On my schedule today was a pancake tortoise that was coming in because it wasn’t eating. I got all of my examination equipment ready and went into the exam room to get started. A young man was sitting in a chair with a shoebox on his lap. We chatted for a bit and then I started asking him questions about his tortoise.
I found out he had purchased the tortoise from a reptile show 8 years ago and that it lived in a ten gallon aquarium with gravel for substrate. It’s diet consisted of lettuce and carrots. Only. The only water provided was from a spray bottle that was used to mist the cage every other day. There was no heat, UV light, cage decor, hide, nothing. I wrote everything down and asked him for the box.
I opened the box and looked inside and nearly lost my composure. Inside was a stunted, gnarled creature about 4 inches long with a grossly abnormal shell. I took him out and put him on the table and pulled himself across the table bits and pieces of his carapace fell off. I don’t mean the scutes, I mean the actual pieces of bone that make up the shell. You could see his organs through gaps in his ribs.
“I will be right back” I said and grabbed the tortoise and went into the treatment room. I was so angry that my hands were shaking. Calculating some dosages I handed them to my tech and asked her to draw up pain medication and a sedative. “Did he approve this?” she asked.
“No. I don’t care. Please draw it up and give this IM.”
Slowly I walked back into the room. I asked the owner how long the tortoise had been like that. He wasn’t sure. He had just stopped eating a day ago. Up until then it was perfectly healthy.
“Your tortoise has been very poorly taken care of. If he were a dog this would be considered animal abuse. Because he is a reptile I am not very likely to get far with the authorities so I’m gonna make you a deal. You sign him over to me and pay for the examination and you can go.”
He thought about it and told me no, it was his tortoise. I asked why he didn’t take care of it. “I thought I was” was his response.
“Why doesn’t he have any source of heat?”
“I didn’t know they needed it.”
“Why didn’t you give him UV light?”
“I didn’t know they needed it.”
“You are telling me that you never opened a book, magazine, internet care sheet, nothing to find out how to care for a tortoise?”
“Yeah. I just thought I knew.”
We talked some more and I finally convinced him to sign the tortoise over. I went back to check on him and he looked even worse. More of his shell had fallen off. I could see his lungs now. I decided it would be for the best to humanely euthanize him so he wouldn’t suffer anymore.
In this day and age “I didn’t know” is not a valid excuse. You can look up anything on your phone from who invented pizza to where the closest movie theater is. There are literally hundreds of books, websites, and internet forums all about reptile care. You can call any veterinarian before purchasing an animal and ask them about their care and I promise you they will talk to you.
I am no longer going to gently nudge people in the right direction husbandry wise. I will no longer tell them “well, lots of people make that mistake, it’s ok”. I am going to call it like it is and if an animal is suffering they will know it is abuse. There is zero excuse for this.
It is sad that reptiles and other exotics don’t have the “cute” factor other animals do. No one would allow an owner to get away with feeding their dog nothing but potato peelings because they just “didn’t know” and yet it is perfectly fine to own a reptile and watch it slowly starve to death because someone “didn’t know” it needed to eat insects.
Iguanas that live in cages so small they can’t turn around. Tortoises kept without the proper heat gradient. Monitor lizards over fed until they are morbidly obese and can’t even walk. This is all abuse and it is wrong. Unfortunately reptiles are survivors and they can be dying for YEARS before anything is noticed. Owners confuse being alive with being healthy far too often.
I simply cannot stand by and watch this happen anymore. I allowed myself to be drawn into the “well, exotics are different, people just don’t know” mind set and did lots of hand holding while owners declined or refused my recommendations. From now on I promise I will flat out tell people it is animal cruelty and will have to make a phone call if things don’t change. It will not make me a popular vet nor a rich one but at least I will be able to sleep at night.
My challenge to everyone is that if they notice an animal being abused politely but firmly call the owner out. There is no need to internet shame, threaten violence or bully someone. Simply tell them what they are doing is wrong, their animal is suffering and they need to fix it. There are numerous reliable resources to find the proper information. If they won’t fix it the proper authorities need to be contacted.