May Blog: Reptiles and Friends

Celebrating reptiles & other multi-legged friends

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Photographed above: (First and Third Photo) Pete Heule Holding Penelope the Rose Haired Tarantula, (Middle) Islero the bull snake.

Here at the Royal Alberta Museum, we are friends with creatures of all shapes and sizes!

Many people find snakes and spiders intimidating and uncomfortable, however we have an excellent team of live animal curators that work every day to help those who are fearful overcome their phobias. 

We interviewed Peter Heule from this very team to get some important information and advice when it comes to interacting with these interesting creatures.

We also got some advice as to how to cope with and eventually overcome the fear that is commonly held when it comes to these animals.

Alberta animals

Q: To start off how many species of snakes are there here in Alberta?

A: “7: Red-sided garter, plains garter, wandering garter, western hognose, bullsnake, prairie rattler and yellow-bellied racer” 

Q: How about tarantulas and scorpions? Do any of these larger arachnids live in this province?

A: “We do have the northern scorpion and western black widow spider found south of the Red Deer River valley, but tarantulas in North America only range as far north as Colorado. We have two species of trapdoor spiders in BC, which are closer related to tarantulas than our more common spiders, but our only Canadian tarantulas are pets or on display in places like our Bug gallery.” 

Q: What about inside the museum? How many live species of snakes/turtles (reptiles) do we keep at the museum currently?

A: “We have three bullsnakes, one western hognose snake and four western painted turtles.” 

Q: For the folks at home, can you tell us the names of some of the reptiles kept in the museum?

A: “Our bullsnakes are named Ferdinand, Islero and Tony; The turtles are Rembrandt, Emily Carr, Frida Kahlo, and Banksy (River Banksy).” 

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Photographed Above: One of the Bull Snakes from the Natural History Gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum, A Vinegaroon from the Bug Gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum, A Female Indian Ornamental Tarantula from the Bug Gallery

Keeping animals

Q: What is the difference between captive bred and wild caught animals?

A: “Catching wild animals and selling them as pets in other parts of the world is a common and mostly legal practice. Some species and populations can handle this harvesting, while others may dwindle with collecting for the pet trade along with other factors like habitat degradation and loss, and climate change. Captive bred means that the animals did not come directly from the wild but rather were born in captivity from parents that also lived their lives at a zoo or someone’s home. Captive bred animals are species that can thrive in captivity and produce healthy offspring, if cared for properly, and represent a more responsible choice for pets than those collected from the wild.” 

Q: Can you explain how the museum is able to keep native Albertan species of snakes?

A: “We have permits and permission to keep these species for the sake of public education, but almost all of them came from Fish and Wildlife confiscations or were surrendered by the public to the humane society. When local wildlife cannot be released back into the wild, because of the potential risk of exotic diseases getting out into the environment or the animals requiring extensive veterinary care due to improper care by the owner, Fish and Wildlife or Animal Control seek permanent homes at places like RAM or the zoo.” 

Q: Why is it that I can’t personally keep most of the reptiles that are displayed in the gallery?

A: “These are local wildlife and therefore protected under the Wildlife Act. It is illegal to collect, keep, or traffic wildlife without a permit from Fish and Wildlife and/or Alberta Environment and Parks.” 

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Photographed Above: Mexican Red Knee Tarantula from the Bug Gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum, Desert Hairy Scorpion in the Bug Gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum and an African Mantis being held by myself in the Bug Gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum

Reptiles as pets

Q: Can you describe the importance of doing good research before adopting an animal as a pet?

A: “Knowing what your potential pet needs to be happy should be the first step. Can you look after them properly by providing the right diet, habitat, lighting, and time? Consider how long they live, whether you have room for them to grow to full size, and whether you will be a responsible forever home for them. Many turtles and tortoises can live for decades, even a hundred years, so you may need to train your grandkids to look after them or consider something less long-lived. Female Mexican red knee tarantulas can live for 50 years, so contemplate whether your pet will accompany you to college and the rest of your adult life instead of leaving them with your parents when you move out. Adopting an animal is a serious responsibility and must be carefully researched to ensure you choose something that fits your lifestyle and commitment level.”

Q: What are some good resources for someone looking to get their first reptile/arachnid as a pet?

A: “Checkout your local library for books published recently, your local Reptile and Amphibian Society, or online. Compare several different sources, some are more detailed than others and often very dated references could give outdated care information that has since been discredited. The Edmonton Reptile and Amphibian Society can be found on Facebook and have excellent resources for aspiring pet owners.”

Advice for those with animal phobias

Q: If you were speaking to someone who was super scared of spiders or snakes what would you say?

A: “I’ve been working with snakes and arachnids for decades and have never been bitten by any of our spiders. The snakes can bite in defense or by mistake on feeding day, but if you’re careful and respect them when they feel threatened, they can become as tame as your cat or dog. We are happy to offer live animal encounters to people who would like to face their fears or phobias. Usually meeting a friendly tarantula or snake helps people become more comfortable and replaces anxiety with a positive, real-life experience of the creatures. Please feel free to reach out to the RAM Live Animals Team if you want to meet one of our friendly snakes or spiders to help you get over those fears.”

Thank you so much to Pete Heule, Live Animals Supervisor, for answering these questions for us!

If you are interested in more awesome bug-tastic information, check out the video below!

Speaking from experience

A couple of years ago I entered the Bug Gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum with a strong fear of animals that just happen to have 8 legs. 

Fear is something that has held me back in the past, so entering and eventually volunteering with the live animals team was an important part of moving past these fears. 

I began volunteering with the Live Animals Team during the pandemic, learning about the behavior of different species of arachnids and insects. 

Pete was a big part of showing me that observing and learning about these creatures is the first step in overcoming a fear. 

After getting to hold and learn about a wide array of creatures from snakes and tarantulas to millipedes and beetles, I became fascinated and could not get enough of these animals.

Fast forward to 3 years later, I am a proud owner of 5 different tarantulas (some photographed below) all with great names and great personalities. 

Getting past these fears has made my life a lot easier. I can proudly say I am no longer a spider squasher and enjoy observing my tarantulas daily.

I highly recommend visiting the bug gallery and learning about the amazing animals we keep at the Royal Alberta Museum. And who knows, it may help you overcome a lifelong fear in the meantime!

Written by Sydney Paterson


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Photographed Above: Sonora the Mexican red leg, holding a hercules beetle in the Bug Gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum, Lilith the brazilian black tarantula.

Creatures at the RAM Shop

Check out some of our favorite reptile and bug products that we carry at the RAM Shop! 

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tarantula keepers guide

Steve the Snake by Jellycat

Tarantula Keeper’s Guide

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Insect Glass by Cognitive Surplus

Snake Stud Earrings by Pika & Bear

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