If you’ve been in the reptile hobby for any amount of time, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen (or perhaps asked) this highly inflammatory question: “What’s better? Reptile racks or terrariums?”
There is a LOT of debate between reptile owners and reptile breeders on how best to keep and care for pet reptiles, and the ensuing discussions/arguments often become messy. The problem is, however, that we’re ignoring one very important fact here:
Breeders and pet owners are very different and have totally different goals and agendas.
Pet Owners — Most reptile enthusiasts begin with an interest or fascination with reptiles, acquire their first pet reptile, and progress from there. Pet reptile owners’ primary goal is to provide better care through research, in-depth knowledge, and the overall love of reptiles. These pet owners often progress to become collectors, breeders, or rescuers (not discussed in this article).
Breeders — While many breeders are small enough to stay categorized as pet owners or “hobbyists,” once they start making a significant profit from their breeding programs, they become a business—especially if they’re making enough of a profit to make breeding a part-time or even full-time occupation. They are still motivated by an overall interest in and love of reptiles, but as a business, their primary agenda is to maintain and enlarge that profit. And in order to make a profit as a reptile breeder, space and efficiency become key issues. Quite often, industrialized care methods such as reptile racks is important for achieving this.
From here on out, it’s important to understand that this article is written for pet reptile keepers, collectors, and enthusiasts. You, me, and others like us make up approximately 99.75% of reptile keepers (in the USA). We outnumber large reptile breeders by around 400 to 1, but due to the success of reptile breeders on YouTube and other online platforms, the 0.25% are the ones giving advice to first-time pet reptile keepers. This advice, more often than not, promotes the commercial approach to caring for pet reptiles.
This has resulted in many heated debates online, and without realizing it, we as a community are also providing powerful anti-pet groups with loads of ammunition to use against our industry as they advance their argument against keeping any reptiles for any purpose.
Let’s dig in a little further.
Reptiles and their care are now a billion-plus dollar industry comprised of many components, including:
- pet owners and enthusiasts
- pet/reptile stores
- reptile shows
- entertainers and educators
- manufacturers of reptile food and ancillary reptile products
Looking at the above, this is not a hobby by any definition.
As an industry, we must understand that there are many aspects that we may not agree with. However, in many cases, if we were to remove one of these components, it may have dire, unintended consequences. While some enthusiasts may wish that breeders simply stop breeding reptiles, remove this component and the whole industry will crumble. The same goes for pet stores. Some keepers and breeders would like to see pet stores stop selling reptiles. Remove this component and the chain reaction would put our industry back decades as hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue is lost and the breeders, importers, exporters, wholesalers, pet/reptile stores, veterinarians, and manufacturers of reptile food and ancillary reptile products suffer. Factor in the lost funding for the pet advocacy groups like USARK and PIJAC, and we may find ourselves facing outright bans on keeping reptiles.
As we have transitioned from a small, cottage industry into the much larger, billion-plus dollar industry in a relatively short period of time, growing pains are to be expected.
Now that we are here, let’s try and better understand the various components that make up today’s reptile industry and together, help move it forward to the next level. Infighting will not achieve the progress that we seek—in fact, by criticizing and attacking breeders and their level of care, it will cause them to dig in their heels and perpetuate their commercial methods even more. After all, the vast majority of reptile breeders are small, family-run businesses, and in many cases, breeding reptiles is a livelihood that pays their bills and feeds their families.
On the other hand, breeders need to understand that their industrialized production methods and opinions are specifically related to their breeding business, and that the long-term care of pet reptiles is and should be different. To criticize enthusiasts who are advancing the long-term care of reptiles through enrichment, better lighting, substrates, and enclosures is just as counterproductive.
The good news is that despite our disagreements, our industry is still strong, growing, and rapidly moving towards better care and higher standards in reptile keeping. As we the 99.75% of reptile keepers seek better care for our beloved pets, this in turn is creating new companies who are developing innovative products to fill this need. As our knowledge on reptile husbandry is expanding, some like-minded breeders are already responding by focusing more on quality over quantity in their breeding methods and are capitalizing on the strategic advantage that they have in this new marketplace.
Need further proof of positive industry changes?
In April of this year, Brian Barczyk from BHB Reptiles and The Reptarium put out a YouTube video called “Coming Clean – The Truth – Snake Racks”. While his proposed town hall discussion and the associated changes have not yet happened, Brian has demonstrated a notable evolution on how to keep reptiles. I have known Brian for over 6 years and have had several conversations with him during this time on various subjects, but it was when I was invited to run his Reptile Prime brand that I got to know him a lot better. At that time I had the Custom Reptile Habitats website up and running and was already working with Universal Rocks in Dallas, TX so naturally one of the first steps that I proposed for the business plan was to add larger, well decorated enclosures, better lighting, and more. I then put together the deal between The Reptarium and Universal Rocks and together we built most of the large enclosures and had countless conversations on how to advance reptile care. While ultimately I decided against being involved with Reptile Prime and to go it alone, I think it’s important to note that within some of the larger commercial breeders there are serious conversations being had on better reptile care.
Recently, Dillon Perron (host of the Animals at Home podcast) had a great conversation with Dr. Kelsey Chapman. Those of us promoting advanced reptile husbandry are constantly being challenged on our well-researched, scientifically-proven reptile care. In the interview, Dr. Chapman made the point that the burden of proof should be on minimalistic/industrialized reptile keepers to try and prove why their methods are better, not the other way around.
Aside from YouTube channels that showcase breeders and their industrialized care methods, there has also been a rise of “pet-tubers”. In many cases, these channels mistakenly adopt and promote minimalistic care standards such as reptile racks and tubs, which makes the challenge to educate new reptile keepers even more difficult. These pet-tuber videos are seen by millions of viewers, who trust their opinions and then too believe that a small tub, water bowl, and some newspaper is all that is needed to care for their new pet snake or gecko.
Further harmful is the ridiculous myths of folklore husbandry that these channels tend to promote. The most popular of these myths include “Snakes should be housed in the smallest enclosures possible!” and “Loose substrate causes impaction and will kill any reptile housed on it!”
Because these myths get spread to thousands and even millions via these channels, they are now part of our popular culture and are the source of constant heated debates on popular social media platforms.
In order to combat these myths, we need to adopt a long-term strategy that is credible, easy to understand, and has the best chance of driving new pet reptile owners away from reptile racks, tubs, and minimalistic pet care standards once and for all. This will actually benefit the industry as a whole, and most importantly, create better welfare for pet reptiles. Fortunately, we already have the tools—we just need to get better at the messaging.
In recent years, the globally-recognized “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare” has been updated, and now, specifically for reptile husbandry, the Animals at Home podcast has just put out these updated standards in written, audio, and visual form for easy reference and distribution. As Dillon notes:
“The Five Provisions and Animal Welfare Aims paradigm is a very straight forward set of rules that are very commonly cited by animal welfare professionals such as animal hospitals and rescues. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE), and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) all list the Five Provisions as integral to their operation and mission. These guidelines are followed and respected by the most important animal related professionals on the planet and because of this they provide us with an objective framework to audit the current state of industrialized-style reptile care”.
The Five Provisions are:
|Animal Welfare Aims
|1. Good nutrition: Provide ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
|Minimize thirst and hunger and enable eating to be a pleasurable experience
|2. Good environment: Provide shade/shelter or suitable housing, good air quality, and comfortable resting areas
|Minimize discomfort and exposure and promote thermal, physical, and other comforts
|3. Good health: Prevent or rapidly diagnose and treat disease and injury, and foster good muscle tone, posture, and cardiorespiratory function
|Minimize breathlessness, nausea, pain and other aversive experiences and promote the pleasures of robustness, vigour, strength, and well-coordinated physical activity
|4. Appropriate behavior: Provide sufficient space, proper facilities, congenial company, and appropriately varied conditions
|Minimize threats and unpleasant restrictions on behaviour and promote engagement in rewarding activities
|5. Positive mental experiences: Provide safe, congenial, and species-appropriate opportunities to have positive experiences
|Promote various forms of comfort, pleasure, interest, confidence, and a sense of control
These are all key points that I believe are extremely hard to legitimately argue with. In fact, you may be already implementing most, if not all, of them in your own reptile husbandry efforts.
Now that I have illustrated the difference between reptile breeders and reptile enthusiasts, more about the industry that we are in and some positive changes already taking place, as well as a credible new message, how should we move forward? I suggest that we:
- Move our focus away from the minority of reptile keepers (the 0.25% of breeders) and move our focus towards educating the other 99.75% of reptile keepers.
- Accept that reptile breeders have an important place in the industry while also acknowledging that they are a business and this affects how they keep their reptiles. Instead of online debates on whose care is better, let’s simply point out that industrialized care standards such as reptile racks and tubs are only for the breeding business and not for the long-term care of pet reptiles.
- Understand and embrace the updated Five Provisions and Animal Welfare Aims. Then, help spread the message by educating and encouraging other pet reptile keepers and enthusiasts to strive to provide all five provisions for their own pet reptiles’ care.
The bottom line is: if we educate the millions of first time reptile keepers about the advantages of better reptile care, more and more breeders, pet stores, and manufacturers will want to capitalize on this trend. As reptile welfare becomes a primary consumer concern, these businesses will have no choice but to step up if they want to survive.
We need to understand that we are all in this together, that we are part of an industry, and we need to work together to accomplish better reptile care, better products, and higher standards. If we do, others will follow and we will be able to change the industry as a whole for the better. If we don’t, we will regress and may even destroy what we love.
About the Author
Paul Barclay is the founder and CEO of Custom Reptile Habitats (affiliate) and is a lifetime reptile and amphibian enthusiast. Originally from Perth, Western Australia, Barclay grew up catching and keeping amphibians and reptiles such as turtles, lizards, monitors and pythons before immigrating to the USA where he has kept a more extensive list of reptile species.
As a business executive, Barclay has launched several international businesses and brands in the fitness, weight loss and footwear industries and more recently in the pet industry where he has for over 6 years consulted formally and informally for over a dozen companies. During this time, Barclay has worked extensively with every major pet store chain in the USA, Fortune 500 companies, manufacturers, breeders, importers, exporters, industry publications, reptile zoos, YouTube personalities, trade show promoters, and pet advocacy groups.
Now based in Dayton, Ohio, Barclay’s latest creation has a mission: To advance the husbandry of pet reptiles by raising the bar on reptile products in order to provide customers with better habitat choices that enable their pet reptiles to thrive.
Read the rest of the 5 Provisions series: