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Is it Inhumane to Keep Exotics as Pets? — The Ethics of Reptile Keeping

In light of another inflammatory and argumentative article written by known PETA sympathizer Clifford Warwick, “Many animals across all classes are increasingly becoming victims of folklore husbandry,” many reptile owners (and exotic animal keepers in general) find themselves asking a controversial question about the ethics of reptile keeping:

Is it inhumane to keep exotic animals as pets?

My answer — Only if you don’t care for them properly.

I can’t speak as a general exotics expert; as a reptile husbandry specialist and care consultant, my specialty is only in one set of exotic animals: reptiles. However, within my realm I have seen examples of both humane and inhumane reptile keeping:

  • I have seen skinny leopard geckos, their bones turned to rubber by Metabolic Bone Disease (rickets) in dirty, too-small cages that are too cold and barren except for some artificially-colored sand and a plastic cave.
  • I have seen 40 baby bearded dragons housed in a 40-gallon tank, piled on top of each other under a single small basking source, some missing limbs and others possibly dead in a corner.
  • I have seen ball pythons growing fat in sterile racks without light, opportunities for regular exercise, or even space to stretch out if desired.

I have also seen seen these species lean and active, demonstrating natural thermoregulation and hunting behaviors in spacious enriched enclosures with climbing objects, multiple hides, and full-spectrum lighting complete with UVB.

A male Scincus scincus (common sandfish) before and after rehabilitation by ReptiFiles

We fail as reptile keepers when we buy an animal without the knowledge or intention of gaining further knowledge on how to keep that animal happy and healthy to the maximum fulfillment of its potential lifespan. We fail as reptile keepers when we decide that we can afford the animal but not “expert care,” settling for the bare minimum reptile kit instead because that makes less of a dent in our wallet. We fail as reptile keepers when we decide that we know everything that there is to know about the reptile(s) in our care, rest on our years of “experience” and stop learning, angrily lashing out, name-calling, and covering our ears when a more knowledgeable keeper suggests improvement.

There are plenty of reptile keepers on both sides, and many more in the middle. Neglect and inhumane husbandry are not as rare as they should be, but shining examples of exceptional husbandry are out there, too, and we need to be paying more attention to them. There are also many well-meaning reptile keepers who are doing the best they can with what they have. These people might feel discouraged by people like Clifford, who accuse them of cruelty because despite their best efforts, their exotic pet is still confined to a cage rather than being free to live in their natural environment

Doing your best is not failure — as long as you never stop improving, and you really are doing your best.

Nature is NOT Perfect

Now about the “nature is perfect” thing… I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nature is not perfect, and our perception of nature tends to err on the side of utopic fantasy. Reptiles are perfectly adapted to thrive within their original habitats; this is true. They are perfectly adapted to utilize the available resources of food, water, heat, and light within their ecological niche. But nature has predators, which endanger the lives of these animals on a daily basis. Thanks to agriculture, we humans don’t remember what it’s like to have to spend most of our waking hours hunting or gathering food. But in the wild, far away from produce aisles and feeder rodents and insects that get delivered by mail, a food supply is not guaranteed. Hunger is a constant in the wild. Painful disease and parasites are so common in wild animals that they’re a given.

But generally speaking, the animals that you see in the wild are fairly healthy. They may not be fat, but they’re muscular, active, have good color, and sufficient fat stores to get them through lean times. So let me tell you the greatest threat to wild animals: US.

No, not “US” as in the United States. I’m talking about “US” as in the plural form of the word “me,” written with caps lock. Humans are the most prolific, most destructive animal on this planet. Most species listed as Threatened or Endangered by the IUCN are on that list because humans are taking away their habitats and food sources. Our pollution is causing global climate change whether you want to admit it or not, and while global climate change has happened before, it has never happened so fast. This especially threatens ectotherms like reptiles, amphibians, and fish, which intimately rely on the weather patterns and temperatures of their native environment. We are in the middle of a mass extinction event, and humans are the meteorite.

abronia graminea
Abronia graminea, endangered due to illegal wild collection

How Do We Make Reptile Keeping More Ethical?

So what do we do when anti-pet organizations like PETA and HSUS tell us that we are torturing our pets and should release them into the wild? Some would survive if returned to their native habitat, true. But many have no idea how to avoid predators or find their own food, their instincts dulled by captive breeding. Man-made “morphs” that significantly change the natural appearance of a species to be brighter, more colorful, or completely different altogether would not have the camouflage that it takes to hide from predators or ambush prey.

We brought these animals into captivity, which means that like it or not, they are now our responsibility. Releasing them back into the wild to be “free” and hoping for the best is not the noble thing to do — it is cowardice.

So, step up! If you want to be a better and more humane exotic animal keeper, step up!

Get out your smartphone or laptop and start reading. Browse well-informed husbandry websites like ReptiFiles.com’s Care Guides, ReptileMountain.tv, and Chameleon Breeder Podcast. Explore Google Scholar. Look at the archives on iNaturalist. Join science-based husbandry groups on social media like Advancing Herpetological Husbandry, Reptile Lighting, Reptile Enrichment and Training, Bearded Dragons Network, and Not Just a Pet Rock. Get involved in the conversations. Ask questions. Get answers. Make corrections. And then do it all over again.

If you’re up for it, become an expert on a species threatened by illegal wild collection for the pet trade and start a captive breeding population to reduce demand for these wild-caught imports. Not up for breeding? Good for you — breeding is hard and expensive! Instead, choose to only buy CB (captive bred) reptiles from breeders. When demand for wild-caught imports is reduced, you discourage illegal collection and take strain off wild populations.

Feel like a failure? Feel overwhelmed? Good, because in the surprisingly wise words of a blue supervillain from a popular Dreamworks animated film: “There’s a benefit to losing… You get to learn from your mistakes.”

Exotic animal keeping is not a one-shot thing. It is a journey of perpetual improvement. You have nothing to lose (except for maybe your ego), and everything to gain. Your pet(s) will thank you, and you will become a better human being in the process.

If this article got you thinking, here’s some other posts by ReptiFiles about the ethics of reptile keeping that you’ll find interesting:

This article was originally written and published on Facebook, but has been copied to the ReptiFiles Blog for recordkeeping.

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