We’d like to preface this blog article by stating that it’s never a happy occasion when a pet reptile or amphibian passes. It’s a sad occurrence and we’d like to make it known before you delve into this piece that we’re not writing this tutorial with an attitude of callousness or disregard for the lives of the beautiful reptiles and amphibians with which we gratefully share our homes.
We also want to state that this post will be somewhat graphic and depict photos of deceased reptiles and amphibians being preserved. To some people, this might be disturbing and we wish to alert those with sensitive constitutions of this fact before they continue reading.
All of the Backwater Reptiles team loves reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates and we are writing this article from a place of appreciation for these wonderful animals and the enrichment they bring to our lives. We’re of the mindset that even after they’ve passed, our loving pets might live on through the preservation process, but we definitely understand that not everyone wishes to see their dearly departed pet after they have moved on.
So now that we’ve warned you that the content of this post is not going to be appealing to everyone, let us continue forward. We’ll discuss everything from how to humanely euthanize a reptile or amphibian to how to safely create a wet specimen or dry specimen out of an animal that has moved on due to natural causes.
How to humanely euthanize an ill or dying reptile or amphibian
It’s never an easy decision to euthanize a pet, no matter what type of animal you care for. It’s natural to grow attached to your pet, no matter if it has scales or fur.
It’s standard operating procedure to take a dying or ill cat, dog or other domestic creature to the vet to be euthanized, but what do you do when that pet is a reptile or amphibian? Is the process the same? What is the most humane way to go about helping your reptile over the rainbow bridge?
Obviously, we always recommend taking your reptile to the vet when it comes time to make such a tough decision. Although there are ways to do so at home, they are controversial and we feel that it’s always best to leave such matters in the hands of professionals, so we won’t be touching upon these methods, even though some people might endorse them.
Your herp veterinarian knows how your pet’s body works and will be able to euthanize your herp in a manner that alleviates pain and causes the least distress to the animal and to the owner. Some vets are even kind enough to perform house calls for an additional fee.
How to create a wet specimen from a deceased reptile or amphibian
Before we delve into the process of preserving your reptile or amphibian as a wet specimen, we should probably explain what exactly a wet specimen is.
Unlike mounted skeletons or taxidermy, which both require extensive studying and experience to perform, wet specimens are animals suspended in a liquid matrix in some sort of container such as a jar or a bottle. The liquid can range from ethyl alcohol to formalin, but either way, it will essentially “pickle” the animal in question, preserving it in its entirety.
For the purposes of this article, because we’re not experts on the subject, we’ll stick strictly to preserving a complete specimen. In other words, it is certainly possible to preserve parts and pieces of an animal, but we’re only discussing capturing the essence of an entire creature prior to its decomposition process.
When creating a wet specimen, it’s best to start right away. The less rigor mortis that sets in, the better you can pose your animal into a resting position that you like. However, if you are unable to begin the preservation process right away, you can store your reptile or amphibian in the freezer.
Just keep in mind that freezing works better on animals with scales as the porous skin of amphibians can actually get freezer burn if you’re not careful.
List of supplies needed to create a wet specimen
–A jar or container large enough to hold the reptile or amphibian that you will be preserving. This is a no-brainer. You’ll need something to hold both the liquid and the animal in question.
When we’ve created specimens in the past, we’ve purchased glass jars with either twist top silver lids or vacuum sealed glass tops. Pretty and decorative jars and containers can be found in abundance at thrift stores for very cheap or you can head to your local craft store for a wide range of sizes. Just be sure your container is glass because plastic can react poorly with chemicals.
Side note: Although jars with cork lids definitely look appealing and will do the trick for a short amount of time, the cork lid is porous and you will lose preservative through it over time. So although you can certainly cap your container with cork, keep in mind that you’ll have to refill your jar with preservative from time to time.
–Preservative liquid. Again, our preservatives of choice are either formalin or ethyl alcohol, although there are others that you can use if you know where to find them.
Ethyl alcohol is a clear alcohol much like rubbing alcohol, however its chemical composition is slightly different. We use a solution of at least 70% alcohol to water that can easily be purchased from any drug store.
Formalin is a bit trickier to work with and is actually a carcinogen, so we recommend using ethyl alcohol if at all possible, even though it is not as strong of a preservative.
Formalin is not as easy to secure due to the strength of the chemical, but it can be purchased online.
No matter whether you choose to use ethyl alcohol, formalin, or some other chemical, be sure that you have enough to inject your animal and enough to fill your holding container.
–Needles in syringes. Depending on the size of the reptile or amphibian you’re preserving, you’ll need various gauges of needle, but for most animals, the very small hypodermic syringes used by diabetics work just fine.
If you need needles larger than insulin syringes contain, you can order them online. However, insulin syringes can be purchased at any pharmacy in bulk for relatively cheap.
–Plastic sheet liner. This item is not necessary, but we prefer to line our work space with some trash bags or disposable plastic bags just to keep things as sanitary as possible.
–Gloves. Here’s another item that is not strictly needed, but we certainly prefer to utilize when available for sanitary reasons.
You can wear latex or rubber gloves, but either way, we choose gloves that are fairly fitted to the skin. This is because a lot of the needlework can require a delicate touch and oversized bulky gloves can make this difficult.
Steps to creating a wet specimen
1. Thaw your reptile or amphibian if necessary. You will be injecting it with a preservative liquid, so if possible, you’ll want the animal to be soft to the touch and pliable, rather than stiff and frozen.
2. Empty a small amount of your preservative liquid of choice into a bowl or temporary holding container. You will be sucking up the liquid into your syringe very frequently, so we’ve found it’s easiest to have the liquid in an open container where your needles have easy access to it.
3. Uncap your syringe(s) and fill it with preservative. Begin either at the tail end of the animal or at the head and start injecting the preservative. Because your animal still contains all its internal organs, you’ll want to get your needles far enough into the body cavities so that the preservative is reaching those organs.
4. Inject your reptile or amphibian’s body cavities until you feel that it is full enough of preservative. This means getting inside the cranium, the abdomen, and even inside the cloaca if necessary.
There’s not really a way to be one hundred percent sure that your specimen is done being filled. It’s sort of something you gauge by examining and feeling the animal itself. It should begin to “fill out” and sometimes you can even feel the preservative inside to know where you need more.
5. Position your reptile of amphibian inside the container in a position you desire it to remain. Many animals will gently float within the preservative liquid, while others, like snakes, can be coiled up within the jar.
6. Fill the holding container up with enough preservative to cover the reptile or amphibian. If your animal is floating, we recommend filling the entire container up to the lid, otherwise you can just fill it enough to cover your specimen.
7. Put the lid on your container and your wet specimen is ready to display! We would like to mention that often times, the first liquid you fill your jar with will need to be drained and replaced after a few weeks. It’s not uncommon for the liquid to be discolored when the animal is “settling in” so to speak, but you can always drain and replace if you want pristine, clear preservative liquid.
How to create a “dry” specimen from a deceased reptile or amphibian
Transforming your pet or other humanely sourced reptile or amphibian into a dry specimen through methods such as articulation, taxidermy, mummification, or another similar practice is far more complicated than producing a wet specimen. And quite honestly, it takes a far more practiced and knowledgeable individual to perform such tricky jobs. Therefore, for the purposes of this blog article, we’ll simply touch upon how to convert your animal into a clean set of bones.
There is always the old fashioned method of burying the animal and allowing nature to run its course. You can always put your deceased animal into a shoebox or other type of container, bury it for a few months, let the creepy crawlies do their job, and unearth the container later.
Personally, although a simple burial is the most hassle free approach, we prefer faster methods. Not only can it take some time for your specimen to decompose depending on the size of the animal, but there is always the chance that something could go wrong. For instance, if your burial ground is not confined to say, your backyard, hungry wild animals can and will come along and dig up your animal. Then you’ve likely lost your specimen altogether.
We prefer to clean the deceased animal ourself and feed the remains to dermestid beetles. These are a special type of insect that feed upon decaying flesh. They will essentially clean your animal of its skin and other material in a matter of days, leaving you with clean bones.
There are many sources where you can purchase dermestid beetles, but pretty much all of them will be online. We recommend purchasing from a seller who has a track record and instructions on how to feed the beetles because this means they have experience and likely won’t sell you beetles with parasites.
Once you’ve acquired your beetles and created a habitat for them, you will need to skin your animal, especially if it is a snake. Amphibians are a bit easier to work with and won’t require as much work.
The beetles prefer drier meals, so if you are able to safely allow your specimen to dry out for a day or two prior to placing it in the beetle’s enclosure, they will make quicker work of the carcass.
Please be aware that with small animals like frogs, delicate lizards, and other tiny reptiles or amphibians, you might only end up with a skull left over. Sometimes the bones of the body are too delicate or cartilaginous to survive this process.
You can certainly clean your animal to the best of your ability of its internal organs and skin and boil it as well. However, we really don’t recommend this method for reptiles as the bones tend to be so small and delicate that it can be quite a tricky process and might ruin your bones.
Reptile and amphibian skeletons
If you’re just looking for the skeleton to be preserved, there are cleaner insects called dermestid beetles that clean dead animal carcasses to the bone. It’s a fairly clean process, and the beetles can be purchased online.
There are many ways to preserve and memorialize your pet reptile or amphibian. Whether you choose to try to transform them into a wet specimen or just save their bones, please keep in mind that this article is a beginner’s guide and not an expert tutorial.
Conclusion: How To Preserve A Reptile Or Amphibian
If you truly want your animal’s likeness preserved in the most effective manner possible, we recommend finding a specialist in your area that has experience in such matters.