Updated 7 July 2003 - IMPORTANT INFORMATION on diet, and a health warning, added.
Since I put this page on the site three or four years ago, a lot has happened. I have read a fair bit more, had correspondence with other monitor owners, and sadly lost one of our two monitors, Widget. Despite regular veterinary care, Widget was perhaps inaccurately diagnosed and by the time we realised the problem it was too late to rescue him. It was a very heavy blow at the time as in other ways he was almost a model monitor, intelligent, pugnacious but not savage, and quite a personality. Of the few lizards I have lost, this one hit me the hardest.
Digit, on the other hand, is still going strong. He is now an adult monitor and like most of them is a mixture of idleness interspersed with a thrusting desire to see the world, or at least get out of his cage and explore the study. He too has personality, being somewhat laid back in comparison to Widget.
I must admit that for a long time I was more intrigued by another giant lizard, the Green Iguana, rather than monitors. Even though Robert Bakker had praised the monitor family in his book Dinosaur Heresies, when I thought about large lizards I tended to think of the fully grown green iguana we saw in Pet World. Not that I had plans for getting one: I knew that they grew up to 6ft and were quite demanding. Besides, I didn't think we'd have the space for a 10ft long custom-built enclosure (assuming I had the technique to build such a thing, which I doubted), and we had only just taken on our two leopards, two plateds and then one fat-tail gecko. At the time it seemed quite enough.
I suppose it was reading herpetological literature, particularly lizard books, that first pricked my interest in monitors. Usually the various members of the varanid family were lumped together in one paragraph with various warnings such as "dangerous" and "big", "can hurt you", etc. (All of these warnings are well founded, by the way). Jerry Walls' introductory book on lizards mentioned that there were small monitors but that these were virtually unavailable, and most sources I read implied that even the more tameable savannah monitor would grow anything from 4 to 6ft long. A 6ft long monitor? That sounded an even more daunting prospect than the 6ft iguana. I saw one in another large pet chain store, and I had to admit it was a handsome creature, but the prospect of its adult size put me off. I went away chuckling wryly at the idea that someone would buy this reptile and end up with a huge monster.
What changed my mind within a short space of time was a visit to Beaver Water World. Although primarily a zoo, charity and reptile sanctuary, Beaver do sell occasional excess captive-bred stock. We had already marvelled at some young tegus there, but one day we happened to see a large portable plastic tank on the shelf. Stella Quayle opened it up, and there were two small grey savannah monitors, barely out of the hatchling stage. The intriguing thing about one was that it had an extra digit growing out of the back of its rear left foot, rather like the rearward-facing claw of a T-Rex. Stella had humorously named them "Widget" and "Digit".
They were quite appealing fellows, somewhat scrabbly and pugnacious even at that young age, but I was still doubtful about the wisdom of purchasing one. I was assured, however, that savannahs grow on average to a maximum of 3-3½ ft in length. Subsequent research bore out this assertion, as it is the white-throated cape monitor, Varanus albigularis, and not Varanus exanthematicus (aka Bosc's monitor), which grows to 5-6ft long. The confusion had arisen partly because until recently Varanus albigularis was held to be a subspecies of Varanus exanthematicus, whereas it is now considered a full species and hence separate. However, it should be noted that some males in particular may grow up to 4ft or even larger.
I was now quite interested in getting a monitor, but held out for a while. Finally, a few weeks later, Fiona bought another pet (I can't remember which one now), and so was amenable to me purchasing one, since she was actually rather taken by the savannahs. They were still small enough to live in the plastic tank (which couldn't have been more than 18" long, if not a foot), and I had already read that growth would be steady rather than spectacular. The only problem came when I put the proposition to Stella: she was a little anxious that they should both go together to a good home. I had a few misgivings, most of which involved the long-term prospect of sudden and violent sibling rivalry, but as it was we had had a hard time trying to make up our minds which one to select, so after Stella did a very good deal for us, we took them both.
When we got them home, I placed their tank on top of the heavy wooden vivarium that houses the plated lizards, and took the top off to check them. At that point I became aware of a strong hissing, rather like the noise that compressed air makes when you pump up your tyres at a garage. I looked down and there was Widget, tail curled round and looking up at me defiantly, mouth agape. Clearly a keeper nearly six times bigger than him wasn't going to intimidate him.
Savannah monitors are fairly difficult to sex, since there is no obvious sexual dimorphism among them, such as femoral or preanal pores. At the moment the most reliable guide (unfortunately) seems to be waiting for them to evert their hemipenes, which they sometimes do when evacuating their cloacas. Digit unfortunately suffered from a bad tendency early on to involuntarily evert his hemipenis on one side and not be able to invert it again, with the result that it became swollen and bruised, a very painful sight which must have been quite distressing to him at times. We tried manually helping him to invert, but even with the use of cold water it seemed to keep popping out, so in the end we took him to our reptile vet. Dr Jon gave us some Fuciderm cream to be lightly rubbed on the affected area twice a day, but warned that if the problem persisted the hemipenis on that side might have to be amputated to prevent infection. The cream proved effective, not only greatly reducing the occurrence of involuntary eversion but also cleaning up the area. However, he still did it occasionally with one or both hemipenes, in which case I was normally able to use lukewarm water to get him to withdraw again. Baths also helped, as did in the last resort a one-off application of the cream, although it should be stressed that Fuciderm is quite strong and not to be over-used.
Unfortunately the problem persisted, and eventually it came to a point where he had obviously had it out some time in his cage and needed to see the vet again. This was a different vet (albeit an expert), who declared that the hemipenes was too dehydrated and damaged to be restored, and that amputation was the only practical way forward. This actually was not too traumatic, and Digit still functions well with the one hemipenis, although mating might be more problematic. Occasionally he still everts, usually after defecation, but to nowhere near the same degree as he used to.
Apart from the hemipenile bulges (which to be honest I have not found mentioned in much literature), there seems to be no surefire way of telling them apart. Balsai suggests that compelling eversion of the hemipenes or, failing that, a genetic test, seem to be the only ways to distinguish the sexes. Unlike many lizards, there seems to be no obvious sexual dimorphism, nor have I read that behaviour can be used to suggest one way or the other.
Of all our pets, Widget and Digit went through the most changes in housing. They started off easily fitting into the portable plastic tank, which could also accomodate a piece of bark log to hide them both and a water bowl. It only took them a few weeks to grow to a size rather uncomfortable for this, so we then went next size up to a 30" x 12" x 15" glass aquarium. The 15" height, incidentally, was rather too tall - I lazily agreed to it after the man in the shop offered it cheap because its vivarium lid was rather tatty. It was only a minor inconvenience, but it taught me not to cut corners as far as herp equipment is concerned. For a hidebox I used a 48-biscuit cereal box, into which they could both fit quite well. Apart from a heavy pottery water bowl there were no other cage furnishings, except once or twice a largeish rock for them to bask against. After a while the tatty old viv lid was replaced by a new one, but again I was sloppy and in a fit of forgetfulness bought one six inches too long, which again was a minor inconvenience. Hopefully I've learned my lesson..... For substrate I took the advice of the experts and used several layers of newspaper.
After a while it became apparent that the tank was also getting too small, or at least cramped as far as movement was concerned, so I took the plunge and ordered a 6 x 2½ x 2½ wooden vivarium with sliding front glass doors. This cost about £230 but was well worth it as it should last the lifetime of the monitors. However, it also made me realise the sacrifices you do have to make when you take on large pets, as the arrival of the vivarium meant a lot of furniture (and books, and board games) had to be unceremoniously moved or dumped. Take another tip from someone who's learned the hard way: measure your front doorway before you order your vivarium, so that if necessary you can order it in dismantled form. This simple precaution didn't occur to me, and I suffered severe loss of face when this huge article could not be brought into the house in one piece. Fortunately I own a set of screwdriver heads for my power drill, but the process of dismantling, carrying and reassembling took a few man-hours. Unless you're an expert, you can never put such articles back together as neatly as before either. On the plus side, a large sturdy wooden vivarium does provide a flat surface for other things much in the same way as a big table does, provided you don't overload it. Ours has a medium-sized skink vivarium and two small vivaria standing on top of it, together with lights, cables and plugs, and the now empty glass tank. Even when fully grown, Widget and Digit together took up no more than a quarter each of the tank, so I felt their behaviour should also be more natural than if more closely confined.
Feeding savannahs is perhaps one of the easiest aspects of their care, almost too easy - the greed with which they devour whatever is offered would suggest to the unknowing observer that these lizards were perpetually on the brink of starvation. In fact obesity is one of the biggest killers of all domestic pets, but can be especially observed in some captive monitors. I remember seeing one in another specialist reptile centre who had been bought from a previous owner. This poor savannah was quite obviously overweight to the point of being uncomfortable, and one of the staff said that they took him for a walk around the shop each day in an effort to get him to walk it off. It is much harder to exercise excess off reptiles than mammals, who are accustomed to having a degree of body fat. For that reason, savannah keepers must exert iron discipline and not feed more than the stipulated amount suggest by the manuals.
With Widget and Digit, we started off with black crickets and two pinkies each every other day. Even as post-hatchlings they would greedily gulp the rodents down and chase the crickets frenziedly. After a few weeks, when we moved them up to a glass tank, we fed them on two fuzzies twice a week and about six black crickets each once a week. Once a month they would get a bantam egg each (which they love) and, as an occasional treat, about four hoppers each.
The feeding process shows some interesting behaviours. Interestingly, although they are voracious predators on anything that moves, their feeding strategy is not as efficient as the milder plated lizards. Whereas our Gerrhosaurus majors quickly seize an insect in their jaws, masticate it in a few quick chews and swallow it, the savannahs normally first seized the prey in the end of their jaws, then bent their heads downwards as if to force it further in. This often involves an additional banging of the object against the floor of their vivarium a few times, or a rapid snapping motion that often cripples the live object. The actual eating of live prey seems somewhat awkward compared to other lizards I am used to feeding. Pre-killed rodents are entirely different: both the monitors could seize one and toss it down their throats in the space of literally seconds. Another interesting observation is their habit of sibling rivalry when it comes to eating. No matter how many crickets you throw into the tank, both of them always seemed to want the same one, with the result that one tried to pull the desired object out of the other's jaws. This led sometimes to some ugly situations, either in the mutilation of the prey or occasionally in snout wounds, so you should be aware that feeding these lizards can be a messy affair and not for the squeamish.
The consumption of eggs could be hilarious. As soon as an egg rolls into the tank, the monitor nearest it ran after it and attempted to encompass it within his jaws, even if it was patently too large to be broken by his bite. After some pushing and shoving the monitor would normally end up forcing the egg into a corner, where he tried to force it open by pushing and biting. When they were younger the task was beyond them, so I had to assist by giving the egg a hard tap with an empty bottle. The resulting crack was just enough to weaken the egg. Later they were able to exercise enough force via their jaws to crack an egg open. The result, of course, was a steady flood of yoke onto the floor, but at this stage the monitor was normally more interested in completely devouring the egg, shell and all. The biting process would continue relentlessly until the eggshell is either crushed flat or torn into two or more sections. I have a vivid memory of Digit once running around quite unable to see anything due to the half-egg held tight in his jaws and covering most of his snout and head. Eventually all the shell and white would be consumed, and then usually Digit, if not Widget, would go back to the pool of yolk and lap it up unhurriedly with his long snake-like tongue. Large carnivorous lizards in general do seem to like eggs (tegus raid henhouses for them), but non-embryonated eggs (ie the sort you normally buy in a supermarket) contain avidin which can cause vitamin B deficiency in lizards, so they should be fed sparingly. One egg per month is an enjoyable treat, and makes them exercise. Some time after Widget died, Digit seemed to lose his zest for eggs in any case.
One more thing that you should be aware of is that savannah monitors will try to swallow anything that they can possibly force into their jaws. This is probably because coupled with their appetites they have a mechanism called cranial kinesis, which allows much freer movement of the jaw and therefore a much wider gape. This is somewhat akin to the snakes' capability (although less pronounced, since monitors can't separate their jaws), and is possessed by all monitors (and, interestingly, their extinct reptilian relatives, the giant mosasaurs of the Cretaceous seas). I have nearly run into trouble a couple of times, once with chicks and once with dead full-grown rats. It was obvious that the chicks were too big as soon as I put them in the cage, but both monitors seized them avidly and began methodically trying to force them down their throats. After about 10-15 minutes only the birds' legs could be seen, jutting out both sides of the jaws, but at this point both Widget and Digit were obviously starting to find it hard going. After a while I heard a tapping sound, and looked round to see Digit actually knocking his snout against the wall of the vivarium in an effort to get the last bit of chick down. They both succeeded after herculean efforts, but digestion was only partial and some very unpleasant remains were left on the tank floor the following day. With the rats it was somewhat different, since I fed one rat at a time with the predicatable result that both seized the item every time, both ends of the rat being clamped between a strong set of jaws. Needless to say, neither yielded until the dead prey had been roughly severed - unpleasant, but better than one of them trying to eat it whole. We got through two rats this way, but I think one of them may have had a third on his own (perhaps the other one gave up). Again, this left an unpleasant half-digested mass on the newspaper substrate a day or so later. Although monitors are tough in this respect and usually evacuate anything too big for their digestive system (rather than choking to death, a distressing tendency found in some herps that die trying), it seems wiser not to take the risk. Besides, as I said, it's pretty nasty to clear up afterwards.
When savannahs get bigger, I cannot recommend too strongly the use of tongs to offer them food. Although some owners succeed in getting their monitors to eat nicely from their hand, most are usually just too swift and too violent - even if the bite wasn't intended for you, it is still painful.
One of the interesting things about savannah monitors is their potential to be tamed down from their state of natural aggressiveness to one of almost dog-likeness. Part of this stems from their innate intelligence, which seems high compared to many other reptiles. Savannahs are also naturally inquisitive, almost assertively so. For example, if my two are in their hidebox after "lights out" and I open the door of the vivarium to do some cleaning, one or both will thrust their snout out at least to check the intrusion. Similarly if I leave the vivarium door open during the day, one or both will climb out to do some exploring, although to be fair most lizards in the same situation will attempt to escape their captivity, even if they don't have the same motivation. Like plated lizards, savannah monitors do like to look for would-be burrows, which normally translates in human terms to some niche or gap where they can squeeze in and hopefully lay undetected. Widget managed to pass a night undetected under a bookcase this way before I noticed he was not in the vivarium.
When handling monitors, correct technique is essential if you want to avoid being bitten. I have found the best way for me is to try to hold their attention and then approach one hand behind their neck (like a fighter jumping an enemy plane from a blind spot) and clasp them behind the head to restrain them from biting. I then pick up the rear end of the body and lift the monitor into position. At this point the monitor often digs its claws into my hands, probably less for revenge than to gain a firmer grip. If you then cradle the lizard in your arms, keeping your fingers away from its mouth, it will normally settle down for a while at least. In the early stages of captivity they will be snappy and hissing, and even later they would sometimes scrabble with their claws rather like an unwilling cat does. This is not dangerous but can leave scratches, and their claws do grow surprisingly sharp as they age. Often, though, as they get used to being handled, they will sit in your arms or on your lap for a few minutes before getting the urge to do something else, like jump onto the floor or express displeasure by snapping. I should also mention that when young, Widget expressed his displeasure in a different way, viz by defecating a long stream of faeces as a wilful act of defiance when he realised he was firmly grasped in my hands. He hasn't done it since, however. In any event, this is a recognised self-defence mechanism among varanids. Be aware that monitors are lively and will often try to jump, even if you are holding them a few feet above the ground. While no harm has come to mine from jumping onto the carpet, it is probably best to avoid this happening at any height. In short you should keep them under control without trying to restrain them too tightly. In their more mellow moments, savannahs do not seem to object to having their necks and the tops of their heads stroked with a finger, but again, don't wiggle it in front of them. Monitors that have been kept and handled over a long period of time often grow "dog tame" and allow themselves to be carried around like children, and such pets are a credit to their owner's care. However, as in the case of all animals (and often children), you can't always guarantee how the personality of your monitor will develop. I had mine since they were little and although they received the same care, there were definitely differences between them. Widget was slightly bigger, tended to stay in the hidebox longer, could be greedy and yet in some ways was more responsive - perhaps he was a moodier monitor. Digit is fairly easy-going, stays up basking later and has tried to bite me much less. He is also more likely to go back into the vivarium than to stay out for the night. These are just two examples of monitor personality.
If you keep savannahs, there are some behaviours you should be aware of to protect yourself and your pets. Firstly, they are intelligent. They won't respond in the same way as a cat or a dog, but they do seem capable of some learning and intuition. For example, once I saw Digit peel back a piece of newspaper with his claws, rather than shove his snout under it, to get at a black cricket. Secondly, they are naturally very inquisitive. If they are warmed up and in the mood, they will often stand up on their back legs and support themselves against the glass door of the vivarium if they think there is something going on outside their tank, particularly if it might be food. This inquisitiveness also leads them to explore nooks and crannies, usually the awkward ones under heavy furniture where you can't easily get at them. Thirdly, they are naturally rather aggressive, although reputedly not as bad in this respect as Nile monitors. But they will bite, certainly in the initial stages, at the slightest provocation. One morning I had my hand in the tank and realised that Widget was licking at my fingers. Mistaking this for friendliness of a sort, I curled them out towards him. Taking this as an invitation, he slammed his jaws around one of my digits, causing me to yell in pain. Even when I pulled my hand up out of the tank he was still hanging onto it, although I persuaded him to let go. I have had a few more bites since them, none of which were serious but some of which certainly drew blood. As these are only juvenile monitors, it should be stressed that a bite from a determined adult could be serious. For the same reason, don't let them run loose if you have other uncaged pets in the same room. Digit once bit Uther, our male plated lizard, and hung on until I separated them. Although thanks to Uther's well-protected body the bite did no damage, it could have been serious for a smaller or less protected lizard or snake. Even our cat, when hissed at by Digit while still a kitten (a big kitten), shot out of the reptile room quickly. This may sound like a blow for the cause of reptiledom, but the last thing you want is to have a monitor and a cat or dog fighting, since both could badly injure the other. Also, it looks (rightly) irresponsible in the eyes of most people.
Savannah monitors are not aquatic and normally live in fairly arid areas, but they do like to soak. This was brought home to me when I kept finding Widget as a post-hatchling curled up in the water bowl, head under the surface of the water and laying quite still. At first I would panic and lift him out quickly, thinking he might have drowned, at which he would open his eyes and give me a look of bewilderment at such fuss. In fact monitors in general are quite adept at staying underwater without needing to draw breath, as are many other reptiles. Now they are larger I give them about 15-20 minutes in the bathtub. I keep the water tepid, about the same temperature as I imagine an African stream on a typically warm day would be. When first placed in the bath, both of them will splash about vigorously and initially make for the shallow end, but they then start to relax (no, I don't use bubble bath!). After a while I would notice Widget slowly lower his head in the water until his eyes and nose were submerged, and at this point he tended to drift towards the other end of the bathtub. He seemed to enjoy the experience more than Digit, but the experience is good for Digit as it washes the cloacal area and hopefully soothes the area where his hemipenis sometimes still gets inflamed. I should warn you that I have also left them for a few minutes and come back to find a lot of black bits floating in the water, which I am pretty certain means one of them has defecated. Monitors are generally known to be induced to defecation by water, although savannah monitors probably less so than other, more aquatic, species. If you make a frequent practice of sharing your bath with your monitors (my wife and I tend to shower more), it's worth cleaning it more often.
Large lizards do need exercise over and above what they get prowling around the tank, and savannahs are no exception. Again, they tend to extremes in this area: laying for hours slumped under the basking light, then getting a sudden burst of energy and prowling up and down, and standing up against the glass to see if there is a way out. I found that if I slid the door open for them, within minutes one or both would climb out (the vivarium is on the floor) and start scouting around, cautiously at first with the tongue flickering in and out, then up and down the study until they either found a place to hide out (a corner, one of the nooks in the stereo unit or under another vivarium stand) or decide to go back into their own cage again and bask. Sometimes one or both would try to remain outside the vivarium all night, which usually succeeded if I am lulled into thinking they have both gone back into their hidebox for the night instead. Provided the room is kept warm enough and does not drop below, say, 70, I do not think any harm comes of this once in a while, although I preferred them back in the cage where they couldn't get up to mischief. A more annoying occurrence is when a monitor decides to defecate on your carpet or other item of furniture. Lately Digit has got into the habit of climbing out, walking over to the standard lamp next to the computer and emptying his cloacal contents within a certain radius. This event is usually announced seconds beforehand by an oddly mammalian-sounding flatulence noise, and usually heralds both white liquidish urates and a solid lump of excrement. To be frank, it is sometimes easier to let these substances dry (as lizard faeces tends to do, rather quickly) and then scoop it up, rather than try to instantly remove it, as when they are wet they smear and are much harder to remove. More recently I placed some sort of water bowl down there to encourage Digit to defecate into that instead, with a long-term view of getting both of them to use a litter rather like a cat. (And let me tell you, for my money monitor faeces don't smell as bad as cats' do).
I did try taking Widget on an experimental walk around the house once on a lead designed for iguanas. I managed to loop it around his neck and arms okay, and then let him pull me where he wanted to go. He was certainly game, cautiously walking out of the study onto the landing, then sniffing out the bathroom (I kept the door to the rodent room closed) before heading for the staircase and fearlessly taking giant steps down it with that familiar side-to-side saurian gait. Getting into his stride, he led me into the rather untidy front room and then wanted to go under the coffee table (and presumably behind the armchairs). At this point I tried to pull him back, whereupon he seemed to realise for the first time that he was actually being restrained. He got somewhat hissy and within seconds managed to free himself from the leash and stroll into the forbidden area before I could stop him. Maybe iguana leashes do work on larger animals, but the idea certainly needs some more attention to detail with these two.
Apart from Digit's eversion problems I had very little trouble with the health of my savannahs for most of their lives. Only once did one of them go on hunger strike, and then ironically enough it was Widget, who was normally gluttonous. For a few days he refused anything, and I was so surprised by this unusual behaviour that I took him to our reptile vet, Dr J. Dr J gave him some appetite stimulant, and after a few days he took some locusts with relish, turned his nose up at rodents again but then took black crickets with more like his usual gusto. After another week or so he began to eat rodents again, first one and then his usual two. He soon returned to his normal eagerness. A period of short fasting does not seem to hurt most carnivorous reptiles, but it is unusual in monitors because of their higher metabolism and normal fervent desire to eat. As might be expected from captive-bred reptiles, I have never had any trouble with parasites. Once Widget did open his mouth and empty out the previous night's dinner in a viscous mess, but I attribute this to the fact that he had grabbed part of a rodent meant for Digit and thus exceeded his usual limit. He appeared to suffer no ill-effects from vomiting.
Sadly Widget later lost interest in his food, after which I returned him to Dr J. Dr J reckoned that Widget had worms and prescribed some anti-worming substance for him. Unfortunately this not only did not help, but laid him lower, to the point where I had to take him to a London specialist at the Royal Veterinary College to be kept in for observation. By this time he had suddenly crashed, becoming very lethargic and scarcely able to open his eyes. Despite the care of the specialist, he died in September 1999. If there is one thing I have learnt from his death, it is the necessity of being vigilant at all times regarding the health of captive animals.
JULY 2003: As I write this, history has recently started to repeat itself, but this time I took Digit to a veterinary clinic that deals a lot more with reptiles. Blood tests showed that Digit's blood was high in lipids (fat) and low in most other substances, indicating a fatty liver problem. This problem has almost certainly arisen from feeding too many rodents to Digit, and was also probably the reason for Widget's demise. As I write this, Digit is receiving supplements and undergoing a change of diet, as well as having had an anabolic steroid injection. Please take heed of this warning: older books that advise a primarily rodent diet for V. exanthematicus appear to have got it wrong. As noted above, only a few years ago V. exanthematicus and V. albigularis were lumped together, and it now seems that feeding instructions were based on a diet more suited to the much larger V. albigularis. Daniel Bennett is of the firm opinion
Was I right to buy a pair of males? That is something I still ask myself. Obviously with Widget gone and Digit's hemipenile problem breeding might be problematical, yet it might be possible. I would be less interested in keeping the eggs than in the hope that at least captive breeding had taken place. Breeding of monitors is normally described as difficult, and in any case a flood of baby monitors would probably not be desirable as they are less of a household herp pet than, say, leopard geckos or bearded dragons. On the other hand, if captive-bred individuals were to replace all the wild ones in stores now, then this would be highly desirable. In the long run, it might also lead to a more responsive generation of savannah monitor pets, just as our ancestors took wild canines and eventually produced the household dog.
And was it right to buy two monitors? Perhaps it was rash of me, inasmuch as savannahs in the wild are normally solitary creatures, coming together just for an hour or so to mate. So far, however, Widget and Digit showed no sign of aggression towards each other other than the habitual tearing of food from each other's jaws. Interestingly, even after a bad food fight, I would often see them basking together under the lamp, one lain half across the other, his arm flopped over the other's neck. Sometimes when let loose in the study they also hid together, one laying on top of the other, whether for warmth or some sort of mutual psychological aid I do not know yet. For most people, however, I would advise the purchase of a single monitor if the sex cannot be accurately told. Apart from the danger of fighting, there is the fact that monitor growth can be unpredictable: you will probably have a 3-3½ ft lizard, but you may end up with one 4-5 ft long. This makes cage space all the more cramped unless you are prepared to get a bigger vivarium.
In conclusion, I have had these lizards now for about five years. They are fascinating animals that do provide the opportunity for interaction with their keeper, something not all captive herps can or should provide. Many have the potential for a real pet-owner relationship, but would-be keepers should be aware of the requirements in space and upkeep of these lizards. In particular, given the smaller size of houses in the UK, British keepers should think carefully about the potential cage needed, especially if the savannah turns out to be a large one.
|Vivarium size:||At least 6 ft by 2 ft for adults, best with sliding glass door. A longer and wider cage will be needed should the monitor(s) exceed 3½ ft in length, so please think carefully as to whether you have the space before you buy the lizard!|
|Heating:||Thermal gradient from 70-75 degrees to 85-90 during the day, with a "basking spot" 100 deg or higher (this is best achieved by having a flat rock beneath a lamp). Temperature can be dropped about 10-15 degrees for 10 hours or so at night.|
|UV Light:||Debatable, but probably at least psychologically beneficial|
|Food:||Carnivorous and insectivorous: Insects: crickets, both brown and black, locusts. Despite what you may read in older books, it is my belief (and that of other keepers) that pre-killed and thawed rodents should NOT BE the staple diet. Monitors should be fed 2-3 times a week. One egg per monitor can be given occasionally. They do not eat any vegetable matter, either in captivity or in the wild. Canned dog or cat food makes an occasional meal in small quantities.|
|Water||Bowl should always be present: like bathing in warmish water if given the opportunity.|
|Handleability||Medium: not really a children's pet, possibly suitable for mid-teen years upwards. Taming is possible but does take time and effort.|
|Health||Fairly robust, but do watch out for parasites in wild-caught specimens. A precautionary visit to a reptile vet may be worthwhile. Don't let them overeat. Monitors are healthy eaters: if they are off their food for any reason, watch them like a hawk and again be ready to take them to the vet.|
|Initial outlay (excluding the lizards themselves)||About £100 for the tank/vivarium and the heating equipment if purchased as young, but be aware that ultimately you will have to pay upwards of £200 to keep adults. The lizards themselves will probably cost about £50 each. Buy from a reputable shop or dealer as wild-caught imports do vary in health. There are normally savannah monitors available from private sellers in reptile magazines, as people's circumstances do change and some can't always keep these fascinating animals. Also reptile sanctuaries may have one or two they have taken into care, although they are far less frequent than green iguanas.|
As might be expected, both TFH and the Herpetocultural Library have published books on keeping savannahs. John Coborn's TFH volume Savannah Monitors is fairly basic and might be criticised on the grounds that it includes clutter (such as pictures of lots of other species, none of which are covered in the text). Michael Balsai's Herpetocultural Library contribution The General Care and Maintenance of Savannah Monitors is physically slimmer but goes into more depth than Coborn's book, eg on the desireability of having a responsible attitude towards your pet monitor vis-a-vis the public, and also covers other commonly available monitor species such as Niles and Water Monitors. The latest edition has been updated to include other monitor species and tegus. R & P Bartlett's Monitors and Tegus (Barrons' pet series) covers similar ground to Balsai's - I have found all of the Bartletts' herpetology books to be good value and full of useful information. It also contains a warning on the necessity of varying monitor diet.
Daniel Bennett is a well-respected writer on varanids and has a V. exanthematicus page.
The Kingsnake.com has a lively Monitor forum and Monitor FAQ page.
Kyle Hutchison has a nice site about his monitors under construction.
Dale's site has some very excellent photographs which show the sort of size a male V. exanthematicus may reach.
Thanks are due to the following people, who all made positive criticisms and supplied further information for this page: Kyle Hutchison, Dale, Chuck and JimM, Greens and Repe.
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