Debating whether we should keep reptiles as pets
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.
An alligator was given to zoo officials during an amnesty day event in Connecticut.
The NYPD released surveillance footage that it says shows a woman mailing the photographs back to MoMA PS1.