Now that we established habitat and dietary needs to ensure
health of Varanus melinus it is time to look at one more aspect of varanid husbandry
- interaction between keeper and captive monitor lizard.
Due to foraging nature, activity and high intelligence monitor lizard can’t be confined to its enclosure for life, even if enclosure meets and exceeds all the standards. So it is keeper’s job to ensure that V. melinus has its daily portion of supervised roaming and interaction outside of enclosure. But first animal has to be prepared for it and start trusting and tolerating the keeper.
It is important to understand, that monitor lizards are not domesticated and not communal/social animals. They don’t seek attention like dogs, which are social pack animals. And they don’t like handling. They may, however, come to you for food, protection or seeking warmth. Sometimes they react positively to gentle petting, that may be shedding or sexual(at the base of their tail) related. That said, we should interact with Quince monitors on their terms, observing and making necessary adjustments.
Introduction. First thing we need to do when we get our monitor is put it into permanent enclosure and leave alone for a few weeks with no interaction at all. Monitors are very territorial and need time to get used to their new environment and feel safe in it. Let them acclimate, research and start using all the provided basking, hiding, climbing, burrowing and aquatic features. Provide roaming crickets to hunt and other food items and just observe your monitor from distance. This is the time when you both start slowly studying each other patterns and schedules.
V. melinus exploring new enclosure.
Earning trust of a baby Quince monitor.
Earning trust and expanding space. Now it is time for the process
that takes months. Patience and good observation skills is what needed the most. We first need
to let our monitor know that his enclosure is safe. Then that we are not a threat and actually
bring food. It is good to have some small area properly equipped for monitor to be around us.
It can be a bathroom or any other small room, outfitted with climbing nets, towels and other
surfaces for monitor to just roam around in our presence. This is also good time to feed or
treat your monitor with food.
Always supervise monitors free-roaming and make sure rooms are absolutely escape-proof. There are many horror stories online with monitors escaping through the air vents, sewage opening, inside the walls, under the floor - whenever there is an open hole, small and flexible monitor will find a way to get there and will not willingly come back.
Month after month of this daily interaction monitor can be introduced to bigger and bigger areas. Would be shy and flighty at first in an unknown space, but will get used to it and start exploring fast until all your living quarters are his territory.
Available space enrichment. When monitor knows and feels safe in all available living space it is time to start enriching it with new objects and exploration paths. Since V. melinus is highly arboreal, many surfaces and walls can be outfitted with climbing ropes, burlap, nets so monitor gets to explore new places. It is also important to provide an outside basking area somewhere for monitor to come there to bask. Fresh water should be available to them at all times. Every object in available area is going to get investigated. Boxes, piles of laundry, open walk-in cabinets, shelves, beds and sofas, all the available crevices - everything interests a monitor. It is easy to shift piles of laundry or boxes from place to place to stimulate monitors interest. All movable objects have to be shifted around to simulate environment change and promote activity.
V. melinus found an improvized basking spot on top of snake enclosure - a warm LED light.
Environment enrichment. Quince monitor main habitat - enclosure, can be enriched to provide nature-like experience for a monitor lizard. Light schedule can be programmed to emulate daylight change with dusk and down. Sound enrichment to fully immerse in natural rainforest sounds. If you think about it - natural habitat of Quince monitor is a tropical rainforest, saturated with sound. Now place a monitor in a dead silent enclosure - it is stressfull, complete silence is not natural for any animal, including human. This is why it is advised to play natural tropical forest sounds inside monitor lizard enclosure and schedule them based on time of the day. Listening Earth - Sulawesi - Heart of the Indonesian Rainforest is a really good example of such soundscape.
Food enrichment. Feeding time is good opportunity to stimulate monitor lizards activity. They are foragers and hunters, so tracking, chasing and grabbing their prey is very entertaining and positive experience for them. Food scent trails can be created for monitor to follow them. Interactive objects like hamster balls can be outfitted with food inside for monitor to push around and chase. Simple riddles, obstacles for monitor lizards to get over to reach the food item. They will happily sprint and leap into the air chasing the food. Make them work for their food, it stimulates their brain, digestive and metabolic functions, promotes good muscle tone and overall health.
Komodo dragon enrichment at Randers Tropical Zoo.
Credit: Vidar Kolath Jensen
Leash training. The final step to expand the world of captive Varanus melinus. Best time to start leash training is when monitor recognizes and accepts keeper and other family members, feels safe around them and show no signs of stress in daily interactions. Should be approached the same way as introducing to larger inside areas: slowly and patiently, sticking to covered places, walls and trees. The monitor will feel overwhelmed and stressed with all that big new world and this is why it is important for it to feel safe around you and to have good secure harness. Stressed monitor can dart towards the tree and it will be close to impossible to get it off there. Few introductory sessions and monitor lizard’s natural curiosity will prevail, it will become calmer and start exploring new big world. That will be the final and biggest step in life enrichment for captive monitor lizard.
Female Quince monitor outside without the leash. Ultimate trust between keeper and
Credit: Andrey Luzan
Stress assessment. Going through those steps it is impossible to avoid stressing
the animal. Earning trust, introducing to new areas - it all requires an animal to overcome natural survival
instinct. Everything unknown to them is a threat that has to be avoided. When you see your monitor full alert,
reaching up, jerky head movements, darting and sprinting to cover - all signs of stressed out animal and a
message to you to slow down a little bit and take smaller steps.
However, being intelligent and highly adaptable animals, monitor lizards learn new environment very fast and develop confidence. The more things, environments and areas they learn and explore - the less stress overall they will have in their lives. So it is important to patiently work with them and guide them through those steps. Simply put: the more you work with your monitor, the less overall stress it will have, which will greatly improve the quality of its life and health.