Opening the door to unusual pets
Without girlish pretense or hesitation, Dorothy Mandau plucks a frog from the murky water. The 12-year-old handles the creature with great interest and affection, as she handles most of the herpetological creatures she has grown up with since her father, Gary, started rescuing them. It’s very much a case of “like father, like daughter.”
“I grew up interested in amphibians and reptiles. It has always been a thing,” Gary says. “I was 10 years old crawling around the swamp studying turtles and all kinds of little creatures.”
Dorothy observes personality traits in the turtles. “They are really extroverted,” she says. “They are cute and fun.”
Gary does not sell any of his animals that he rescues, but he will rehome them to responsible owners.
“Everything I have is a rescue,” he explains. “Most are medical rescues.” In fact, the staff at Cornerstone Animal Hospital often calls Gary when they need someone to care for a convalescing amphibian or reptile.
Gary feels much of the population is not properly educated about “herps” (amphibians and reptiles) and the special care they require. A case in point is the red-eared slider turtle, so named because of the prominent red marking by its ears.
“The laws in South Carolina forbid owning more than seven sliders,” Gary says. “If you breed them, red ears can lay up to five clutches a year of up to 30 eggs. They’re an invasive species and should not be released into the wild.”
First priority is leaving animals in their natural habitat. In instances of rescue, it is important to take proper care of them, and that includes annual veterinary care and proper equipment, which can add up in costs.
“People sell small reptiles at flea markets, and often they don’t know anything about proper care and feeding or how big they can become,” Gary says. “For some, you might need a 55-gallon tank and a dry place for them to sleep.”
Indigenous to South Carolina, box turtles are primarily land animals. Gary created a special habitat for his rescued box turtles inside an old fenced dog run that includes a covered shelter area and room to roam outside among vegetation such as fresh-growing strawberries, which they like.
“I will enter their enclosure and say, ‘Is anyone hungry?’ They then come to me. I hand feed them worms,” he says. “They are really intelligent as far as small animals go. My aquatic turtles all slide into the water when they see me coming and meet me in the feeding area. They will splash at you if they are hungry or want attention. They communicate a lot with their eyes.”
If Gary were to recommend an ideal herp to keep as a pet, it would be the bearded dragon. “Bearded dragons and iguanas are happy in a hot environment,” he explains. “They need vitamin D and calcium and room to run.”
Gary keeps a couple of dragons that love to bask under a heat lamp in a room he maintains at a constant 85 to 90 F. “Dragons will hang out with you. They love to go exploring with you. They will perch on your shoulder. A lot of bigger lizards, if you handle them often, become good pets.”
Gary grows fruit trees, berry bushes, and cacti on his seven-acre property in Elgin, which provides an abundance of food. “You also have to feed them live food,” he says. “Dry food is not going to give them the moisture they need. They don’t really drink. Fruits and veggies give them a lot of water, but they also need live bugs and worms.” Some local bait shops will sell worms, and pet stores occasionally sell live crickets. Gary orders his live food online.
Gary does not particularly recommend snakes as pets. “Everybody seems to like snakes until they find out that they are kind of boring,” he says. “And they can get really big and become ‘cage aggressive.’ Getting bitten can be a real problem, even with non-venomous snakes.”
When Serena Gunter buys toys for her four ferrets, she does not go to a pet store. She goes to a hardware store.
“What ferrets like best is to tunnel through things,” she says. “I provide them with a dryer vent hose. They love running through that thing.”
Serena and Kirk, her husband, began fostering and adopting ferrets about 10 years ago. They received most of their ferrets from Cullen’s Archangel Rescue in Columbia. The four living with them currently are Lola, Sasha, Oscar, and Seamus, a special-needs ferret. Serena believes he was not properly cared for before coming to the rescue organization.
“Seamus is deaf. When we got him, he had horrible fleas,” she says. “However, he is a dark-eyed white ferret, and deafness is not uncommon with dark-eyed white ferrets.”
Ferrets may be a good choice for people with pet allergies. Though ferrets are not entirely hypoallergenic, they do produce much less dander. Yet Serena cautions that ferrets aren’t for everyone. They are extremely curious and will get into everything. They can also be messy and require a lot of attention during their waking hours.
“Ferrets sleep about 20 hours a day,” Serena says. “I check on them in the morning before going to work. When I get back home, I let them out of the cage from about 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Usually by the time we go to bed, some already have gone to bed in their cage on their own.”
Time outside the cage is vitally important for ferrets. Some experts suggest two hours a day, but Serena recommends at least four hours.
“If you don’t give ferrets time to explore outside their cage, they will become bored and can be destructive, often tearing up their cage,” she says. “If you do it right, ferrets should see their cage as a safe and comforting place.”
When they are out of the cage, ferrets will explore every nook and cranny of their surrounding home, thus, it is important to “ferret-proof” the house to keep them safe. “If they can fit their head into any space, they can fit their whole body in there,” Serena explains.
Ferrets generally need to be kept indoors because they are susceptible to heatstroke as any climate above 75 F can be dangerous for them. Another consideration is cost — ferrets are carnivores and require a special diet that provides nutrients from meat and fat. Experts say ferrets are unable to digest vegetable protein, so their diet must be meat-based.
Serena says that veterinary care for ferrets rivals that for dogs and cats and often exceeds it. Like dogs and cats, ferrets can develop heartworms, canine distemper, and rabies, so they also need annual vaccinations. Veterinarians recommend spaying females if they are not going to be bred, and that can run between $200 and $300. Once females are in heat, they will remain in heat until they are bred. If not bred, they will continue to produce hormones that can lead to aplastic anemia, which can be fatal.
Ferrets are quite intelligent and need stimulation to be truly happy. Some trainers teach them tricks using a clicker. But training ferrets has its challenges. Ferrets are not concerned with pleasing their owner like a dog is, Serena explains. “They are pretty much about taking care of themselves. But they remember things. If there is a gap under the dishwasher that you sealed, they will still come looking for it.”
Because they are social animals, it is advisable to get two so each has a cage mate with which to bond. They also bond with their owners. They can live for 10 years, so owning ferrets is a true commitment for the life of the animal. Few places kennel ferrets, a consideration for frequent travelers.
“You have to clean up after ferrets — a lot,” Serena says. “If you don’t clean the ferret cage regularly, it can get stinky pretty fast.”
According to Serena, one of the most common misconceptions about ferrets is that they stink anyway, regardless of how clean the cage. While Ferrets do have a slightly musky odor, they can be de-scented at birth. However, de-scenting is a somewhat controversial surgical procedure to remove the animal’s anal sack. Most experts maintain that it is unnecessary and does not work. Regardless, Serena does not find the natural ferret scent unpleasant and cautions against over-bathing them. That will only cause them to produce more musky oil to protect their fur, eventually making the smell worse.
Another misconception is that they are aggressive. Ferret ownership is discouraged in homes with young children because ferrets react negatively to rough handling and may bite if they feel threatened by sudden movements. They can be good pets for families with older children, however. “I think the best thing about ferrets is their playful nature,” Serena says. “They are only up for a little while, but when they are up, they are on the go.”
Serena likens much ferret behavior to that of felines. “They can be a lot like cats,” she says. “Their favorite thing is not necessarily the toy but the box it came in!”
Emilee Marlene, a “black cap” capuchin, is almost 2 and is native to Central and South America. She already loves fresh veggies and Goldfish crackers. With behavior not unlike a toddler, she often resists sleep but nonetheless adores a bedtime story. Her colorful rompers, by necessity, are custom-tailored — to accommodate her prehensile tail.
Judi and Chuck Wadsworth of Laurens paid a Florida breeder $9,000 for Emilee and flew to Ft. Lauderdale to collect their pet. They dote on her and are clearly inseparable. The diminutive capuchin monkey clings instinctively to Judi.
“We’ve had Emilee since she was 6 weeks old. She weighed less than a pound and could fit in the palm of your hand,” Judi says. “Her tiny size was so shocking. I was picturing her so much bigger. She is really a sweetheart.”
Indeed. Emilee enjoys a cheerfully decorated nursery with a myriad of toys, an enormous porch playground replete with jungle gym, ladders, and swinging ropes, as well as several indoor play enclosures.
“From day one, she made this sweet little chirp, like a baby bird,” says Judi. “I had wanted a monkey ever since I was 7 years old.”
Whether capuchins make good pets is debatable, but cost clearly is a consideration as well as the fact that in captivity they can live for 40 years and can cost upwards of $12,000. When purchased as babies, they form a strong bond with their owners, so rehoming is strongly discouraged. Add to that the cost for special dietary needs — while omnivores, capuchins are prone to diabetes, so it is important to watch their sugar intake; veterinary care — annual vaccinations and specialized veterinary attention; and proper environment — high-energy capuchins need ample room to climb and exercise.
“Emilee is very sensitive to sugar. I have to watch her fruits,” Judi explains. “I primarily feed her meats and vegetables. She is allowed three servings of sugar-free almond milk per day as a treat. She loves it.”
When considering the pros and cons of owning a pet capuchin, it is important to be realistic. Capuchins are wild animals by nature. Owning wild animals is controversial and not for everyone. Some believe that only zoos with professional staff and appropriate resources should keep and care for them. Capuchins are highly territorial, have been known to bite, can become aggressive protecting their surroundings, and can violently throw things. In the wild, they routinely mark their territory with urine. If frightened or angry, they emit an extremely loud shriek that may disturb neighbors.
Like most capuchin owners, Judi keeps her pet on a leash, both indoors and outdoors. Emilee is closely supervised 24/7, but many pet owners are not able to commit to that level of care and attention. Capuchins generally weigh between 2 and 4 pounds and can grow from 12 to 22 inches in height. They are acutely intelligent and trainable. Judi says Emilee has learned how to use her fingers to scroll on a cell phone, among other “skills.”
“She is sneaky. She snatches my phone all the time. And she likes for me to read to her. We read every night. She points to the words in the book to ‘follow along,’” Judi says. “Emilee also plays peekaboo with her blankets, and if she is eating something and you ask her for a bite, she’ll come over and hold it up to your mouth for you to take a bite. She does the same thing with her sippy cup for you to take a drink.”
Chuck and Judi Wadsworth have quite a menagerie across their spacious country property, including multiple cats, dogs, fish, and parrots. All seem to coexist well with Emilee. The couple does not have any children but are not wanting for “babies” to nurture and love.
“My children,” Judi quips, “all have fins, feathers, or fur.”