Munich Shelter Gives Reptiles a Home

Veterinarian Markus Baur never has a moment alone at work. He shares a small, drab room with his colleague Tobias Friz -- and with a number of animals. At the moment, his office is home to a freshwater turtle, a Mexican parrot snake, two tarantulas, several twist-necked turtles, giant musk turtles, Chinese false-eyed turtles, mud turtles and an egg-eating snake. "There was no more room anywhere else," Baur explains.

The veterinarians currently care for about 600 animals at Munich University's reptile sanctuary and have seen more than 1,700 animals come through since the beginning of the year. They have been able to find new homes for many of the reptiles -- among them, nine young Nile crocodiles that Baur and Friz escorted to a Spanish zoo via Air Berlin in late June.

"For every animal we're able to place, two new ones turn up," Baur sighs. "We never know what tomorrow will bring."

Customs officials, fire departments and police all drop off confiscated, abandoned or escaped reptiles almost daily. Overburdened pet owners leave paper bags containing baby crocodiles at the door and holidaymakers back from Tunisia come to unload tortoises they smuggled back from vacation.

Many new reptile owners realize too late just what they've welcomed into their living rooms from pet stores, exotic animal markets or Internet suppliers. For one thing, most reptiles continue to grow their entire lives. Alligators, for example, can reach an impressive four meters (13 feet) in length and tend not to be so popular with the neighbors. Even a comparatively harmless green iguana, Baur explains, "grows into a two-meter (6.5-foot) beast that considers the living room its own property."

More Exciting than Hamsters

Still, pet owners increasingly seem to find scaly, cold-blooded species more exciting than traditional dogs, cats and hamsters. Around 460,000 live reptiles were brought to Germany in 2002; by 2009, the number had risen to nearly 600,000. The number of exotic animals in shelters has nearly tripled since 2005 and a sanctuary exclusively for exotic species recently opened in Berlin. "The smaller shelters can't afford it," explains Henriette Mackensen at the German Animal Welfare Federation. "But there's demand everywhere."

At the reptile sanctuary in Munich, many of the stranded exotic animals make their homes in an idyllic courtyard. Here, surrounded by university and residential buildings and with a seminary across the way, an odd collection of outlandish creatures pass their time in pools and terrariums, hothouses and cages. Chinese soft-shelled turtles, primeval creatures with snouts like snorkels and leathery shells, are just one of the exotic species paddling about in the cloudy water.

The Cuban iguanas here, meanwhile, are an endangered species. Friz and Baur found them in the apartment of a pathological animal collector in the countryside near Munich. "The guy is well known," Baur says. "We get called out there about once every two years." During the last raid, police and veterinarians found approximately 2,000 animals, including 200 reptiles, but also monkeys and spiders.

The small American alligators at the Munich sanctuary also came from the man's bizarre collection and have been waiting for a new home for two years. "Alligators are highly intelligent, they react to their owners and some even respond to their names," says reptile expert Friz, adding that these animals could certainly be placed with private individuals. "There are very responsible crocodile owners out there."

The Search for the Monacled Cobra

The owner of an alligator named Ali, though, wasn't one of them. A man driving through Frankfurt discovered the 170-kilogram (375-pound) animal at a construction site earlier this month -- Ali had escaped from a reptile show. And in early July, police in the town of Gross-Rohrheim, south of Frankfurt, caught an ownerless crocodile in front of a motorcycle store -- it had belonged to a small traveling circus.

An even more spectacular case was the search for a monocled cobra in an apartment building in the western German city of Mülheim an der Ruhr. When the poisonous snake escaped from its terrarium in the attic, tenants fled the building, while snake hunters emptied the apartment, blocked the street, sealed the house and laid adhesive traps. The elusive snake eventually met its end in one of the traps -- but not until three weeks later. It was found dead and dried out, stuck to the adhesive.

Then there's "Leopard Manni," who became a local celebrity in the Ottensen neighborhood of Hamburg. When his Gaboon viper drove its poisonous fangs into Manni's hand last August, the unfortunate snake enthusiast was just able to make an emergency call before sinking into unconsciousness. Previously, he had twice been bitten by pet rattlesnakes, once in 1996 and again in 2004.

The reptile rescuers in Munich have a minor celebrity on their hands too. An alligator snapping turtle named Eugen made headlines eight years ago as the "Monster of Dornach Pond." Officials quickly banned swimming in the pond near Munich's trade fair grounds after fishermen spotted the enormous turtle. Following a weeks-long hunt, Eugen was captured and ended up in Baur and Friz's care.

'Wonderfully Like Dinosaurs'

The veterinarians worry about the turtles especially. Alligator snapping turtles like Eugen, along with equally dangerous common snapping turtles, can no longer legally be kept by private individuals, which means the vets are prevented from finding new homes for them. Yet more and more continue to turn up, with 200 turtles currently crowded into the Munich sanctuary.

"Snapping turtles look so wonderfully like dinosaurs," Friz says, "and people really like that. But then they outgrow their tanks."

Many reptiles not only grow large and strong, they also live to be extremely old. People who make spontaneous purchases of exotic species ignore this fact just as blithely as they ignore the fact that they will need to establish a warm and humid climate at a constant 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) somewhere in their apartments. Some reptiles also require temperatures to drop at night, while some like it even hotter. "The African spurred tortoise, for example," Friz says, "is used to the climate of the Sahel in Africa. To reproduce that, you'd basically need your own nuclear power plant."

Still, both veterinarians see little point in banning exotic animal ownership, as animal protection groups regularly demand. "A general ban would affect dedicated and knowledgeable owners first and foremost," Baur believes, "and not the ones who are secretly hiding a mamba in the basement."

Unexpected Baby Boas

Some of Germany's 16 federal states have enacted their own ordinances on the handling of poisonous and dangerous animals. Hesse, for example, recently forbade private individuals from keeping dangerous animals. North Rhine-Westphalia, on the other hand, neither bans the practice nor requires animals to be registered.

For Baur and Friz, a good day is one when they find a suitable keeper for one of their charges, as happened recently when a meter-long (three-foot-long) boa constrictor went home with its new owner, an old-time rock-and-roller with a miniature pinscher. "A wonderful person with absolutely outstanding expertise," Baur praised the man.

But the vets' joy didn't last long. A few days later the rocker was back, not with the snake, but with 24 unexpected baby boa constrictors. All in need of a home.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein