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Overloaded facility proves need for local reptile rescue

This four-foot long Argentine tegu was dropped off at Mike Hopcraft
This four-foot long Argentine tegu was dropped off at Mike Hopcraft's facility in early November. The sick lizard struggles to eat, drink and walk; it makes a gagging gesture after a sip of water. Two vets and many medical tests have not determined the cause.
— image credit: ALINA KONEVSKI/THE ABBOTSFORD NEWS

When Mike Hopcraft opened his reptile rescue, education, and sales center in Abbotsford in Nov. 2012, he had eight red-eared slider turtles in the large artificial pond. The Reptile Guy now has over 80 as people keep depositing their unwanted turtles – as well as lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and any other cold-blooded creature – on his doorstep.

"These are the ones that people buy when they're little tiny turtles in pet stores, about the size of a quarter, and people don't realize how long they live, how big they get, how dirty they are," said Hopcraft.

Sliders live over 50 years. Although cute when small, they grow quickly to a foot long and start requiring more frequent cleaning and larger enclosures. That's when some people bring them to rescues like The Reptile Guy, or dump them in city ponds like Mill Lake.

With the many reptile surrenders, Hopcraft has outgrown his new 1,300 sq. ft. facility in the first year. But he won't stop accepting animals.

Instead, he is fundraising $75,000 for a new building where he will construct a "gigantic turtle pond" and much larger enclosures to welcome all stranded reptiles. For instance, his mean-looking snapping turtle named Muffin is about a foot in diameter now but will grow to 150 pounds, as will the two giant tortoises roaming a small sandy pen at the current site. All need larger and separate enclosures.

"This is not going to do for much longer at all. We got 240 animals in the first year. We're not looking to close down anytime soon, so the animals are going to keep coming in. We need a bigger space," he said.

Only a handful of rescue facilities accept reptiles in the Lower Mainland.

"Once it was known that we had an actual location and more people started finding out about us, the number of animals coming in just went right up," said Hopcraft.

The reptile industry is growing rapidly, he says, but knowledge of how to care for the animals and what to expect as they grow is still lacking. Hopcraft accepts reptiles no questions asked, and frequently receives animals sick and disabled after basic care wasn't followed.

The Reptile Guy has launched an Indiegogo campaign to cover the cost of a new building. He recognizes he's unlikely to meet the hefty price tag through this campaign alone, as supporters have pledged just $525 by Dec. 31, with 13 campaign days remaining.

Hopcraft is no stranger to the uphill financial battle. He shut down his previous rescue site in 2011 after new government regulations prohibited him from displaying his animals and dried up his revenue source. Last year, he opened the current site after heavy public campaigning.

He is determined to find the funds for a new building, especially as he risks losing ownership of his American alligator and two Burmese pythons. Because Hopcraft doesn't have a large enough space, another agency is on contract until May 2014 to house these exotic animals. But it's unclear what will happen by that deadline if Hopcraft is unable to meet the requirements to reclaim them.

Hopcraft's long-term goal is to obtain a zoo licence and have the facility as a full-time education and visitor centre. He already takes his reptiles to schools, but the current space is too small to accommodate student groups.

He is also trying to reduce the number of reptiles that end up in bad homes. People can adopt some of his animals, but – like the SPCA – only if they meet strict requirements, and not everyone does. A potential adopter for a bearded dragon lizard recently walked out after an argument on the necessity of an ultraviolet light for the enclosure.

In an effort to reduce the slider population in Abbotsford, Hopcraft unsuccessfully campaigned city council last summer to restrict their sale because the turtle has become an invasive and destructive species in city parks and ponds. Meanwhile, he continues to receive sliders from people who didn't think the initial purchase all the way through.

Australian tegu at The Reptile Guy

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