When Dick Manson was growing up in Baltimore, his son Barry says, he draped his pet snake around his neck as he walked to and from school to keep bullies away. Dick, a bodybuilder crowned Mr. Maryland in 1951, went on to amass a collection of reptiles so large that he donated the animals to the Maryland Zoo’s Reptile House when he left for college.
The Reptile House closed in 2004, and Dick Manson died in 2015. But his legacy lives on in the form of Arnold, a now-35-year-old monkey tail skink named after the bodybuilding movie star Schwarzenegger. Arnold resides in a tank-like cage in Barry Manson’s living room.
The rest of Manson’s nine reptiles live in a 10-by-6-foot greenhouse he and his wife, Laura, built onto their Severna Park home. When the couple is out, they monitor a video feed and thermostat from their smartphones. A three-ton natural gas air and heating unit is attached and backed up by a generator so the animals stay in a humid 80-degree climate if the home loses power.
The Mansons would be the first to tell you that just because you follow Instagram-famous pets like Super Pringle the bearded dragon, it doesn’t mean you’re ready to own one. Reptiles can live for decades, grow to colossal sizes and require complex diets.
Scaly-animal enthusiasts in Anne Arundel are up to the challenge, turning their homes into habitats to keep their reptilian friends happy.
Glen Burnie’s House of Tropicals has been helping with that task for more than 50 years.
The first thing new owners need to do for their pets is prepare their environment and be ready to spend money, employee Kevin Farrell says.
Reptiles can live for decades, but Farrell says if owners don’t get the right equipment for their animal’s environment it won’t make it past 6 months.
“How long they live has to do with what kind of care they get,” he says.
“When it comes to an animal, you’re taking on the obligation of caring for that creature. Their life is in your hands, so it behooves someone to understand what they’re taking on.”
Reptiles need full-spectrum lighting so they get the benefits of the sun indoors. Without it, they’re prone to bone diseases and can be calcium- and Vitamin A-depleted. Owners should be prepared to buy equipment like a basking light, heater, UVB lights and a container big enough for their animal’s full growth.
“The usual thing I hear is ‘I plan to get a bigger tank,’” Farrell says. “It’s a good thing we don’t sell elephants because they’ll intend to get a bigger house or a bigger yard. They intend to get something bigger and it doesn’t happen, then the animal suffers.”
Not all reptiles require the same environment. Leopard geckos are easier and less expensive to take care of than the average reptile, Farrell says, because they usually start at about five to six inches and will only grow to about eight to 10 inches long. They eat crickets and some worms and usually live for about 10 years. The bearded dragon, on the other hand, is a much larger animal that requires a higher temperature in its habitat and can grow twice as long. It also needs greens incorporated into its diet.
“Just giving it crickets when it needs veggies is like feeding a child hamburgers and no salad,” Farrell says.
The Mansons believe in keeping reptiles in an equal or better environment to what they would have in the wild. Since they’ll have no predators, pet owners give reptiles the opportunity to enjoy their lives instead of fearing for them, Barry Manson says.
“There’s a difference between having a habitat and just keeping an animal,” Laura Manson says.
“It should be able to at least enjoy its surroundings rather than putting it in a cage,” Barry Manson says. “It doesn’t have to be an expensive investment. You can have just a tank and a light.”
The Mansons’ reptile room is home to 4-year-old Aldabra tortoises Rocket and Seashell, rescued gopher tortoises Marco and Sanibel (ages unknown), 4-year-old brown Bernese mountain tortoises Blueberry and Pancake (named for her deformed shell) and 2-year-old monkey tail skinks Ricky and Lucy.
The Masons use an app called tortoise table, which allows them to take pictures of the plants that fill the greenhouse and make sure they’re safe for the tortoises to eat.
For those looking to get their first reptile, the Mansons recommend doing as much research as possible. Know what kind of food the animal you want eats and if you’re willing to feed it that; not everyone can handle feeding their first pet live mice or cockroaches.
Knowing where your animal comes from is also important. The Mansons warn that imported animals often come from poachers, so one that is bred in the United States is preferable.
“Educate yourself before you go to a reptile show and say, ‘That frog looks cute, I’m going to take him home,’” Barry Manson says.
Eco Adventures in Millersville offers a class every Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. for adults and children alike to learn about exotic pet ownership.
Executive Director Mei Len Sanchez-Barr opened the education and conservation center five years ago with her husband, Brady Barr, herpetologist and host of Nat Geo WILD's “Dangerous Encounters.”
The children in her after-school program learn daily chores for taking care of exotic animals, like feeding, training and sanitation. One child’s job is always to dispense hand sanitizer after they take turns touching an animal.
They take turns feeding animals like Max, a 50-pound sulcata tortoise, and take him for walks in the Severn Run Natural Environment Area — not unlike a dog. Unlike a dog, Max will grow up to 200 pounds and live to about 100 years old. Each day, he eats two heads of lettuce with a side of hay, plus two whole fruits and two vegetables.
As with many of the animals at Eco Adventures, Sanchez-Barr rescued him after he was given up by his owners.
She says she gets at least one call a week from people who want to give up their turtles, bearded dragons and snakes.
“People don’t want to take care of them,” she said.
She’s educating the next generation of reptile-lovers so the animals they own can live full and happy lives.
Aiden Wauters, 11, has been a junior assistant at Eco Adventures for two years. He’s already done months of research and will keep doing more before he gets a panther chameleon in the next few months.
He doesn’t just want one because they can change colors or because their tongues are twice the length of their bodies.
“I want to challenge myself,” Wauters says. “It’s harder than taking care of a dog.”
Panther chameleons are particularly hard to take care of. They’re prone to bone sickness if they’re not given the right amount of heat and light.
He warns new reptile owners to be patient and prepared before letting their excitement get the best of them. When you first get any pet, it will likely be scared and confused, just like you would be if someone plucked you from your home and put you somewhere new.
“A lot of people want to hold their animal on the first day, but you want to keep it in its tank for a week so it can get used to its environment,” he says.
In one recent after-school training session, Sanchez-Barr had the children sit a circle on the floor around Ziggy, a bearded dragon. To get Ziggy’s attention, she used super worms (a type of beetle larvae) and a target pole, a long wooden stick like the handle of a broom with bright yellow tape on one end.
One child’s job is to bounce the pole on the floor while others tap their hands on the ground to try and get Ziggy to look in their direction and come to them. When he does, finally spotting the super worm writhing in front of them and lumbering over to grab it with his tongue, another child pushes the button on a clicker — a sound the animal knows as “good boy.”
Training isn’t just a fun challenge for the kids. It gives them the skills to exercise their pets and eventually train them to be cooperative when they need to go to the vet.
Abigail Rinick, 9, uses super worms and a pencil as a training pole at home to train her bearded dragon. She wants to teach him how to high five and come when called.
Her advice for any new exotic pet owner is to know where the nearest emergency vet is and make sure it cares for exotics. She uses Bayside Animal Medical Center in Severna Park.
Sanchez-Barr added that new owners need to have someone else on hand who is willing to take care of their animal. You can’t just put a lizard in a kennel. Luckily, Eco Adventures offers exotic pet sitting.
“Owners don’t know what to do when they go out of town. You gotta keep that in mind,” she says.
But just because reptiles require a lot of care doesn’t mean they’re not fun.
After learning about reptiles at Eco Adventures, 6-year-old Lily Chisholm balances taking care of a bearded dragon and a frog with her parents’ help.
“Don’t be scared,” she says. “I went here and I saw how amazing it is.”