First of all prevention really is better than cure. So above all else, spend time making sure that your reptile enclosure is absolutely escape-proof.
You’d be amazed at the size of gaps that some snakes or lizards can squeeze through or how strong some reptiles can be in pushing or ripping their way through flimsy structures. All tanks should have a securely fitting lid –and note that snakes are some of the world’s best escape artists. Even glass enclosures fitted with half-screen tops and a hinged glass lid are not secure enough for small snakes, many of whom can squeeze out if the latch is loose enough. All outdoor enclosures should have fences well-dug into the ground (many lizards and tortoises are surprisingly strong burrowers) and high enough that they cannot be easily climbed.
Give some thought, also, to your regular routine and how you will be accessing and handling the reptile. Some commercially-manufactured terrariums have large doors in the glass wall which might provide easy access but also means that the reptile can easily jump out or slip through your hands when you open the doors.
Having said all that, sometimes – despite the best care in the world – accidents happen. So here are some tips on what to do if your reptile escapes:
Help! My reptile has escaped! What do I do?
First, shut all windows and doors in the house to prevent any further escapes into the big, wide world where the reptile may be even harder to find and recapture, as well as being exposed to more dangers and possibly threatening other humans and animals. Check the cage again as well and make absolutely sure it is not hiding under a rock or in a dark corner.
The good news is that escaped reptiles are often found in the house, despite escaping their enclosure. The normal behaviour is to seek cover immediately so your reptile will be looking for a suitable hiding spot and once there, it may remain there for a considerable length of time. Thus, the best thing to do is to think like your reptile and consider what it might like. You might not like squeezing between the toilet urn and the bathroom wall but your snake might delight in such a warm, damp hiding spot!
Where do I look?
Warm, dark places are the top choices so check in the following areas:
- Wardrobes and cupboards, particularly near warm appliances such as the dryer in the laundry
- Any cracks or crevices near or next to appliance motors.
- Under cushions and wedged into furniture.
- Piles of fabric, particularly if it has been folded up in layers, such as bedding and laundry baskets.
- Heating vents
- High areas on top of furniture, appliances and other household structures (heat rises) and reptiles can be very nimble climbers.
- Potted plants — especially those near a sunny window
- In shoes or clothing on the floor
- In the gaps between mattresses
- Behind items on a shelf, such as in a bookcase
- Near lights.
- Behind drapery or blinds
Be especially vigilante in dark corners, cracks and crevices – use a powerful torch and a hand mirror if you have to, to make sure you don’t miss a reptile wedged into a corner. Don’t just rely on your own assumptions – you’ll be amazed at the kind of spaces your seemingly fat reptile can squeeze into. All boxes should be inspected thoroughly, from the flimsy tissue box in full view to dusty filing boxes in the attic.
What if I can’t find it?
Remember that many reptiles are nocturnal or most active at night, therefore if you have checked all the obvious places and had no luck, the next step is to set some traps and wait until dark foe the reptile to hopefully show itself. A good simple trap is to use the rustling, crinkly plastic bags from the supermarket and lay them on the floor, along walls and in any nooks and crannies. Then switch off all lights and other appliances which may make noise (eg. TV, stereo) and wait, keeping as quiet as possible, but with a flashlight close at hand. Normally, within half an hour, the reptile should feel secure enough to come out of its hiding place. Listen and you will hear it moving and the “traps” you have set will help you locate its position. Make sure you don’t stomp your way over as the vibrations can cause your reptile to panic and dart back into hiding – or even become fearful and aggressive and attack.
If your reptile does not make a move after an hour or so – and you obviously cannot sit up all night – a good alternative is to lay some trails of white flour or cornstarch across doorways and in other areas your reptile might cross. In the morning, you might be lucky and rewarded with a trail showing you the direction and maybe even the location of your wayward pet. Lastly, you can also try luring your reptile back into its enclosure or into a trap using some food, particularly if it has been loose for a few nights and is likely to be hungry. This works particularly well with snakes and a nice warm mouse that will dissipate odours well.
One thing to remember is that your normally docile pet may react differently when out of the security of its enclosure. In fact, monitors and iguanas have been known to pursue and attack humans if they feel cornered. All snakes can strike and bite if provoked and even turtles and tortoises will bite if picked up or handled suddenly.
If the reptile loose is dangerous – either venomous or a powerful large size – it is a good idea to have 2 people involved when trying to recapture it. Obviously, due to the high risk to other humans, particularly children, and pets, it is absolutely crucial that if you do keep any sort of dangerous reptile, you take strict precautions in making sure its enclosure is escape-proof, ideally in a separate room which is normally also securely locked so that if the reptile does escape, it cannot stray into the rest of the house and be a danger to others.