Gila monsters are truly fascinating creatures. The ancestors of these venomous lizards walked with the dinosaurs and managed to survive the mass extinction event that took so many of its cousins.
In the Part 1 of this how-to series, we discussed the proper habitat and substrate for these lizards as well as how important it is to check with local and federal law before bringing home a Gila monster — not doing so could result in hefty fines.
Let’s move on to some other aspects of Gila care.
Gilas enjoy basking in water, so provide a heavy dish for them to do so. Change the water often and make sure your Gila can safely climb in and out.
These lizards spend much of their time in their dens and burrows, so providing a similar space for a captive Gila is a great idea.
“A den or hide should be provided for the Gila with enough room for them to move around inside,” say Monica Rearick and Clarice Brough, CRS. “This can be built up using many of the lightweight reptile rocks…at the cool end of the enclosure.”
Gila monsters, despite their native arid environment, enjoy humidity. You can provide this in their enclosure by building a simple humid site:
- Use a plastic container large enough to comfortably fit your Gila.
- Cut a hole at one end.
- Place moist peat or sphagnum moss inside, and let your Gila enjoy.
Lighting and Temperature
Gilas are cold-blooded and use external sources to regulate their body temperature. In the wild, they do this by exposing themselves to sun and shade accordingly. You need to provide those heated and cool areas for your captive Gila.
“The temperature needs to be between 85–90 [Fahrenheit] (29–32 [Celsius]) degrees under [a] basking light. … The cool end of the cage needs to be in the low 70s. … A basking area can be as simple as an elevated rock and placed under the basking light,” say Rearick and Brough.
Temperature is critical to your Gila’s well-being, so have a backup plan in case of power outages.
Gila monsters are used to having a set period of light and darkness. “Because Gila monsters are diurnal [active by day],” says Petra Spieceon Kingsnake.com, “a naturalistic photoperiod should be provided. After hibernation, a schedule of 8 hours of light, 16 hours of darkness increasing over the summer to a max of 14 hours of light, 10 hours of darkness is beneficial.”
With this in mind, give your Gila a basking light, which can be purchased at many retailers.
Always wear heavy gloves when handling your Gila. No matter how tame she is, if she’s startled, she may bite.
Never hold your Gila by the head or tail — this can cause injury. Also, never allow inexperienced people or especially children to handle her. She’s a wild animal, after all.
Human fatalities recorded due to Gila bites are exceedingly rare, but this doesn’t mean a bite is nothing to worry about.
Gila monsters literally use their teeth to deliver their venom. Unlike spiders, who inject venom, Gilas shunt their venom from modified salivary glands in the lower jaw to the teeth themselves. They get the venom into you by chewing (shudder).
If you are bitten, don’t pull the Gila off the ground — this could cause more damage. Gilas have a tenacious bite; you may need to submerge yours in water to get her to stop. Once you are free, seek medical attention immediately to counteract the venom.
Oh, boy — here’s a Gila monster bite in action:
Gila monsters’ diet in the wild consists of eggs, mammals, insects and even carrion. “In the wild, their food supply for an entire year would be consumed in 3 to 4 months. Adult males and nonbreeding females can be fed about every 2 weeks,” say Rearick and Brough.
Feed your Gila mice and rats, such as you would purchase for a snake. Eggs should be given sparingly — they may make your Gila obese.
Gilas are solitary creatures. So if you want more than 1 Gila, give them plenty of room in the enclosure and watch them carefully. They will scuffle over food and breeding rights.
If you’re interested in becoming a Gila caretaker, follow your local, state and federal laws. Work with an experienced Gila handler to learn the ropes before taking on a Gila of your own. You’ll be more confident, and your Gila will thank you for it – in her way.
Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 in a 2-part series on how to care for Gila monsters. You can check out Part 1 here.