Kasey Talks Critters Episode 1 with Em Lock - Chinese Water Dragons
Welcome to Kasey Talks Critters. It's a brand-new show here at Zen Habitats, where I interview hobbyist and experienced reptile keepers and ask them the questions that you want to know as well as their job working with animals. This is a brand-new show and I'm super excited to bring it to you every month. So, I hope you enjoy it. My first guest ever is Em from Emzotic. She's got this amazing YouTube channel. She's a wonderful animal expert and I cannot wait to chat with her today. So, Em, what is your experience with animals?
Hi, Kasey. Thank you so much for having me. I am so grateful and just inspired to be your first guest today on your brand-new show. So, thank you so much for having me. My background is a little bit as a zoological specialist as well as having a lot of niche jobs within the zoological world. I grew up in Asia, which gave me a great foundation with a lot of exotic animals in the wild and that's really where my passion for exotic lizards started.
Oh, that's amazing. I bet you saw some of the coolest animals there. I can't even imagine. So how did you get to start working with animals? Like what was your first job working with animals.
So, my first job working with animals was when I was around ten years old, I started working in a pet store which was opposite my house, and they paid me in bird seed to feed my two parakeets at home. And I got well acquainted with a veterinarian whose clinic was right next to our pet store. And he eventually got me a job at the Hong Kong RSPCA with is known as just the SPCA. And that's, that's where I first got started with dogs, reptiles, a couple of different interesting facets of a pet keeping, if you will.
Oh, I love that. That's fascinating. So, you mentioned that you saw lots of cool lizards in Asia. So, what species are we focusing on today?
The species that we're going to be focusing on today is the beautiful Chinese water dragon.
So, I guess let's start with why do you think the Chinese Water Dragons is so cool?
I love the Chinese Water Dragon. For me, I love the size of, say, bearded dragons. They have a great “handability” to them. The ability for them without being something the size of, say, a tegu or green iguana, which takes up so much space. So, for me, the Chinese Water Dragon is a smaller size lizard, which is still very robust, and I do feel that they are the superior lizard to keep when compared to a green iguana, and that's really why I love them. You get all the beauty of the iguana, but in a smaller package, which I just feel is so much easier to manage.
Oh, I 100% agree. So, I also like to segway into this. I want to talk about your personal experience, the beginning experience with them and my experience with them as well, just so people can understand, you know, how different people may keep them in different levels of expertise, etc. So, for me, I really didn't have any Chinese Water Dragon experience until I started working for Zen Habitats and they had an ambassador pet species, Ming who is our juvenile, still female Chinese water dragon. So really, I've learned a lot just by working with her, but I'd love to hear how you got into the husbandry and how you figured all of that out.
Yes. So, Kasey, they are a fascinating lizard. It's very much sink or swim with them. But with my background, having seen these animals in the wild and having grown up catching them and bringing them home and then eventually releasing them again, I understood from very, very young that these are such specialist creatures which can tank so quickly if you're not giving them the proper care. So, I really have approached keeping Chinese water dragons from a unique perspective, from seeing them in the wild and growing up around them and really understanding the climate that they come from. Try my best to replicate that in captivity, but also understanding that so many of the specimens that we have in captivity today are wild caught specimens, which just comes with so many challenges. And that's a lot to talk about in a little while. But I would love to hear how your sort of interactions with Chinese with dragons might do with your mind.
So, I have always thought of them as that super fragile animal. So, I it's just been one of the ones that I haven't really wanted to take care of personally. Like as a personal pet. I saw them, you know when I was working in veterinary clinics, etc. But it wasn't something that I was interested in because I was like, “Oh my god, I'm going to kill this animal.” No, not really. You know, so it was something that I wasn't super interested in because I didn't want the risks associated with it. But once I learned a little bit more about them and why they're feisty, like you said, a lot of them are wild caught. So that plays a big part of that. So yeah, I really that was my first time was really my first real, real contact with the Chinese water dragon besides regular checkups. So, I think this is a great way to segway into why are there so many of them in captivity and why are there so many disasters reported with them?
So, with the Chinese water dragon, there are so few of them being bred in captive. It's because the amount of space they require and the amount of food they require to get them to breeding age and a healthy breeding weight for that matter, doesn't make them conducive to turning a profit. It is a lot more conducive to turning a profit to import them massively from the Far East, which I do not like at all. It is so heartbreaking and it's a huge problem that I feel that we're facing within the herpetological community because people are choosing quantity over quality. That's why there's so many because there's a never-ending need and supply for them. A lot of these animals get brought in from those who collect them in the wild. They sell to a distributor who then sells them to large chain pet stores and small mom and pop pet stores here in the United States and around the world. It's not illegal to do, but the fact of the matter is, these animals come in very stressed, very dehydrated and a dehydrated water dragon is not a healthy water dragon. And they come in loaded with parasites which needs so much ongoing treatment.
Yes, that is what I saw first saw, just loaded with all the gut parasites.
It smells so gross so it's half the parcel when you go and choose this adorable little, tiny water dragon that comes in and just a couple of inches long and you want it to come home and be a pet and you've got your set up already. Even then, you're still set up for failure because in my experience, over 50% will tank and I will bring home, say, four at a time which are wild caught. I've been doing a lot of research on what we can do to help those that are already here in the United States and hopefully helping to educate people on what to do if they did impulse buy a Chinese water dragon because they are so difficult to find as captive bred specimens. A very fine few between something I'm hoping to work on. But 50%, if not more, will tank even at a very, very advanced, and knowledgeable home.
So sad. It really is. So, this kind of goes into so they're tricky to establish. So, what kind of methods have you used to get them to establish healthily in your environment?
So, the first thing I do with any animal is I put them straight into quarantine because if you're bringing an animal from the wild that has had parasites from the wild that your own animals at home might not be familiar with. And then you're taking them to a pet store where there's additional bacteria’s and then bringing in this highly stressed animal into your environment. You can end up with really devastating different kinds of viral infections, which I have dealt with in the past, such as cryptosporidium, really devastating and can wipe out an entire collection in a matter of months. So, I'm all for the quarantine and in that time it's all about getting them hydrated first. And sometimes that means ringer solution from the vet. If you're unfamiliar with how to give an animal ringer solution, it is done intravenously. So, it's best to go and take the animal to the vet where they can do a fecal and then give them some ringer solution just encourage them to be more hydrated. Because if you try and feed a water dragon before they're hydrated, they're not really going to benefit from those nutrients. And it can have an adverse effect on the way that their digestive system works. Hydration is so key for a Chinese water dragon and then from there you’re going to want to look at a really good, healthy diet.
Do you think that they're going to be a big pet in the future?
I do. I think that they're already quite a well-established pet. The difference, the difficulty is they're not a long-lived pet because of all the issues that we just spoke about. So, it's almost like we call it in England, “throwing good after bad.” You keep on throwing money and buying another animal, bring it home and it tanks all over again. So, it's like a never-ending cycle. And unfortunately, there aren't the best resources out there for pet keepers when they go into a large chain pet store. I remember I went in a few weeks ago to look at a Chinese water dragon and I was handed a bearded dragon care leaflet. And that's a completely different desert animal from the wrong part of the world compared to Chinese water dragons. So already people are being set up for failure. I do believe that they have the ability to be a good pet when they are established in captivity from captive bred stock. I know that Ming that you have over there at Zen Habitats is a captive bred baby, so she's going to be a lot more robust and she could probably deal with fluctuating temperatures, not that there would be as well as fluctuating humidity, whereas the two that I have behind me on this rock ledge over here, they are a lot more sensitive and I haven't even named them after gosh, six months of having them almost because it's still at this stage, even though they're eating and pooping and shedding, they could still tank. All it takes is one stress flare up and then all those parasites begin to multiply like crazy in their guts and it overruns the animal. So, I do believe that they can be a phenomenal pet if you give them the space they deserve, as well as the proper diet, the proper humidity, and UVB.
Yes, absolutely. All that husbandry is so important. At least when I was working in in veterinary medicine, obviously, about 80 to 85% of the issues that we saw in exotic pets were related to husbandry issues. So, yeah, you hit that completely right. So, what kind of keeper would a Chinese water dragon be good for? What sort of hobbyist? What do you think?
I feel that if you are going to be bringing home a captive bred baby, it would be great for somebody who is a serious hobbyist and who is willing to work with a mentor to learn more about it. So, if you're curious and you're really passionate about focusing on the species, you're going to have a really interesting time, a challenging time still, but very rewarding when you do start to see that by implementing your mentor's knowledge, as well as having some courage to try different things that have not yet been explored very wide in captivity, then you could have a very rewarding experience. But it's also important to go into keeping water dragons with a degree of realism as well. That's why I haven't named these dragons just because I have to keep a level of detachment there where I want them to thrive first before I get attached. And whilst they are beginning to thrive, I still have to remember that as much of myself as I'm pouring into this. I still have to maintain good mental health and understand that there's only so much I can do with a captive bred animal. And already I've lost 50% because I brought four of them in and some of them did not sadly make it. But in that time, I've learned so much when my Chinese water dragon mentor, as well as teaching them a few things that they didn't know about either, because the set up that I have for mine is very different to my mentors. And so, it's really, really interesting. And we've both worked together to come up with something that we feel reflects what this water dragon would enjoy in the wild based on my knowledge and their knowledge of breeding. So, if you're curious, if you have space, if you have the resources to throw a lot of money at them then they'll make a rewarding impact for you.
So, because this is a Zen Habitats show, does Zen Habitats have an enclosure that would work for these guys?
Actually, yes. Initially I thought no, because what you'll see behind me is one of the original four by two by four PVC panel enclosure, which is great for holding humidity. But being the older style, this is a standalone enclosure. However, I believe double the space for a Chinese water dragon would be beneficial to the species and the new Meridian. Four by two by four enclosure is the same footprint, but you can expand it as much as you want. You can get a four by two by four enclosure and then put it together with another four by two by four enclosure and you can just keep going. So, I do believe that Zen Habitats offers one of the only enclosures on the market that can potentially hold and support the needs of a growing and adult Chinese water dragon. Right now, my dragons at this size and this is perfectly adequate for them, but as adults they will need, especially if they turn out to be a pair, will need a lot more space and so a four by two by four is going to be such an asset.
Yes. Oh, good. I'm so glad to hear that. So, we went over some really interesting things about Chinese water dragons. So maybe now is a good time that we can talk about what our fans had asked. So, what is the minimum size enclosure for a Chinese water dragon?
Well, it really depends on the size of the water dragon. And remember, these are a semi-arboreal species they love to climb. They love to be high up. So, you also want to have that height in there, too, for a young Chinese water dragon, I would say nothing smaller than, say, the two by two by four Zen Habitats enclosure. That's the arboreal setup that you see a lot of people keeping chameleons in. And that I found works well for the youngsters because they when they want to escape, they either go down into water and they just plop or they want to get as high as possible. And that's helpful. I think that you could also foreseeably with a young like neonates, you could also put them in a four by two-by-two PVC panel enclosure. Definitely PVC panel telling you a lot of humidity. And the benefit of that is that Chinese water dragons are very prone to think scrub and that's when they freak out and they run into things, and they bash their noses in. That can lead to a secondary infection, which is, you know, again, it can be catastrophic because that can cause the parasite count to come back up again. So really as much space as you can possibly give. And then with an adult, I would say nothing smaller than a four by two by four with an extension kit as well.
That's great. Yeah, it is something I will make sure that I talk about in some of my videos that, you know, size is super important with these guys. Like they need the space. Like the tail is so long just the tail!
And a lot of people forget the height aspect. I mean, I'm standing up right now at this enclosure. I'm five foot four. This enclosure goes way above my head. I mean, I really have to like to reach up there to try and grab things. And I've noticed at nighttime my Chinese water dragons will sleep up here. And I believe that the success I've had with the wild caught Chinese towards dragons is a lot to do with allowing them to feel safe at night. That's when they're going to relax. They need to sleep, otherwise they're constantly on edge. And similarly with my Tokay, if I've ever kept them low down, they will stress they won't eat. So having a vivarium on the floor is not going to cut it for a Chinese water dragon that's why I've opted to have the deluxe cabinet stand underneath, which offers an additional two feet of height and then four feet of height with this enclosure behind me, it makes it so that they can actually look down and judge me and feel like they're above me, which of course they are. They can certainly feel that they're away from me. They don't think I can reach them, and I don't bother them when they're upset.
So that's absolutely right. That's the same with Ming. During the day, I normally see her basking way up top on her plants and then like when I come in first thing in the morning is usually when she's on the ground, probably foraging for buggies left over. What is their main food source. What are they omnivores? Are they carnivores?
People think of them traditionally and keep them traditionally as an omnivore. They will offer vegetables. They will offer a lot of insect protein. But I had a fascinating conversation with my mentor, who's one of the only people here to successfully breed Chinese water dragons for a long period of time. And he supplies just me and those who are looking for captive bred animals. What he has found is that none of his captive bred or wild specimens particularly go for vegetation. And it's his belief. And so, I've started implementing that. Whilst I should always have some leafy matter available, don't be surprised if they don't eat it, because in the wild the studies have shown that I think it's less than 5% of the matter found inside the guts of wild caught Chinese water dragons is vegetation. The rest of it is all insects. And the vegetation that they find inside could literally be in the vegetation that they ingest as a byproduct when grabbing an insect. And so, I have never seen mine eat any vegetation without accidentally ingesting it as trying to get their insects.
Yeah. Ming will sometimes eat some greens, but it might just be, like you said, just an accidental grab. When you're trying to grab a bug.
Clearly, they can process and there may be some benefit there. But I find that gut loading my feeders with high quality veggies I would have been offering the Chinese water dragons also is very beneficial.
Very smart. It's super important to feed your bugs good, nutritious diet because it's going to bring it into, you know, your pets. One person said my dragon will only eat dubia roaches. Do you have suggestions for any picky eaters?
Well, first of all, I'm glad that they're eating Dubia roaches because they are one of the most nutritious insects that you can feed a Chinese water dragon. If you're finding that your dragon is super picky. Something that you can do, which I find really works, is having a dish. So, I've got a little clear dish right here that you can see behind me, and that is where every day I put their first meal of the day, the rest of the time I scatter feed. But they have learned anything that goes in that bowl is food and is fair game and is easy. So, you can try to put things mealworms in there. You can try putting your Dubia in that little like a section where you always keep the same food dish and feed the same time of day. They will learn to associate that food dish with food and then as a result, whatever you put in that, they might be more willing to try.
So, I guess my last question: One, how tolerant are they to handling and two, why are they so spicy?
So, they are quite intolerant to handling, especially as juveniles and neonates. If you think about it, a hand is terrifying to such a small lizard. I mean, we're talking about an animal that that weighs less than a gram. So, the world is a scary place. Initially, I would encourage maybe a little bit of hand feeding, and that's something that's really helped me with these two behind me. They've learned that my hand is not such a scary place because they get their favorite super worms from my hand. They do love their super worms, which, you know, can be quite fatty and they are prone to fatty liver disease. So, I give them quite sparingly, but as a treat, they know that when my hand comes in its party time, it's a good time. So, getting appropriately sized treat items is like maybe even try horned worms. This can encourage them to want to come and spend more time in your hand. Of course, limiting the amount of grabbing you have to do would be great. So, I did not try handling them or getting them used to my hands whilst I was shuttling them back and forth to the vet because otherwise it be confusing for them. I figured once I had them more established, I would be far more able to then start working on trust building now. Standing here they would dart off into their water and not want to be here, but now they're actually quite interested in what I'm doing, and I love to hang out just like what I'm doing and the second that they see me putting in that food dish, there are a lot happier to see my hand. But they're super spicy because everything in the wild wants to eat them. They are nutritious lizards, and they have aerial predators, they have primate predators, they have reptilian predators. And that's why they always are near water because not all predators can swim. It’s a good idea to give them some water, which is more than just say a tub. I see people putting a little tub of water. That's not enough. This is a 20 gallon behind me. I'm going to be eventually extending it to be double as long so that half of the bottom enclosure is water for them. I'll just do some structural reinforcing at the bottom to make sure, since it's already elevated, that it's very structurally sound that gives them more of an ability to bond with you because if you give them the chance to hide and get away, they'll feel a lot less stressed when they actually are choosing to come out and bask.
Oh, yes, absolutely. I just want to throw a few questions at you more about you Em. If someone wants to pursue the same career as yours, what advice would you give them?
Have an open mind and just give it a try. I can't tell you how well that advice is worked for me and just saying yes to things that you would often say no to with the understanding that everybody makes mistakes. Nobody comes into any animal job or any job for that matter, with all the knowledge and half of the journey and half the fun is learning. And you learn by making mistakes. So don't be afraid to make mistakes. You don't have to be perfect with anything that you're doing and surround yourself with people who want to see you win just by wanting to share the knowledge with you so that you can continue to use that at home and pass that along as well.
Absolutely. I think the reptile community is really great for that. Oh, so is there any myths about your profession or your field of work that you would like to debunk?
I think that there was the misconception that the reptile hobby and the zoological profession in general is and I really hate using this term, but quote unquote “male dominated.” I don't feel that. And I don't want other women to feel discouraged from pursuing a career in the zoological community because they feel like they'll be alone. You know, there's so many awesome women and men out there who are super supportive and don't look down on anybody based on who they are as an individual. There’s definitely a tribe for everybody. And everybody has something that they can bring to the zoological community and learn from as well. So, if it's something you want to do, then definitely do that. And along those lines, a lot of people are worried that they'll never make any money working with animals. And I have to say, whilst it can be true in certain facets of, you know, zoological work, there's always ways that you can support a living. You just have to get a bit creative and inventive. So don't be discouraged because you feel like you'll never be able to make a living. That's not true. There's always a way that you can. But sometimes finding the journey to where you want to be and doing something that you enjoy that also is beneficial to you and your living situation. You can get there, so don't feel like you should shy away from working with animals because you feel like you won't be able to support yourself. That's not entirely true.
No, not true. You can do it. You just have to figure it out. So, is there any challenge that you're facing with your project, your Chinese water dragon project right now? I mean, challenges.
The main challenge I have is the setting of these two animals. It can be very difficult to tell whether or not they're male or female until they are much larger. Now, these two are subadult. They're not quite juvenile in my mind. I would call them subadult. But now you're going to take another year and a half to get to be a full adult, and that's when if they do begin to show male traits that I might have to start separating them because in general, I would not recommend cohabiting Chinese water dragons. They are a territorial creature. I've never seen any hand-waving. I have never seen any dominance over the food or the basking spots. So, I'm actually starting to think there might be two females. However, it's never a guarantee that just because a reptile is male or female that they won't be dominant and won't be aggressive. So, I watch them very carefully. And at the first sign of any kind of territorial behavior, they would get separated out immediately. They’re really nice, healthy animals now, which I'm really glad for because it took a while to get them here, which was another challenge. But yes, I would love to know if they are male or female. I just won't know for a while longer.
If you could give your 18-year-old self any advice, what would it be?
Okay, I guess. Life is to be enjoyed and not endured. I've been in some sticky situations in my life where I just think I'm amazed. But you always figure it out. And if you surround yourself with the right people, people who have your best interests at heart that you can trust and who are there for you, there's nothing you can't overcome and choose to be your own best friend because there's no one really in life coming to save you. I know that sounds really scary for a lot of people, but that's something I had to look at too. Nobody is coming to save me. They're going to be people there to help, but I have to rely on myself.
That's beautiful. And I think that is fantastic. Is there anything else that I didn’t ask you that you want to tell our Zen Friends?
Yes. I would love people to know that whilst Chinese dragons are beautiful, it is possible to enjoy animals without necessarily keeping them, so if you are going to choose to commit to Chinese dragons, it is a commitment. It is a hefty commitment, both in terms of space, time, resources. So, if you would prefer just to see lovely specimens, you can try and track them down in your local zoos, for example, to go and see them, I'm sure, that have really healthy specimens on display. Just because you really love and respect them, it doesn't mean that you have to keep them. But if you do decide to commit to them, try to find a captive bred specimen. Because every time you purchase an animal from a pet store, it's a vote. And you might think that you are saving a creature, whereas it's really just encouraging that pet store to buy more of them because it's a sale at the end of the day. And that's something we all have to be really cognizant of. So, if you really feel strongly about not having animals taken from the wild, be prepared to do your research. Find someone who is a trusted breeder with a good background and can prove lineage and be prepared to just do a bit of waiting. Patience pays off with the species.
Definitely. I think that was very well said. Thank you, Em. I really appreciate you being my first guest. I think this was a lovely conversation. So again, Zen Habitats has enclosures for Chinese water dragons.