Reptile rescue centre opens


Abandoned reptiles in Flanders have a new home thanks to a lizard-lover who turned his passion into his profession

Centre is responding to a growing need

How often do you think the emergency services in Flanders are called out to catch an exotic snake or other reptile that has either escaped from captivity or been dumped in the wild? Once a year? Once a month?

In West Flanders alone, it happens every week. During September, a 1.2-metre boa constrictor was found up a tree in Ypres and a red corn snake in an apartment building in Veurne.

Then there is the iguana found in a park in Hasselt, the bearded dragon caught skulking in the dunes near Oostende and the box of 18 half-starved lizards and geckos left outside the front gate of Antwerp Zoo.

It’s a big problem throughout Flanders. In Tervuren park, just outside Brussels, the lakes have a growing number of large terrapins and turtles. They were probably bought as pets when they were cute, brightly coloured babies the size of a €2 coin. But by the time they’d grown to be mature carnivorous adults the size of a dinner plate, their cuteness was long gone. Dumping them in the local pond may give them freedom and a ready food supply, but it causes havoc among the local wildlife. Naturalists have recorded examples of ponds stripped of wildlife by just two or three terrapins, which devour fish, frogs, newts, ducklings and moorhens.

These are just some of the examples of the growing trend to abandon exotic reptiles. Usually it’s the job of the local fire brigade to capture them. But having caught them, then what?

One solution is to take them to Flanders’ first Reptile Rescue Centre in Houtave, a small village between Bruges and Ostend. The centre officially opened the last weekend of September. Located in a converted barn on an abandoned chicken farm, the Reptile Rescue Centre is equipped with all sorts of vivariums and aquariums where staff can care for more than 400 reptiles. 

Transfixed by lizards

The centre is the idea of Mario Goes, an avid reptile fan. “One of my first memories as a child is being taken to Antwerp Zoo and standing transfixed in the reptile house for hours, staring at the amazing snakes and lizards there,” he says. One of his first pets was a fire-bellied toad, and in 2001 he got the opportunity to turn his hobby into a profession by working at a local reptile zoo.

It’s always fun to introduce a python or a corn snake to a classroom of 10-year-olds

- Mario Goes

A few years later, Goes began to realise that the number of unwanted exotic reptiles being brought into the zoo was escalating – and the zoo simply didn’t have enough space to house them. It was the beginning of a dream to open his own reptile rescue centre.

It has been a long and difficult process; obtaining the official paperwork was especially challenging. “Belgium had no reptile rescue centres or shelters so no regulations or laws existed covering them. We spent more than a year talking to various government departments before we were eventually given the green light for our venture.” A location was found and various fundraising events were held to pull together the money necessary to convert the premises into a suitable centre.

The centre is impressive, but not in a high-tech way. With funds limited, full use has been made of recycled wood, glass and other materials to create a building with a low environmental impact. Goes was helped by a team of eight volunteers who now help to run the centre. Each holds a qualification in handling and caring for animals. Goes himself runs the show, while still working part-time at the reptile zoo. “We have a licence to house up to 430 animals,” he explains. “Each cage is specially constructed and very carefully sealed and locked – to prevent reptiles escaping as well as thieves getting in.”

Valuable education

The centre already hosts 150 animals, from terrapins, turtles, crocodiles and alligators to Asiatic rock pythons, albino reticulated pythons, crested geckos, bearded dragons, water dragons and an Argentinian tegu. 

An important role played by the centre is education. The team is frequently invited to local schools to talk to children about their work and give instructions on how to care for pet reptiles. And of course they take some of their residents with them. “It’s always fun to introduce a python or a corn snake to a classroom of 10-year-olds,” says Goes. “Our educational sessions in schools are extremely valuable, as they give us the opportunity to convey the great responsibility involved in looking after a reptile.”

The centre also gives instructional sessions to fire brigades on the best way to catch and handle reptiles, some of which can be dangerous.

So after the reptiles have been rescued and in some cases restored to full health, what happens to them? Every animal entering the centre is micro-chipped, so they can always be identified and tracked. They are then offered up for adoption, but potential owners are carefully screened and then monitored afterwards. “We have a strict adoption protocol,” says Goes. “We then make ourselves available to give support and advice to the new owner.”

The centre is careful to convey that it is not against people buying and keeping reptiles. They realise that a lot of people who keep reptiles as pets are very conscientious and often keep them in excellent conditions, as good as in any zoo. But Goes is keen to see proper registration of reptile-owners and their pets, intensive education so they know how best to look after their animals, and a comprehensive tracking system.

 The Reptile Rescue Centre is open on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 10.00-17.00.