like Anaconda
might think humans need protection from snakes,
but Dean Harper sees it the other way around. The Olds man who operates Wrappin About Reptiles
has seen his share of abuse by unknowledgeable
reptiles owners. That's why he operates a
reptile rescue program.
While reptiles are trendy pets that some
people think make great Christmas gifts,
new owners often end up with more than they
bargained for. Not knowing how to care for
them or what these cuddly little critters
grow into, in a few months or years both
the pet and owner are suffering.
Harper, along with business partner James
Barbas and fiance/partner Maureen Burke,
own about 250 reptiles, and "a good
majority" of them are the results of
rescues. And those don't include the ones
Harper has adopted out to other people. He estimates he rescued 100 red-eared sliding
turtles last year, along with 73 iguanas
that were in such bad shape he had to put
The popular lizards are notorious as awful
pets. "People buy those cute little
iguanas in the pet store, and all of a sudden
it gets to be two-and-a-half, three feet.
It's knocking the curtains down, or it gets
mad one day and snaps that tail. If they
hit you hard enough they can open you up
like a knife."
One of Harper's favorite examples of a mistreated
reptile is Buddy the boa constrictor. The
victim of a poor pet store and clueless owners,
he has been damaged for life. Nine-year-old
Buddy is only a little over a meter long,
and should be closer to three. His internal
organs are underdeveloped, which could shorten
A family bought Buddy on impulse from a pet
store, as Harper was told, and weren't even
told how to feed him. They gave him vegetables,
since that's what their neighbour's iguana
ate. "Now we all know when food starts
to dry up it gets smaller, looks like there's
less there, so they assumed the snake was
eating it." They gave Buddy fresh water, but without
the rodents he needed, he was slowly starving
to death. This went on for about a year.
"Reptiles are very resillient animals.
They can go extremely long periods of time
without food, as long as they are getting
water. It's not healthy for them, but they
can do it."
When the family finally learned they should
feed him mice, they bought frozen ones which
Buddy didn't recognize as food. They tried
to warm a mouse in the microwave, but when
it exploded they decided to switch to live
mice. Buddy ate the first live mouse his owners
gave him, but they were so repulsed they
would only feed the malnourished snake every
six to eight weeks. Six years later Buddy
ended up in Harper's hands, where he is doing
The four tortoises he has on hand also show
the signs of misinformed owners. Fed a high-protein
diet their shells have started to "pyramid,"
with each section of shell growing into a
mound making the shell lumpy.
Harper says pet stores are getting better about teaching their customers, but when he goes into schools or malls he likes to tell people why reptiles don't make good pets.
Some critters like corn snakes or leopard
geckos are OK for beginners, but he would
recommend most of his pets only to an experienced
In fact, many members of his managerie are
restricted in Alberta, meaning they can't
be sold, and he needs a special government
permit just to own them. Some are simply
too dangerous. His four-meter Burmese python
- which will probably grow another meter
or two - is to much for most people to handle. "It takes two of us to handle him safely."
He has a young reticulated python, an animal
many reptile owners won't touch because of
it's bad reputation. "These snakes are
the longest in the world. Anacondas are the
heaviest, but not the longest," he explains.
"She has the ability of hitting 30 feet
His alligator snapping turtle would also
be an inappropriate pet. As small as it is,
it has the power to bite a persons finger
Some of Harper's critters shouldn't be owned
by anybody, as they are extremely rare. He
rescued a Mojave dessert tortoise and keeps
it only by permission of the Arizona government.
"They're extremely endangered. Don't
know how she got into Canada.....But because
I have her, my name is on a list now. If
they (the Arizona government) come across
a male that happens to be in Canada we'll
breed them." Any fertile eggs they would
be shipped back to Arizona to help boost
the Mojave dessert tortoise population.
When it comes to buying a first reptile, Harper would rather see a youngster catch a frog first and keep it a couple months as a test.
To a knowledgeable owner a reptile can be a wonderful pet, thought, and seeing the sunlight glint off a boa constrictor in iridescent hues, it's easy to understand Harper's fascination. "They're extremely beautiful animals," he says. "To me, this snake is just as beautiful as someone who looks at their cat, their fish in the aquarium, and thinks it's beautiful.