Care and Handling of Live Reptiles and Amphibians (Herps)

When handling any live animal, it is important to always keep two safety issues in mind: first is the safety of the person who is searching for or holding the animal, and second is the safety and welfare of the animal itself.

People may believe naively that because herps do not show facial expressions or fear, or have obvious defensive postures, they cannot be hurt. However, herps are still very much living organisms, vulnerable to stress and pain caused by improper handling and confinement. Humans also can harm entire herp populations by destroying their homes or nests, as well as by disturbing their habitats on a broader scale. If you follow the guidelines below for safe capture, care, and handling of herps, you will go a long way toward ensuring both your safety and that of the reptiles and amphibians you are studying.

When searching for herps, take care not to destroy their homes or injure the animals. Lift rocks gently and lower them carefully back to their original position, so as not to crush soft-bodied salamanders and other creatures living underneath. Return logs with the original, moist side down because they already may be decomposing and may provide homes for many organisms. Don't tear up logs or tree stumps to get to salamanders, lizards, or snakes because this permanently destroys their nests and their homes.

Keep handling of herps to a minimum in order to protect the animals. Amphibians have delicate skin that needs to be kept moist. Continuous handling dries out their skin and removes the mucous-like protective covering that is present on many amphibians. Without this covering, the amphibian's skin may suffer from abrasion and infection. Even tough-skinned reptiles can be stressed by handling and restraint. Therefore, the less they are subjected to handling, the better. A useful method for looking closely at and displaying animals to a large group is to place the animal in a clear, plastic container. With the addition of a little moisture from leaves or a wet towel, a clear container can make a very suitable viewing device.

If an animal feels secure and comfortable, it is less likely to try to escape or bite. Therefore hold all organisms gently, but firmly. Salamanders and frogs have particularly tiny and fragile limbs, toes, and tails. You can hold them by gently cupping your hand to support their bodies. To look at them more closely, you may have to restrain their limbs and keep them from wiggling without squeezing too hard. This takes a little practice, and adults should assist children in holding the animals until the children are comfortable and competent at it. A great technique for the newcomer and experienced alike is to always crouch or sit on the ground when restraining an animal. That way, when they squirm out, there won't be any shock or damage from crashing to the ground.

Snakes need to have their bodies supported while their heads are being immobilized. Use the thumb and fingers to gently restrain the sides of their heads near the neck, but don't let the body flail about freely. It is best to just observe a snake from a bit of a distance if the species is unknown. Whether venomous or not, snakes of many species will bite to protect themselves. Also, don't pick up snakes that have obviously just eaten. This will be apparent from a swollen lump along their body, which is their recent meal bulging in the gut. When disturbed, many snakes will regurgitate their food, either as a defensive strategy or to help them escape. At the least, this can be a bother to the snake, and often is a loss of valuable energy. In general, when thinking about handling a snake or any other animal, remember to do so only if you can ensure your safety and the animal's safety.

Lizards also tend to bite when handled, which can be startling but rarely painful. Do not pick up a lizard by its tail. Many lizards and salamanders have adopted a peculiar defensive strategy in which they shed their tails when they are grabbed. Although this strategy may allow the animal to escape its predator, it can come at great expense. The energy they will need to invest into growing a new tail can take away considerably from their ability to reproduce, grow, or even survive.

A notoriously aggressive character is the snapping turtle. It is extremely ornery and should not be handled (or, at the very least, it should be handled with extreme care by someone with experience). If you must pick up a snapper, use a shovel to support the body and to keep you out of the reach of its bite. Also, do not lift it far off the ground, because it can move off the shovel easily. These are not the only turtles to beware of. In fact, all turtles can inflict a very painful bite, and many have sharp claws that will scratch you. For safety reasons, hold turtles securely by the upper shell, with one or two hands grasping the sides of the shell, while keeping fingers and hands well away from the head. Also keep the turtle's head aimed away from you so it can't latch on to a nearby part of your body. Never place your hands in front of the turtle's face or even close to its head. And remember, some turtles have very long necks and can reach around to bite.

The most useful safety tool is knowledge and familiarity with the animals in your local area. In some regions, reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and alligators can be downright dangerous. Any species that can deliver venomous bites or inflict serious injury should be avoided and viewed from a safe distance. Before going in the field for the first time, it is important to study a good field guide that describes amphibians and reptiles in your area.

Keep all herps out of the direct sun so they will not dry out or overheat. Herps are ectotherms, or animals that derive body heat from external sources. Usually they avoid overheating in their natural environments by immersing themselves in water, burrowing in the soil, or seeking refuge under leaf litter. Therefore, when restraining amphibians and reptiles you may want to provide objects for shade and moisture, such as damp leaves or soil. Also, you should try not to hold them in your hands for too long. A small animal on a cold day can raise its temperature way above normal, simply by absorbing heat from your body. The best way to avoid causing stress from heat or water loss is to restrain the animals only minimally or not at all, and try not to alter their conditions too much from those of their natural environment.

After handling herps, return them to their natural habitats as soon as possible. Excessive handling and confinement stress these animals in many ways. Also, because herps have homes and preferred territories, it is important to return each animal to the place where it was found. When displaced, many amphibians and reptiles will undergo long and difficult journeys attempting to return to their original homes. Even if the release site seems acceptable, a relocated animal does not easily find a suitable home, and often is vulnerable to predators while searching for one. When returning an animal, try to return it to the same exact spot where it was found. If it was found under a rock or a log, don't place the object on top of the animal. Instead, replace the cover object to its original position first, then place the animal alongside, so it can easily and safely crawl underneath.

Excerpted from Hands-On Herpetology.


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