There is only one place Christina Hazelton, founder of the Upper Valley Reptile Group, likes to see a red-eared slider paddling by an Eastern painted turtle: on the shelf at her organization’s headquarters in Hanover, New Hampshire, where the two turtles have their aquariums set up side-by-side.
Red-eared sliders, native to the southern U.S., are inexpensive to purchase and have become a popular pet worldwide. They are also a growing concern among wildlife officials in the Northeast. According to the United States Geological Survey, red-eared sliders that escaped or were released by their owners are now reproducing in ponds across parts of New York and Massachusetts, where they are competing with smaller native species, such as the painted wood and box turtles, for food and habitat. It is unknown whether there is a wild population of red-eared sliders in Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine, but Hazelton believes it is only a matter of time.
“They can survive our winters, so you’re setting up a real problem,” she said while directing a volunteer workday this spring at the Upper Valley Reptile Group’s center. The place occupies every square-inch of the one-stall garage at her home on a dirt road far outside of town.
Hazelton, a no-nonsense 27-year-old, started the group two years ago to rescue abandoned pet reptiles in central New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as to educate the public about the joys and demands of owning exotic reptiles and the problems they can cause if released. A full-time computer technician, she operates the shelter in her free time and funds it – between $500 and $800 per month – largely from her own earnings. Upper Valley pet shops help out with some small donations of food and equipment. She hopes to eventually devote all her working hours to her passion for a very unusual family of creatures.
“(Reptiles) are species that have stayed the same over millions of years of evolution,” said Hazelton. “They are nature’s ultimate survivors.”
These days, many of those species are surviving in the care of humans, far outside their home territories. There are approximately 13 million pet reptiles across the country, according to the American Pet Products Association.
It is possible to find information on how to care for amphibians and reptiles through regional and state herpetology societies, but local rescue organizations, set up to provide hands-on help and take possession of unwanted animals, are few and far between. Most animal shelters do not accept reptiles because of their unique environmental needs. Ivana Iguana, a rescue space in Burlington, Vermont, and the Western Mass Turtle Rescue, based in Westfield, Massachusetts, are two others that provide services similar to those of the Upper Valley Reptile Group.
People are attracted to snakes and other reptiles because they’re unusual. “The cool factor,” Hazelton calls it. “They don’t realize they are going to need [an enclosure] that will take up half their living room,” she said.
The Upper Valley Reptile Center housed 20 animals this spring, most of which were available for adoption, including two green iguanas, a leopard gecko, several ball pythons, and a boa constrictor. Hazelton also maintains a small private menagerie of both exotic and native species, which she uses in free presentations at schools, community centers, and even children’s parties. She describes each reptile’s natural habitat and explains that every species needs an enclosure that mimics that environment. Her African sulcata tortoise, named Socrates, is a desert species and needs a dry hay bed and regular fresh vegetation. Dimitri, the speckled five-year-old Argentinian tegu, wants stimulation. He waddles around the center on his long fingers, poking his face into empty enclosures and open doorways, bright-eyed and curious as a dog.
The green iguanas, Gallow and Ruckus – which she does not bring on field trips because of their pugnacious personalities – must have a tall enclosure with suspended branches and full spectrum lights for sunning.
Just as she built the Upper Valley Reptile Group from scratch, Hazelton constructed all of the larger enclosures at the center, seeking advice from biologists, veterinarians, and the sales staff at Home Depot. “That is just who she is,” said her longtime friend, Caitlinn Lombardi, who went to high school with Hazelton and is now an unpaid staff member of the organization. Whether it’s running cross-country competitions, training in computing, or building a reptile organization, with Hazelton, “it’s always been 100 percent.”
Her enthusiasm has attracted a small core of area volunteers, though the work is not glamorous. Hazelton and three others spent a recent Saturday afternoon stripping the cages and enclosures of wet newspaper and excrement, then wiping them down and replacing water filters. Hazelton has the additional job of raising, harvesting, and freezing mice and rats for her charges to feed on. She describes her harvest method, with a raise of the eyebrows, as “cervical decapitation.”
Despite the effort involved, Hazelton and her volunteers agree that reptiles can make wonderful pets for the right person. Their goal is to find new homes for most of the animals. Reptiles don’t make noise and generally do not require daily care. And they have evolved a dazzling array of textures and colors.
Hazelton has whimsical names for the center’s inhabitants. A ball python, found beneath the stairs at a dentist’s office, is called Molar. Her female American alligator goes by Prada. But she purposely does not name the native species in her care: a painted turtle, snapping turtle, spotted salamander, and a milk snake. “They are not pets,” she said. “And I highly discourage keeping them as pets.”
The group has received most of its animals from fairly typical routes: referrals from pet stores and dealers going out of business. However, Prada, the alligator, was discovered one morning by a landlord in the bathtub of a recently vacated apartment. And Hazelton recently retrieved a malnourished boa constrictor left behind at a woman’s house by a departing boyfriend. The ex-girlfriend had been terrified to touch the animal.
The oldest member of the center’s permanent collection is Levi, a lemon-colored Burmese python, which Hazelton adopted when she was still in high school. Levi was four feet long at the time, but has grown to more than 10 feet long today. Taking care of Levi is what prompted Hazelton to start the Upper Valley Reptile Group. In 2008, Hazelton was living in White River Junction when the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department adopted a new regulation that made it illegal to keep dozens of species of large reptiles, including Burmese pythons, as pets. An exception to the rule provides special permits for organizations using the animals for scientific or educational purposes.
Hazelton supports the regulation, but could not find any such group in the area to take care of Levi. So she decided to start one herself, eventually moving across the river into New Hampshire, a state with a similar regulation and permit system.
Currently the group is working on getting nonprofit status and is seeking volunteer help to set up its bylaws. Hazelton is also looking for a larger, more permanent location. At some point, her boyfriend would like the garage back.
“It’s something I feel really strongly about,” said Hazelton. “I care about the animals. I want to make sure they have somewhere to go.”
Kristen Fountain is a freelance writer living in Stowe, Vermont.