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Book Review - Savannah Monitor Lizards as Pets by Lolly Brown Print E-mail

Review of: Savannah Monitor Lizards as Pets. The Ultimate guide for Savannah Monitors Owners by Lolly Brown. 2017. NRB Publishing. ISBN: 9781946286567. About 110 pages.

About 65 million years ago a cataclysm wipe out the ruling reptiles which are the dinosaurs but only monitor lizards survive” is not an auspicious introductory sentence for any book which aspires to be written in English or belong to the non-fiction genre. This one claims to be both, and also “the ultimate guide for savannah monitors owners”.  According to the introduction, and perhaps unsurpassed in the history of herpetological anthropomorphisms, “Many first time keepers and experts in monitor lizards enjoy caring for savannah monitors because even if they look like real predators on the outside, these animals are longing to be petted by their owners on the inside as long as you treat them right and feed them well!

I cannot speak for first time keepers, nor for experts in monitor lizards, but anybody who enjoys caring for lizards in the belief that they are “longing to be petted” should not be allowed anywhere near them. However that is an opinion, not a fact, and, in the world of savannah monitor lizards, facts can be hard to find. Let’s look for some.


Did you know that savannah monitors “weigh an average of 60-70kg or about 150 pounds once they reach maturity”?  Or that “Savannah monitors also have forked tongues which makes them the only lizard species to possess this physical trait because forked tongues are mostly found in snake species”? They have “hundreds of teeth” and their “average lifespan is 15-20 years”. Wow. Can this really be Varanus exanthematicus? We are only on page six and my illusions about the animal are being shattered. To avoid any possibly ambiguity, the average weight and lifespan are repeated on page 7.

In chapter 2 , “…it’s time to get to determine what makes this docile ‘beasts’ great pets or popular lizards. We will delve deeper on what it really takes to become a keeper by learning about its temperament as well as the licence and permit needed for keeping them, and also the budget you’ll most probably need to provide all its requirements”. 
This chapter is quite terrifying, and very bad news for any savannah monitor unlucky enough to benefit from it. Apparently, you will need a glass enclosure to keep your adult savannah monitor in, plus a “laying bin” in case you are going to breed them, which you can buy from a pet store. Apparently, savannah monitors are highly territorial. Apparently CITES regulations permit only captive bred savannah monitor lizards to be shipped internationally. Over a ten year period “1000 savannah monitor skins “were imported in America that was used in the production of such products [as shoes and handbags]. Many wildlife organisations don’t recommend buying such products especially if you’re in abroad to help stop these companies who are killing these reptiles”. The best place to buy your lucky savannah monitors is “online stores or websites, legit breeders as well as during any reptile conventions so you can be sure that your acquiring a healthy lizard”. Beware because “You can probably find a backyard breeder offering [savannah monitors] at $30 or below but you cannot be sure of the breeding quality for these baby monitor lizards. Quality savannah monitors sell from $20 and up. Buying from legit breeders during a reptile convention may be neither cheap or expensive”.

I don’t fully understand these passages, but perhaps the legit breeders can explain it. Chapter 3 is How to Acquire Savannah Monitors Lizards. “In this chapter you will be provided with the criteria on selecting a healthy Savannah monitor breed and be given criteria to spot a reputable and trustworthy breeder”. Fantastic. Everybody with an interest in the species will find this useful. Apparently the good breeders will tell you everything about the animals and their required care in captivity. If they don’t think that you will look after the animals properly they will refuse to sell them to you, because “yes they want to earn money but they also want to protect the integrity of the hobby”. That’s how you spot the legit breeders. They sound like splendid chaps, where can we find them? The list of “United States Breeders and Rescue Websites” includes Petco and a number of other larger reptile importers and dealers, and well as some UK sites (including gumtree, preloved and pets4homes). Not one of the establishments listed has ever claimed to have bred Varanus exanthematicus, as far as I am aware, although they do sell large quantities of the lizards, all wild caught in west Africa.

We are only three chapters in, and there are seven more to go. I cannot continue and neither should you. You can guess what’s coming (too dry, too cold, no nesting = fat, dying lizards), but can you guess how such drivel made it into print? This is an extremely poorly written book that provides wildly incorrect information on almost every page. Here and there you might find tiny nuggets of truth, hidden under an apocalyptic mound of misinformation and alternative facts. It’s so bad I wonder if the author has ever seen the animals she is talking about, or indeed if she actually wrote the volume she is credited with.  The references provided are all websites, and in places it’s possible to see where the nuggets of truth have come from. The photo credits (seven of ten poor quality black and white illustrations are of captive savannah monitors, the others are V. bengalensis, V. salvator, and V. niloticus sp. ) are from Flickr and Wikimedia commons. The index provided appears to belong to an entirely different book.

The text is littered with grammatical errors and omissions to such an extent I wondered if it has been translated by software from another language. In fact the author has a website (lollybrown.com), and claims to have taken “numerous field biology and wildlife classes that allowed her to view the behavior of many species in their native habitats”. She also appears capable of writing in English.  “If I become interested in a particular animal and have no direct experience with the creature, I get some before I start to write,” Brown says. “All animals have a unique perspective on the world and their place in it. They all have particular needs — physical and emotional — and they all have unique personalities. These are things I want to understand before I try to communicate them to my readers.”

Wise advice for any prospective author of a guide to keeping animals in captivity. But it is difficult to imagine what sort of experiences Ms Brown has had with Varanus exanthematicus. My gut inclination is that she has seen a gap in the pet book market, and sub-contracted this book out to somebody who has a weak grasp of the English language, knows nothing about biology, and set very low standards for themselves, which they failed to maintain in researching the contents. Somehow the book made it to print without any proofreading. But pet shops will be happy, because who can resist a lizard that is longing to be petted even if it has hundreds of teeth and will grow to an average weight of 150 pounds?

I have written this review for people who know enough about savannah monitor lizards and their plight in captivity to understand the issues. For those that don’t, the savannah monitor, (Varanus exanthematicus), is a common lizard of west African grasslands, where it specialises on a diet of invertebrates and feeds only during the wetter half of the year. Amphibians and reptile eggs are the only vertebrates that have been reliably recorded in their diet. Wild animals rarely exceed 2kg in weight, although very obese captives can weigh thrice as much. The species is popular in pet trade in many countries, despite the fact that nobody has ever succeeded in regularly breeding the animals, the vast majority of females never cycle, the rest die after a short period of cycling, and no verified second generation captive bred animals have ever existed. The average lifespan of captives is certainly less than a year and a longevity of five years is exceptional. Over one million wild savannah monitors have been collected from west Africa to fuel demand from international wildlife trade. These animals are often passed off as “captive bred” or “captive farmed”, to buyers who either have not done their homework before deciding on savannah monitors, or do not care that nobody knows how to keep them properly. There are a number of other Varanus species that have proved tractable in captivity and for which captive bred offspring are regularly available, but this is not one of them. It is virtually impossible to obtain captive bred savannah monitors. Savannah monitor lizards are docile at lower temperatures, and many keepers believe that these sluggish animals are “tame”. At optimal body temperatures (around 37oC) they are liable to be much less tractable. In short, savannah monitor lizards are one of the most abused animals in wildlife trade. They can take quite a long time to die, but nobody has ever been able to get them to thrive. Whether this is because only inexperienced keepers try with the species, or because they require something that species commonly bred in captivity do not, is uncertain at this stage. What is certain is that the animals require specialist care and are entirely unsuitable for novices. Books like Lolly Brown’s perpetuate many of the myths about these animals, but this one is particularly remarkable on account of the absolute indifference with which it was thrown together. The author and the publishers should hang their heads in shame.

 

Daniel Bennett

November 2017


 


 
 

 

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butaan2.jpgThe butaan was first described to science in 1845 from a juvenile specimen collected by Hugh Cuming. It was labelled only "Philippines". It was named Varanus grayi.  No other specimens came to light for over 120 years. In the 1970s Walter Auffenberg found another specimen with a location in Luzon, established that its correct scientific name was Varanus olivaceus, and undertook a 22 month study of the species based in Bicol. His study revealed that butaan occupy a unique ecological niche and have a lifestyle quite unlike any other monitor lizard. Auffenberg used local hunters with dogs to catch the animals. Of 126 butaan caught during his study, 116 animals were killed.
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