Wyoming Dealers Say Gila Monsters Not Good Pets After Bite Kills Colorado Man

A Colorado man died after being bitten by his pet Gila monster -- which have been known to deliver a fatal amount of venom. That's why Wyoming exotic pet dealers say that Gila monsters are usually best left in the wild.

Mark Heinz

February 23, 20244 min read

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If a pet Gila monster is on your wish list, you should probably reconsider, some Wyoming pet dealers said.

Particularly in light of a Lakewood, Colorado man dying this month after he was bitten by one of his two pet Gila monsters. Keeping those critters in captivity isn’t a good idea, Andrew Jenkinson of Gillette and Kiley Troia of Riverton told Cowboy State Daily.

“I don’t know how well you can even tame down a Gila monster. If they’re anything like monitors (monitor lizards), then no. You can’t tame down monitors,” said Jenkinson, who owns Mr. Critters, a pet store in Gillette.

Troia, who owns Critters, Scales & Tails, a pet store in Riverton, is also against selling and keeping Gila monsters.

“I think some animals just shouldn’t be kept as pets,” she said.

Fatal Bite?

Lakewood resident Christopher Ward, 34, had two pet Gila monsters, named “Winston” and “Potato,” according to news reports.

He was taken to a local hospital immediately after Winston bit him on Feb. 12. He was placed on life support but died on Feb. 16. His girlfriend surrendered both of the Gila monsters to Lakewood animal control.

The Jefferson County, Colorado coroner’s office has not yet officially ruled the bite as the sole cause of Ward’s death, according to reports, but Gila monster venom is known to be fatally toxic.

Gila monsters are a species of lizard native to the Southwestern United States and the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora. They can grow up to about 22 inches in length and are the only venomous lizard species native to the United States.

Know What You’re Getting Into

Jenkinson and Troia say they don’t know of anybody in Wyoming trying to keep Gila monsters as pets.

But there are some who keep potentially dangerous critters, such as rattlesnakes, Jenkinson said.

Rattlers are fascinating, but people absolutely must know what they’re doing to keep them in captivity, he said.

“The first thing you’ve got to do is get in line with state, federal and local laws. Here in Gillette, you can’t keep anything venomous,” Jenkinson said.

And people should do their research and know the needs, habits, and potential dangers of owning any exotic pets, he added.

Troia said that in general, Wyoming regulations are relatively loose regarding what animals can be kept in captivity. And she’s seen too many instances of people trying to go beyond the usual dog or cat pet options, but then regretting it.

“We get surrenders here at the shop all the time, because people get different animals, but those people don’t realize what they’re getting into,” she said. “We get people surrendering snakes, lizards, Guinea pigs, ferrets and rats.”

Unusual critters, such as boa constrictor snakes, have an enthusiastic customer base in Wyoming, but they’re not a good option for novice pet owners, she added.

In addition to human safety concerns, Jenkinson said he doesn’t like to see novices try to take on exotic pets, because it can frequently end badly for the animals.

There’s a wealth of knowledge available, and experts to consult before taking the dive into exotic animal ownership, he said.

“As long as the person is responsible about it, I don’t have huge issues with it,” he said.

But owning Gila monsters is probably a bridge too far for anybody, he added.

“Some species should just be left in the wild, to live out their lives in the wild,” he said.

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter