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Savannah monitors can be found through most of eastern to western Africa, and are a popular pet, especially among first-time lizard owners. These lizards are dark to dusty gray, with light dotting on their backs. Their tongues are long and surprisingly blue, and they use them constantly to explore their environments.
With proper care, captive savannah monitors can live between ten and fifteen years. Hatchlings are often 4 - 5 inches in length, and can reach up to 4 feet as adults. Savannahs are generally enthusiastic eaters, and will easily increase their weight five to ten times during the course of the first year, more than doubling their hatchling size of 2½ to 4 inches during that time.
While monitors are quiet and do not demand the time and attention that a dog does, they do require a large enclosure and, as they eat frequently, their enclosure needs to be cleaned frequently. They are not naturally tame, so significant time must be spent with them the first year to tame them, and then regular time must be spent interacting with them to keep them tame. They prefer a routine, with regular feeding and cleaning times.
Savannahs are quite intelligent lizards and, as with many reptiles (and other animals) with lots of time on their hands, they spend some time every day trying to escape. Once out, they will cheerfully tear your house apart climbing around, looking for that perfect hiding place--someplace very dark, very tight, and very difficult for you to reach. Vents and other access into the walls and major appliance are child's play to these monitors. Unfortunately, not only can this drive you crazy, it can get expensive repairing and replacing broken objects, and healing your monitor if it gets injured while out and about.
On the other hand, many monitors will be content with a savannah-safe area, and things for them to climb on, contentedly basking for some time before moving on. You can thus let your savannah out into a secured room for regular periods of exercise and sunning through an open window. This will benefit the savannah in many ways, not the least of which will be some exercise to offset their tendency towards obesity (and liver disease).
Give your monitor some time to get acclimated in its new home. Approach it slowly; and avoid abrupt movements. Allow it to hide for the first several days; do not be too concerned if it does not eat during this time. Within a few weeks, it should be comfortable in its new surroundings, and should be starting to feed well. Weight gain and growth will be obvious.
In the long run, it is less expensive to buy a large enclosure for your monitor to grow into, rather than to buy a small enclosure that will not last more than six months. Start with a 30-gallon tank at the least. A 75- or 90-gallon is even better. Stay away from open-mesh enclosures, as monitors must be kept warm and, unless you live in a consistently warm environment yourself, it will be costly and complicated to get such an enclosure heated to the proper temperature.
Stay away from screen-sided or topped enclosures (hardware cloth tops are acceptable). Savannahs have incredibly sharp claws, and can easily shred screens. Make sure that the walls, floor, and ceiling are securely attached to each other. If the savannah finds a weak spot, it will work at it until it creates a hole just big enough for it to squeeze through. Along the same lines, keep its enclosure away from drapes, expensive lamps, computer equipment, etc. When taken out of its enclosure, a savannah will scrabble around trying to hook its claws into anything it can.
If you live where it is very cold during the winter, your savannah may go through a short seasonal hibernation (known among herp experts as 'brumation'). This is not encouraged, but sometimes is unavoidable. Always have its enclosure set at the proper temperatures. During the day, temperatures should range from 85-90 F (29-32 C). At night, it can drop to 75-85 F (24-29 C).
Heat should be provided in two ways: an undertank heating pad under half the tank, and a basking area. Eventually you may wish to purchase a fiberglass pig blanket, and connect it to a thermostat. Heat tapes, incandescent lights, and ceramic heating elements are all suitable for providing heat. Use whatever combination is necessary to maintain the proper temperature ranges day and night, and without stressing the monitor at night by burning a white light for heat. A slightly more expensive way to heat the monitor is to keep the entire room warm, usually by use of a space heater.
Hot rocks are extremely dangerous, and should NEVER be used. As with all lizards, monitors have been known to lay on hot rocks until they burn their stomachs, because there are very few nerve endings on their stomachs. Serious injury and even death can result from using a hot rock.
Astroturf or indoor/outdoor carpeting are excellent for bedding. Extra pieces may be kept on hand, already cut to fit, and popped in the tank while the soiled piece is removed for cleaning and disinfecting. Wood chips are more aesthetically appealing, but may be fatal if your monitor accidentally eats them. Shredded coconut bark is a safe alternative, and has the added benefit of not turning moldy if it gets wet.
Savannahs like their privacy. Provide shelters at both ends of the gradient. Commercially available "caves" and half-logs work well for small monitors, but they become prohibitively expensive or impossible to find in a size suitable for full grown savannahs. Recycle cardboard tissue boxes or any other box into which your monitor will fit. The advantage of using such boxes is that they are easily and inexpensively replaced with bigger ones as your monitor grows. Larger monitors can be provided wooden shelters; they can be decorated with rock, mosses, bark, etc. to "dress" them up. Keep in mind that, when designing a naturalistic terrarium, monitors come from rather hot, dry surroundings.
Monitors, like other lizards, require UVA and UVB for calcium metabolism, and a regular photo-period. Use a ZooMed PowerSun or other UVB-producing fluorescent bulb (not a plant or aquarium light) plugged into a household appliance timer. Set the timer to be on 10-12 hours a day, slightly less during the winter. Black lights can damage monitor eyes and cause immune suppression, and so should be avoided. If you can provide real sunlight, either coming in through a window screen (not glass or Plexiglas), or in a semi-shaded secured outdoors area on a regular basis, you may be able to do without as much artificial supplementation.
A healthy savannah will feed just about any time you offer food. If it does not willingly eat (and is not in a seasonal hibernation or breeding season), then it is very likely ill. Healthy, well-fleshed monitors can easily get through the hibernation and breeding season without any serious loss; sick monitors should not be allowed to go that long without food.
Hatchlings can be started on crickets, earthworms, Zoophoba ("king" worms) and freshly-killed pinky mice. Savannahs will easily eat pre-killed prey. If you are using frozen prey, be sure to defrost it thoroughly and warm it slightly before offering it to the monitor. For safety's sake, offer monitors their prey by dangling it from forceps or kitchen tongs. Their jaws are strong, and accidents can happen if your fingers are too close to that tasty mouse-sized snack. (Frozen/thawed or freshly-killed mice are much safer and healthier than live mice, and your monitor will not become aggressive if fed pre-killed prey.) Feed insects that are no bigger than the distance between your monitor's eyes, and start on freshly-killed fuzzy mice when the monitor is a couple of months old and has grown large enough for them.
As your hatchling grows bigger, switch to freshly-killed hopper or adult mice. Savannahs are secretive, especially small ones who are prey for larger animals. The exercise they get chasing the crickets is good for them, so continue to feed them crickets during this period for as long as they will take them.
A monitor’s greatest period of growth is within the first two-three years, and this is the period when the greatest amount of food will be required. Feed hatchlings (up to one foot in length) one to four small mice or fuzzies (depending upon the monitor's size) every two-three days.
Juvenile/Subadults (up to three feet in length) should be fed one to four mice twice a week. Adults (three or more feet in length) can be fed twice a week, adjusted as necessary based on weight gain and amount of exercise. Obesity in savannahs, a serious health condition caused by improper care, is all too common in captivity. You will have to use your best judgment, observing how the monitor looks, taking into consideration the temperature and amount of activity. Start with a couple of mice or weanling rats a week.
Savannahs enjoy soaking in water. Provide them with a water bowl or tub big enough for them to submerge themselves (they can stay under water for extended periods of time). They will drink their water, and may defecate in it, so the bowl must be checked at least once a day to keep it clean and filled. Savannahs are also handy at tipping over water tubs, so make sure to use sturdy, bottom-heavy crocks or tubs.
With proper care and handling, your savannah monitor will be a pet you can enjoy for years!