Reptiles and amphibians as pets: the other side of the coin!
Reptiles and amphibians, which are also collectively known as herptiles, are among the fastest growing segments of the domestic and foreign pet industries worldwide. There are an estimated 4.7 million or more households in the U.S. alone that own one or more reptiles, and an estimated 9.4 million or more reptiles kept and bred in the U.S. based on the most recently available 2017-2018 American Pet Products Association (APPA) data, and this is likely only based on respondent data! Numerous advances in husbandry techniques, supplies and products, knowledge of captive care and husbandry, and other information and resources have all evolved greatly over the decades to make the care and breeding of these animals in captivity much more readily attainable and successful than before. Reptiles and amphibians have also seen greatly increased popularity in recent decades due to many leading increasingly busier habits and lifestyles that oftentimes do not lend them the ability to properly care for many, more traditional domestic pets, and as a result, most reptiles and amphibians can be cared for with relatively much more ease than dogs, cats, or many other animals. Focusing on all of these positive developments within the reptile and amphibian keeping hobby, which is also referred to as herpetoculture, must be done in order to keep these developments moving forward.
Unfortunately, many reptiles and amphibians still suffer the results of negative public attitudes and perceptions, whether in the wild, or in captivity, and also face numerous other threats as well including pollution, habitat loss/fragmentation, and deforestation, as well as outright persecution and sometimes other factors such as overexploitation. While it is of course always important to recognize all of these contributing factors, as well as the value of in-situ, or in the wild conservation efforts whenever and wherever they can be made, ex-situ efforts, such as the efforts to maintain reptiles and amphibians in captivity within the public and private sectors is also immensely valuable, and must not be either overlooked or unduly blamed for these issues, especially if the collective goals and intent of such sectors is to maintain these animals indefinitely in captivity as self-sustaining, viable populations able to meet and satisfy the demands of the pet industry, which exist regardless.
Also unfortunately, is the further politicization of these issues surrounding the keeping of these animals as pets, whether due to simply ignorance and lack of education surrounding them, or by more organized, self-promoting special interest organizations with anti-pet agendas known as animal rights groups. National organizations such as the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and HSUS (the Humane Society of the United States) both have $170 million or more annual budgets, but spend less than 1% of this budget actually directly helping animals and local humane societies and pet shelters, and as much as 70% or more towards lobbying, fundraising, and litigation. While of course we respect everyone's right to make their own personal choices and opinions regardless of what they may be, these organizations and their ideologies do not believe anyone should have the freedom to do so, and this concerns not only the individual decisions which must be made with pet ownership, but also farmers, fishermen, hunters, anyone who enjoys visiting zoos and aquariums, and even those requiring the use of service animals such as seeing eye dogs.
Whether one happens to agree with other aspects of what these organizations do or not, they are spending millions of your hard earned money each year locally and even nationally to lobby for additional laws restricting the ownership of all reptiles and amphibians, as well as other exotic animals as pets, and also use the above fears, mistruths, and negative perceptions members of the public have towards these animals in particular to further these goals. They are doing this because legitimate facts and statistics do not support their arguments, and further education and awareness are counterproductive to their goals. Animal Welfare and Animal Rights are not the same thing, and if one happens to believe that animals can, or should be used for human benefits provided they are cared for and used properly and humanely, you are for animal welfare and not animal rights. It is important to become familiar with these differences and educate others about them. If you happen to find all of this unacceptable and wish to stop it from continuing to happen, you will want to continue reading this article and educate and spread the word to others about it. While much more can be written about the fraudulent fundraising and spending practices of these organizations, let's begin diving into the most common arguments and other falsehoods made against keeping reptiles and amphibians, as well as other exotic animals as pets, and the facts countering each one!
These are inherently dangerous wild animals that present significant public safety risks.
Truth: Any animal has the potential to be dangerous, including most domesticated and more traditionally accepted species. In fact, horses are responsible for the deaths of over 400 people each year. 800,000 people are bitten by dogs severely enough to require hospitalization. Yet in the last three decades, captive reptiles have collectively been responsible for only 0.5 deaths each year. While there is certainly some level of individual or voluntarily accepted occupational risk associated with working with or around some of these animals, there is not a legitimate public safety risk, especially if the animals are to be maintained in specialized enclosures indoors and away from public access.
Also, just about everything else encountered in routinely accepted, everyday life has the potential to be dangerous or life threatening. Falling icicles? 60-some people meet their ends from those. Accidental trips or falls from beds, stairs, or other furniture cause hundreds of injuries and deaths each year. Hundreds are injured or killed in automobile and boating accidents. How about vending machines, falling coconuts, accidental strangulation or electrocution from defective toasters and other household electronics? The list can go on.
But that's because the per-capita rates are different. There are more of "those" animals kept than reptiles/exotics. Most incidents actually go unreported!
Truth: There are many more reptiles and amphibians being safely and responsibly kept in captivity in the U.S. and elsewhere than one might realize, including large constrictors and certain other species. While numbers and estimates for those specific species are difficult to come by, it can reasonably be estimated that there are at least 10,000 or more large constrictors, for example, that are domestically kept and bred in the U.S. And yet there has not been any undocumented public safety epidemics of any escaped captive reptiles wreaking havoc in public, as these animals have vastly different behavioral and physiological requirements than mammals and other many, more traditionally accepted animals.
These animals present serious risks to public health regarding zoonotic disease transmission including salmonella, monkeypox, and other diseases.
Truth: Any animal, including even dogs and cats, maintained in captivity has the potential of harboring and/or transmitting zoonotic diseases, which are those which can be transmitted from animals to humans. Practicing basic and common sense cleaning, handling, and sanitation would go much further in preventing zoonotic diseases than banning these animals altogether based on these concerns. When it comes to reptiles and amphibians, salmonella outbreaks are now much less common and widespread than in previous decades as more people are now becoming better educated, and husbandry methods and techniques having greatly improved. The majority of salmonella cases in the U.S. now can be traced back to improper food handling and preparation, rather than pet reptiles. See our Reptiles and Salmonella educational article for more on this.
These animals suffer greatly from animal welfare related issues, and their needs/requirements cannot possibly be met in captivity.
Truth: This is false. As with any form of pet ownership, including even with dogs and cats, as well as everything else, there will always be a few bad actors who do not care about their animals and/or the community or who do not act responsibly. These are far greater societal problems than just having to do with the pet industry and not all questions raised will ever have answers or solutions to them. Individuals who do not properly care for their pets, or cause issues for others with them are the ones which should be punished rather than punishing everyone for the actions of some, which is also known as collective punishment, and which are not effective means for addressing these issues. Instead, banning these animals only results in additional displaced animals needing homes, or other animal welfare issues which did not previously exist. The husbandry techniques, resources, and practices surrounding the keeping reptiles and amphibians in captivity have evolved greatly when compared to previous decades, and now, many more people have been and continue to be properly educated, and many species which could not be kept or bred successfully before now can or have been with relative ease.
But that's because animals like dogs and cats serve a purpose/need for humankind. Reptiles/Exotics do not!
Truth: Every species of animal kept in captivity can serve a legitimate societal purpose, and this outdated misnotion is becoming more and more untrue with each day as new studies and new findings pertaining to these animals are made available. Anti-venom from venomous snakes kept within the public and private sectors is used not only for production of anti-venom all around the world, but also for many forms of lifesaving medical research including better treatments for stroke, high blood pressure, improved blood coagulation, heart disease, and even many forms of cancers. Not withstanding the fact that the human animal bond is most definitely not limited to just cats or dogs, several bodies of emerging research have also made the findings that snakes and other reptiles were the preferred therapy animals of choice among disabled children and the elderly alike, and pets in general, including reptiles and amphibians, have been proved to reduce depression and anxiety, among other social disorders. Just because some animals have been kept for longer periods of time than others is not a valid excuse for largely ignoring the same societal issues still being caused by those animals.
These animals, if they are released or escape into foreign environments, can wreak ecological havoc and potentially become invasive species.
Truth: While releasing any species of nonnative or exotic animal into a foreign environment is never the answer for many reasons, most exotic reptiles and amphibians have very specific temperature, humidity, habitat, dietary, and other requirements in order to thrive, and even more particular reproductive requirements. Most exotic reptiles and amphibians cannot survive a foreign winter in most areas of the U.S. in order to become invasive, and in the case of some of the most widely documented species, are a unique Florida issue. Stakeholders within the pet industry are also increasingly becoming part of the solution in preventing unwanted pets from being discarded or released through amnesty and education events, and other incentive programs. Much more on these issues can be found on the Burmese pythons: Myths, Rumors, and Misunderstandings article.
Keeping these animals in glass tanks/enclosures/captivity is inherently cruel, selfish, and unnatural!
Truth: No more so than keeping any other animal as a pet, or in captivity for any other purpose. Dogs and cats did not originally evolve to live confined in houses or duplexes, and the process of domestication and selective breeding has been taking place with many species for many centuries. Of course, animal welfare can, and should always be concerns when keeping any animal in captivity for any reason, regardless of what they may be, but there is nothing more inherently bad about keeping these animals in captivity.
It is too easy to illicitly buy some of these animals online/on the Internet or at shows. Breeders and sellers don't care who they are selling to! You can buy some of these animals with no questions asked, etc.!
Truth: This is false propaganda from animal rights and other anti-pet sources designed to spread misinformation, fear, and hysteria. Yes, while there are always a few irresponsible breeders or sellers who do not care about the animals or the community, or who do not take the time to properly screen potential customers and buyers, they are certainly not the norm, and this isn't happening nearly as often as one may be led to believe. Even then, only a few airports in the U.S. act as receiving carriers for some of these animals, and any prospective buyers would themselves have to make arrangements for, and drive at least a few hundred miles or more depending on their area to even be able to receive them. The majority of vendors and sellers that work with some of these specific animals do so responsibly, and take the time to ascertain prospective buyers' knowledge, capabilities, and experience, as well as take the time to even determine whether the animals they produce are legal in that specific buyer's area.
While some of these animals certainly can be dangerous, especially if they are maintained by unqualified individuals, and are certainly not suitable family or beginner pet material, most reputable reptile shows and expos in the country have their own sets of show rules and guidelines when it comes to the sale and display of these animals, and recognize and follow any applicable local, state, and federal laws or regulations which may pertain to them, and most, if not all, are open events to the public and community that kids, parents, families, and anyone else can attend. There is hardly anything illicit about the vast majority of these events that take place.
These animals are not pets! They don't belong in the pet trade!
Truth: While you are certainly entitled to your opinion, and personal preferences in pets, realize that the human-animal bond extends far beyond just cats and dogs, and over 13 million U.S. households own reptiles and amphibians as pets. While some of these animals should certainly only be maintained or kept by those with the means to do so, overreaching bans and legislation unfortunately punish everyone, and leave very few, if any exemptions the vast majority, if not all members of the private sector would ever be able to qualify for. The issue is far from being black and white.
Keeping these animals is just like keeping lions and tigers in your backyard!
Truth: While some of these species should certainly only be kept by those qualified and experienced enough to do so, and who have only the sufficient resources, most exotics kept are not these lions, tigers, bears, etc. While each set of species can present their own challenges, their care and management in captivity are vastly different, and comparing them to these animals is comparing apples to oranges.
Most pet reptiles live for less than one year in captivity.
Truth: This is patently false, and was based on a very biased study using completely inadequate sample sizes and based primarily on wild collected imported animals. Anyone who has maintained just about any species of reptile for longevity of at least 10 or more years can obviously attest otherwise to this.
Firefighters and other emergency first responders are placed into additional danger as a result of individuals keeping these animals in their homes. Public resources are being diverted to deal with these animals.
Truth: This whole first responders argument is little more than propaganda from animal rights, and other anti-pet sources attempting to argue that these first responders shouldn't have to do their jobs to protect and serve, regardless of what it may be. Is rescuing a kitten stuck in a tree also a waste of public resources? There are not so many of these animals all needing public rescue and assistance from these types of situations that they become such a tremendous strain on resources. No firefighters or other emergency first responders have been attacked or injured by any captive reptiles or other exotic animals they may encounter during their line of duties, and in all actuality, numerous examples can be found of them going above and beyond to save reptiles from housefires and other emergency situations.
What about all of the secondary and tertiary impacts the pet trade is having? Contributing to this is bad!
Truth: This is a bit of an odd arguement which would seem to imply an underlying bias against the pet trade while ignoring far more widely reaching, multi-billion dollar industries causing global destruction, such as that of rubber, palm oil, sugar cane, and other industries. Surely there is some sort of small impact or footprint caused by making ancillary products and supplies for reptiles and amphibians in captivity, but there is not any significant data on this we are aware of, and we are not losing entire rainforests or continents because we want to make reptile substrate or enclosures.
Feeding some of these animals is cruel, and amounts to cruelty and suffering!
Truth: We certainly have no issues with those who choose their own lifestyles and dietary preferences to not eat meat, or who choose not to keep many of these animals for these reasons, as that is certainly their right to do so. However, as with maintaining any animal in captivity, replicating their natural diets and other requirements as closely as possible is vital for their optimal health, growth, and well-being, as well as their overall ability to not only survive, but thrive in captivity. The health and welfare of any feeder animals to be used for these purposes should of course always be considered vitally important. If, however, you believe that no animal which includes meat in any amount in its diet should be kept as a pet, then you should also be against keeping dogs, cats, pet rodents, many fish, and many other animals as pets as well, and there cannot be any valid biases as to which species of animals should be pets or not based on these reasons. Also, the vast majority of people are not going to free pet ads for puppies and kittens for sources of feeders for their reptiles; using these animals as a food source is not practical, and in the vast majority, if not all cases, far more responsibly sourced, humane, and economical sources for feeders already exist elsewhere.
Most reptiles and amphibians as pets are captured from the wild, illegally smuggled, and have high mortality rates.
Truth: This is not true. While animal rights organizations and other anti-pet sources will almost always claim that the pet trade is among the most significant contributing factors for species' declines and extinctions, and that it is driven primarily by illegal importation, wild collected animals, and smuggling, human expansion, habitat loss/fragmentation, pollution, deforestation, industrial and agricultural growth, and many other multi-billion dollar per year global industries can be proven to be by far the primary factors for the sixth great extinction we are experiencing. The vast majority of reptiles and amphibians now available as pets in the U.S. and elsewhere are now domestically kept and bred by as much as 70% or more, and, according to a 2011 report through USARK, exports of domestically produced reptiles in the U.S. outnumber imports by a 10 to 1 margin. Significant reductions in first year mortality amounting to only a 0.47% loss during transit, and under 15% in losses during the first year must be noted, and this is down from 40% or more. Similarly, a 2017 PIJAC white paper found that the reptile sector's growth has been fueled instead largely by captive born animals and improved husbandry practices. This argument also often conflates non-U.S. and non-pet related international trade of reptiles and amphibians for other purposes, such as for the skin, medicine, food, and other global trades. Some issues with international trade should of course be rightly noted, but U.S, trade must also be differentiated from some other nations which face problems with accountability and compliance with regulations. These activities do not accurately represent the vast majority of the responsible U.S. pet trade.
But surely all wild-caught/collected animals are a bad thing that should be stopped!
Truth: While there are indeed some problems with locally wild caught/collected pet reptiles which should be correctly noted, particularly when done so in an uncontrolled and unsustainable manner, there are also flaws to this reasoning, and it is not so simple. Yes, while the average person more than likely does not need to be acquiring wild caught pet reptiles or amphibians, and while many species are indeed already well-established as captive bred and born animals, in other cases, wild collected animals are still sometimes needed to better establish those animals in captivity while also preventing extinction of those animals altogether due to habitat loss/destruction, pollution, outright killing and persecution, etc. All animals we have now were founded upon wild-caught animals at some point or another.
The pet trade is responsible for the spread of devastating wildlife diseases such as Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) in native salamander and newt populations, and Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) in frogs and toads.
Truth: The issue of wildlife diseases is certainly a much more difficult and complex one which requires many more uniquely tailored solutions in order to solve, rather than fewer or more blunt solutions. We certainly are gravely concerned with the potential introduction and spread of any wildlife diseases, especially from where they are occurring in many areas of Europe, and we certainly are not negating the seriousness of this issue or the need to act upon it. However, what we are contending are the right regulatory statutes/mechanisms and the right regulatory agencies best suited for implementing them, such as the USDA's (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (or APHIS). Yes, the international pet trade is potentially a significant factor in this issue in these cases. However, other potential global industries utilizing amphibians with far more lax bio-security and containment protocols for preventing diseases from entering the environment should also be considered, such as the global food trade among others. There should be no legitimate reason as to why stakeholders cannot be part of the solutions through greatly improved and more readily available quarantine, testing methods, treatment options, and other appropriate measures to help curb the spread of these diseases. Unfortunately, it has been far easier to just blame and scapegoat the pet trade for everything without actually having to offer any alternative solutions or solve these real world problems, locally and globally.
Still, these are wild animals that belong in the wild!
Truth: Every species of domesticated animal was once a wild animal at one point or another. The word domesticated means that they have been selectively bred in captivity to interact well with, and suit humans. There have been decades of selective breeding in captivity to achieve the same end with many reptiles and amphibians in captivity to the point where they have become many generations removed from their wild counterparts in terms of their temperaments, coloration, patterning, and sometimes even physically or morphologically. While any animal, including even dogs and cats can still act instinctually under the correct circumstances, many species of reptiles and amphibians can be considered domesticated pets under at least some of these criteria, and are certainly not "wild animals" at least in the sense that they are not being directly removed from the wild where they may be found. Ball pythons, corn snakes, leopard geckos, bearded dragons, and many others are just a few of the most commonly kept species for which hundreds, if not even thousands of different colors and patterns have been achieved through selective breeding.
Also, much of the "wild" in which many of these animals may be indigenous to is being lost at an increasingly rapid rate each year, and we are now facing what is perhaps the sixth greatest mass extinction. Whether one likes the idea or not, seeing and interacting with these animals in captivity under the public and private sectors may in fact be among the last remaining chances for the continued existence of many species worldwide, as many species face serious declines in their native ranges and as many more people are lacking the opportunities to ever even be able to see and learn about these species in person. Books, documentaries, films, and other vicarious means can all be great ways of learning when they are not themselves sensationalized, but studies have proven that they cannot replicate the immensely beneficial sensory and textile experiences which can be gained from being able to see and touch an animal in person. Much more on the benefits of these aspects of education and outreach can be written upon. There must be far greater cooperation and collaboration of resources and information between public and private sectors for many species to be ultimately saved.
Still, no one "needs" to have these animals as pets. They do not provide the same companionship that getting dogs or cats would.
Truth: This same argument could be made towards owning dogs, cats, and any other animal, and even everything else we do. The human-animal bond is certainly far from being limited to just those traditionally accepted pets, and what one chooses to get out of owning a pet is much more up to one's individual choices, preferences, and personal responsibility than it is about the need for banning them. While we certainly cannot speak for everyone, many who do choose to maintain reptiles and amphibians do so because they are at least interested intrinsically in the animals and learning more about them. Using this above argument, fish also should not be pets then. Just because you do not have the need or desire to work with a particular animal does not mean that anyone else should not be able to; this is very flawed reasoning. These are not black-and-white issues, and even if one acknowledges only some of the good actors, unfortunately, bans and overreaching legislation very seldom leave any exemptions that most, if not nearly all members of the private sector could, or would ever qualify under without AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accreditation, for example.
Even then, I still don't think these animals are/should be pets.
Truth: While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinions, it should be easy to realize that other ideas and approaches do exist, and these are certainly very seldom black-and-white or one-size-fits-all issues. However, this nation was built upon the premise that each individual has the freedom to say, own, or do anything as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others. Just because you may not like, want, or be able to do something does not mean than anyone else cannot, or should not be able to; this is very flawed reasoning. Yes, some of these animals can become large, and should only be maintained by those individuals or facilities with the knowledge, facilities, and other appropriate resources to be able to properly care for and house them. However, banning them is not the solution, and only leads to additional problems which did not previously exist, as we've seen in the state of Ohio, for example, which resulted in the deaths and extreme stress of numerous confiscated animals, and a $3.5 million exotic animal facility which may never be used at capacity.
By fighting for the freedoms of pet owners and hobbyists, you're really just helping to defend the bad actors!
Truth: That's not true! We only advocate for the responsible sectors of the community, and this can be seen in our mission and all other educational materials. Unfortunately, as with any form of advocacy or grassroots causes, collectively defending all to protect the responsible majority will be inevitable, and that's like saying education charities whose missions are to improve learning opportunities in schools and other educational institutions are really just helping to defend those who may be abusing their positions in these fields as bad teachers or educators. While there are always a few bad owners, there are also bad parents, bad drivers, and even bad people in general, and as with everything, punishing or preventing responsible, law abiding people from keeping these animals in order to prevent these problems is not sensible, and is also very flawed reasoning.
You're just arguing all of this because the pet trade is all about the money, greed, vested interests, is dumb/pointless, etc.
Truth: You are certainly entitled to those opinions, whatever they may be, and no one is forcing you to own reptiles, amphibians, or other exotic animals or make contributions to the pet trade. Realize, however, that you may be arguing this from a point of very limited scope of knowledge and/or experience, and one can never expect to learn further if other viewpoints are simply shut out. Every special interest organization/cause does the same thing, and we are not ignoring problems or sweeping them under the rug when they are, in all reality, part of far greater societal problems than just having to do with the pet trade, and which may never all have solutions or answers to them. If, however, it was all about greed and the money, none of the millions of pet owners, hobbyists, breeders, rescues, and others would ever have been able to successfully keep and produce any of these animals in captivity. We aren't going to keep engaging in pointless, nonstop battles with those who refuse to ever change their mindsets, and believe that collectively persecuting all responsible reptile and exotic animal owners while promoting increased bans are the only solutions.
People can't properly care for dogs and cats, so they cannot possibly care for hundreds of different species of reptiles and amphibians! Unwanted reptiles are being dumped or surrendered all the time!
Truth: This is a flawed argument in that keeping every species of reptile or amphibian is not some collective problem. There are not hundreds of different species being dumped or surrendered all to the same degree in time. While some species certainly have unique or challenging care requirements in which some animal welfare, rehoming, and population issues may be valid, there are also not hundreds or thousands of unwanted reptiles being dumped or relinquished to mainstream animal shelters or other rescue groups all of the time to the same degree that dogs and cats are. Problems with pet reptiles, as with anything, are the exception rather than the norm, and are also the exact same problems faced by every other pet segment, and the greater society for that matter.
Also, yearly or monthly shelter intake statistics should typically be a matter of publicly accessible information, and while bad cases certainly do exist and should be addressed, they are far from the norm, and reptiles aren't flooding and dying in such high numbers in shelters nationwide. Reptiles comprise only perhaps ~5-10% of yearly shelter intakes even at best, and that's if they're not simply lumped in with all "other" animals besides dogs and cats.