De­bat­ing whether we should keep rep­tiles as pets

The Phnom Penh Post - - LIFESTYLE - Joanna Klein

RE­CLIN­ING with a lap­top on my couch in Brook­lyn, I searched “buy lizard on­line” and clicked the first link. I filled my cart with a fly­ing dragon, a cou­ple of caimans, a red-eared slider tur­tle, a poi­son dart frog and an al­bino garter snake.

I agreed to the terms and con­di­tions, cer­ti­fy­ing that I knew the laws gov­ern­ing rep­tile own­er­ship (it is il­le­gal for me to own some of these rep­tiles in New York), that I un­der­stood ex­cep­tions for baby tur­tles (I still don’t), and that I wouldn’t hold the com­pany re­spon­si­ble.

Now all I had to do was pro­vide a credit-card num­ber and my new pets would be de­liv­ered to my doorstep the next day.

That I can im­pul­sively buy a rep­tile – or hun­dreds at the same time – with­out fully un­der­stand­ing what I’m get­ting into is star­tling to some ex­perts con­cerned with an­i­mal wel­fare. And that is only part of a grow­ing de­bate over whether it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to keep rep­tiles and am­phib­ians as pets.

At first, the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion seems sim­ple: If you can keep an an­i­mal happy and healthy with proper food and hous­ing, then it shouldn’t mat­ter if it’s a dog, lizard or cat.

But an­i­mals and their re­quire­ments widely vary. For rep­tiles, there are par­tic­u­lar con­cerns about wel­fare, eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­ity and hu­man health.

These is­sues were ex­am­ined in a col­lec­tion of ar­ti­cles in a re­cent is­sue of the jour­nal Vet­eri­nary Record. The au­thors hope pleas based on sci­ence will in­form pro­posed re­stric­tions for keep­ing ex­otic an­i­mals as pets.

A cen­tury ago, you could buy a liv­ing lizard lapel pin, one of a wide va­ri­ety of do­mes­tic cru­el­ties once in­flicted on rep­tiles. Today, peo­ple are more keenly con­scious of an­i­mal wel­fare, and keep­ers and breed­ers know more about nu­tri­tion and hus­bandry of rep­tiles and am­phib­ians.

A mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try has emerged around car­ing for them, with many ve­teri­nar­i­ans spe­cial­is­ing in ex­otic pet care and her­petol­ogy. In ad­di­tion to the in­ter­net, rep­tiles are sold at pet stores, flea mar­kets, street ven­dors and her­petol­ogy fairs.

Rep­tiles are pop­u­lar pets be­cause they are rel­a­tively quiet, odor­less and “com­pat­i­ble with mod­ern life­styles”, said Gor­don Burghardt, a her­petol­o­gist who spe­cialises in be­hav­iour at the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee, Knoxville. (As a child in the 1950s, he got his start with dime-store tur­tles and lizards.) While there are wor­ries about the im­pact of do­mes­tic rep­tiles on hu­man health – es­pe­cially in homes with chil­dren or peo­ple with com­pro­mised im­mune sys­tems – the big­ger con­cerns are an­i­mal wel­fare and eco­log­i­cal dam­age, said Frank Pas­mans, a ve­teri­nar­ian at Ghent Univer­sity in Bel­gium and lead au­thor of a re­view in the vet­eri­nary jour­nal.

On their jour­ney to your liv­ing room, rep­tiles and am­phib­ians first sur­vive un­reg­u­lated and some­times il­le­gal meth­ods of cap­ture or breed­ing, hous­ing and trans­porta­tion.

Col­lec­tor de­mand for rare an­i­mals means some sup­pli­ers seek threat­ened, new or un­clas­si­fied species in the wild. To by­pass in­ter­na­tional trade reg­u­la­tions, col­lec­tors may pass off wild an­i­mals as cap­tive-bred.

In your home, it’s hard to read the de­mands of stone-faced herps evolved for wild liv­ing. They need proper tem­per­a­ture, hu­mid­ity, food, light­ing and ex­er­cise, and have other psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial re­quire­ments.

If you meet these needs, you must ac­cept that your pet could grow quite big and live a cou­ple decades. If you don’t, yours will prob­a­bly die in its first year, like 75 per­cent of pet rep­tiles and am­phib­ians brought home as pets.

Rep­tiles and am­phib­ians don’t make good pets “and should not be part of the pet trade”, said Lorelei Tib­betts, a vet tech­ni­cian and man­ager at The Cen­ter for Avian and Ex­otic Medicine in New York. Most of the time, an­i­mal pa­tients come to her with meta­bolic or re­pro­duc­tive is­sues re­lated to im­proper nu­tri­tion, hus­bandry and life in cap­tiv­ity. “It’s re­ally not pos­si­ble for us to care for these an­i­mals in order for them to thrive and live a de­cent life,” she said.

SUZANNE DECHILLO/THE NEW YORK TIMES

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