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."
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.