Illustration: Sam Woolley/GMG

Reptiles and amphibians are incredible creatures, but should we be keeping them as pets? A debate that’s been swirling in conservation and animal welfare circles was brought to the forefront recently, when a review paper and several responses called out some of the alarming realities of the exotic pet industry.

The review, led by veterinarians at Ghent University in Belgium and published in the journal Veterinary Medicine, gives a run-down of the risks of reptile and amphibian ownership, along with some of the conservation threats the pet trade poses. While the authors conclude that humans can be responsible herp owners if armed with the right information, they warn that there remain “considerable welfare problems associated with captive reptiles and amphibians.”

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Lead author Frank Pasmans hopes his review can inform debates over proposed restrictions on exotic pets, including reptiles and amphibians. But it has also rankled other members of the reptile community, who say the exotic pet trade is more harmful than the paper lets on.

The demand for pet reptiles and amphibians has never been greater. Nor has it ever been easier to purchase one, or a few, or hundreds at a time. While hatchling turtles and green anoles have been a staple of pet shops and dime stores for decades, would be herp-owners can now fill their online shopping carts with everything from bearded dragons to ball pythons to poison dart frogs.

A strawberry poison dart frog, one of many poison frogs that can be purchased online. Image: Pavel Kirillov/Flickr

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Easy access to hundreds of exotic reptiles via the internet raises some serious concerns. For starters, not everyone knows what they’re getting into when they purchase, say, a boa constrictor that can grow up to ten feet long, or a baby alligator that’ll one day need a swimming pool-sized enclosure. Even in the case of small herps that can be kept in home terrariums, folks aren’t always aware that their animal has very specific temperature, humidity, and lighting requirements.

Would-be owners need to learn about a reptile’s needs in advance, because “it’s hard to read them,” said Mark Perpetua, a high school biology teacher and reptile educator. While cats and dogs can alert their owners if they’re unhappy, expressionless lizards don’t exactly broadcast physical or emotional distress.

Diet is another issue: Pasmans says veterinarians encounter “many health problems” resulting from folks not feeding their reptiles properly. These including metabolic bone disease (rampant among lizards seen by Belgian vets), liver, and kidney diseases. Finding a vet who specializes in exotic animals is, he says, crucial to ensuring your herp remains in good health.

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With millions of reptiles imported to the United States and the European Union each year, there are also conservation issues. An untold but large number of these animals have been illegally exported from their country of origin, or are advertised as coming from breeders when they were, in fact, collected in the wild. Most illegally traded animals, Pasmans and his colleagues write, “probably suffer from severe overexploitation,” meaning they are being collected at a rate which could threaten the survival of the species.

A review paper published last year found that 355 species of reptiles targeted by collectors have been flagged by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as threatened by “biological resource use.” Some are regulated by international agreements, but many are not.

A ball python. Image: Brett Levin / Flickr

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High-profile cases of reptiles harmed by the pet trade include the Fiji Banded Iguana from South America, which is endangered, and the Ploughshare Tortoise from Madagascar, which is on the verge of extinction. But the most vulnerable reptiles of all may be the ones we know least about. Often when scientists discover a new species, exotic pet traders start seeking the animal out. This has become such a concern that some conservationists are calling for their colleagues to avoid publicizing details on the whereabouts of new species.

“Collection from the wild is generally a conservation concern for animals that are already rare or are restricted to specific habitats that make them particularly easy to collect,” David Steen, a conservation biologist at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, told Earther.

The ecological problems don’t go away once animals are sold, either. When pet reptiles or amphibians escape captivity or are released into the wild, they can wreak havoc on local ecosystems. According to Pasmans and his colleagues, the pet trade provides “the primary platform” for herp invasions. The reshuffling of species around the world also contributes to the spread of deadly diseases.

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Despite these many concerns, Pasmans and his co-authors emphasize that people can be responsible herp owners. They argue against the idea of selective restrictions on entire taxonomic groups, like reptiles, contending that overall, the herp trade isn’t worse than any other pet trade from a welfare perspective.

Pasmans added that captive breeding has made important contributions both to conservation efforts, and to our understanding of the biology of many reptiles and amphibians.

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“With regard to the current amphibian crisis,” where numbers are plummeting worldwide thanks to habitat destruction and degradation, and a disease epidemic caused by a chytrid fungus, “captive assurance colonies are widely considered key in preserving amphibian diversity,” Pasmans told Earther.

“For scientific research many species are available as captive bred species, which can be used as model animals for their wild conspecifics,” he added.

Bearded dragons have become popular reptile pets. Image: Nick Ta / Flickr

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Others disagree with the notion that the pet reptile trade is at all beneficial. A response paper authored by Clifford Warwick of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and others argues that mistreatment of captive reptiles is rampant, with some 75 percent of herps dying during their first year in the home.

Because nearly all pet reptiles are kept in cages, Warwick and his co-authors assert that at best, these animals face a lifetime of “controlled deprivation.”

“Pasmans and others’ faith in certain husbandry information is misplaced,” Warwick writes. “There remains a dearth of independent, objective, scientific evidence-based data concerning the needs of the diversity of species traded and kept. We would argue that the small amount published implies that reptilian and amphibian biological needs are so complex and require such advanced scientific understanding that they cannot be met even in the best zoos.”

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Pasmans says research from his colleagues does not support the claim that 75 percent of reptiles die during their first year as pets. But he agrees that life in confinement does result in some degree of deprivation. “Again, this equally pertains to most birds, fish and even increasingly cats,” he said.

Whatever your feelings on the ethics of reptile ownership may be, the reality is that folks aren’t going to stop owning lizards and snakes any time soon. The best way to be a responsible reptile owner is to educate yourself about the requirements of your scaly companion, to make sure there are no conservation issues with the species, and to buy the animal from a reputable source.

Image: Jacon Martin / Flickr

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“Cornsnakes and Ball Pythons are two examples of species that have been captive-bred for many years and the animals you see available for purchase in pet stores in general have little connection to wild populations,” Steen said.

Perpetua notes that reptile expos are a great place to interact with breeders directly, and a way to avoid some of the uncertainty associated with purchasing online or from a third party pet shop. Many breeders who show up at expos take pride in their animals, and vendors whose animals look unhealthy will often be called out, he says.

Gordon Burghardt, a behavioral biologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, told Earther that for folks who are serious about caring for reptiles, there’s more good information out there than ever before. Publications like The Herpetological Review and Reptile magazine are great places to start learning about proper reptile care—as is your local exotic animal vet.

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Burghardt says when he got into reptile research several decades ago “you could get a baby turtle for a quarter.” At that time, many animals in pet shops and even laboratories were dumped into overcrowded aquariums and cages with little stimulation or recognition of their needs.

In his view, things have changed for the better.

“We know a lot more about how to properly take care of these animals now,” he said.

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