PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Che Guevara isn't as tough as he looks.
"He likes having his tail scratched," Tim Curran said with a smile.
Che is a 31/2 foot-long rhino iguana - an animal that looks like something out of "Jurassic Park" - and is named for the Cuban revolutionary. As Curran gently strokes Che's back, the lizard pushes up with his hind legs to meet Curran's hand.
"The iguana, regretfully, is the most popular reptile," Curran said.
Curran, an exotic animal rescuer, has spent 30 years fighting the notion that iguanas and other reptiles and amphibians are disposable, not worthy of the attention abandoned dogs and cats receive.
He places unwanted or abandoned animals in caring homes from his Northeast Philadelphia pet store, Radical Reptiles. However, he can't help all the animals in need because of the high cost of caring for them and the difficulty of finding knowledgeable owners.
The animals, which come from owners who can no longer handle them or organizations like the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, are more than Curran can handle. Of the ones he's contacted about, he cares for only a quarter.
"There are plenty of animals to take in, but the big problem is finding a home for these animals before you go broke taking care of them," Curran said.
Mark Miller, president of the Philadelphia Herpetological Society which works to find homes for abandoned reptiles, said caring for the animals is "in no way a for-profit business." The group is prevented from running a full-service shelter because of insurance and permit costs.
Exotic pets are often dumped at pet stores or animal control agencies because they grow too big for their owners. A green iguana, of which there were nearly 3.5 million imported in the early 1990s, can grow to over 6 feet and live for 20 years or more, according to World Wildlife Fund studies. Some species of snake can exceed 20 feet when full grown.
Miller and "Iguanas for Dummies" author Melissa Kaplan started a crusade a few years ago to change the common name of the green iguana to "giant green iguana."
"We wanted to get that word 'giant' in there, just to give people a clue," Miller said.
When these animals grow too large, they're sometimes abandoned in parks or woods. Exotics dumped outdoors rarely survive because they require special diets and warm conditions. Only small parts of the country with warm, humid climates can support exotic animals in the wild.
At least five times a week, pet owners or the Philadelphia Animal Care group call Curran about unwanted animals. Often, Curran said, the animals come out of drug houses.
"Guys will have an 8-foot Burmese python guarding their stash," he said.
While the biggest reason for abandonment is the size of the animal, the uneducated buyer also plays a primary role in these abandoned cases.
Curran said people rely on retailers who aren't always knowledgeable about the animals they are selling - their dietary, lighting and temperature needs.
"How does that 16-year-old kid have a fistful of knowledge on dogs, cats, fish, birds, hamsters, mice and reptiles? He doesn't," Curran said. "He's there to sell."
Sometimes, pet stores can be the worst offenders when it comes to animal welfare.
Broken Reptile Rescue and Education, a rescue operation in New Hampshire, had to close its doors after accumulating more than $65,000 in veterinary bills for 104 animals recovered from a pet store in Dover in February 2002.
The pet store's owner pleaded guilty to seven counts of animal cruelty but paid only $1,500 each to Broken Reptile and Cocheco Valley Humane Society to offset the cost of keeping the animals.
Jenna Dillon, co-founder of Broken Reptile, said she and her husband were able to find homes for all of the animals with the help of a Michigan reptile rescue organization, but won't be taking in more animals anytime soon because of the drain it placed on their personal finances.
Philadelphia bans any boa or python with an adult length over 6 feet, any venomous animal, any kind of crocodilian or any animal that is "fierce or dangerous," according to the Department of Public Health.
Curran, who owns a 23-foot Burmese python he boards with a breeder outside the city, said these animals are more difficult to place for the same reasons the ban is in place.
Jeff Moran, a spokesman for the city's health department, said stores are inspected at least once a year, but many illegal animals are brought in from outside the city.
Craig Hoover, deputy director for TRAFFIC North America, the trade monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund, said there are few federal or state restrictions on exotic pet sales and the burden for deciding what needs to be monitored falls to local governments.
Still, Hoover and Curran believe the keys to keeping animals and their owners safe and healthy are education and an avoidance of impulse buying.
"They're sold for $15, and your 8-year-old wants one," Curran said, "and two and a half years later you're left with a three-and-a-half-foot animal that no one wants to deal with."
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