The Value of Reptiles as Pets
By BioFauna Exotics- Chris Law & Abby Malvestuto
You can download a PDF version of this article HERE
There was a time in this Country when the idea of owning reptiles, especially snakes, would have resulted in being viewed as “weird”, associated with witchcraft, satanic rituals and a myriad of other things. Historically, folklore, religious writings, and other texts have been a vehicle for false information which fuel the distaste of these animals for the common person. In some respects, Hollywood is much to thank for this as they have often placed snakes into a variety of movies or TV shows where they were kept by villains or served as the villains themselves. Snakes especially have incredibly undeserved reputations, and stories about them are often passed down through generations where unfortunate conflicts with them were made out to be far more sinister than they ever were in reality. It is for this reason why reptile keepers have struggled to build a rapport with local, state and Federal governments, as well as to build a credible reputation with our fellow citizens. However, despite our best efforts we know the vast majority of people will ask, “What is the point in having reptiles as pets? What is wrong with just having common pets like dogs or cats”? These are the questions we dedicate our professional lives to answering.
There’s nothing wrong with dogs or cats as pets and many reptile keepers have them as companions as well. However, the world as we know it is getting smaller and smaller. Habitat loss from development and destruction from oil spills, expanding farming operations and more has resulted in species across the globe being threatened and faced with extinction. The issue, however, seems to be with gaining interest in what’s going on around the world beyond our own front doors. Most people do not make themselves aware of what is going on in other parts of the globe which don’t affect them directly and even if they do, it’s usually in such a small manner that it typically goes unnoticed and thus ignored in its importance. This is where our reptile and amphibian pets (or any exotic pet) come into play.
Since the beginning of time, humans have kept animals for the purposes of work, food, and companionship. Humans are by far the most successful animal in existence. Our success as a species has resulted in many other species being negatively affected. Their homes have been destroyed to build our own homes, stores, shopping centers, etc. What little is left of their habitats are often polluted or physically damaged by activities from human beings seeking recreational activities. Even some activities meant to bring people and nature closer together, often result in displacing wildlife from their homes as many have failed to educate themselves on proper etiquette around nature.
Every species of reptile is different. Each inhabit different ecological niches and have different biological traits which enable them to thrive in those habitats. This is where the value of having reptiles as pets comes into play. Before the acquisition of some reptiles as pets, most had no knowledge of the biological needs of so many species of wildlife, and how the needs of one can affect the needs of many. Understanding the captive care needs of their pets helps to open their minds about the plights of assorted animals around the globe. This is the basis for something called the “Trophic Scale”. For many, wiping out assorted species of insects seems like a great idea because they are seen as pests, but to those who have insectivorous reptiles which rely on them for their own survival, those people view them a little differently. Reptiles and amphibians provide an essential ecological niche as both predator and prey, and without proper understanding of that delicate balance the entire pyramid can fall.
Most captive snakes feed on captive bred and humanely euthanized rodents as their source of sustenance. This enlightens people about the common snakes they find in their yards and their necessity to control rodent populations. Various species of tortoises are strictly vegetarian and rely on the health of forests, savannahs, or even limited desert vegetation in order to survive. Global climate issues are also taken into consideration once you contemplate issues surrounding temperature-based sex determination in animals such as crocodilians and some turtles; meaning temperature is a major contender in determining how many males and females are hatched out each year. Too high of a population of males with a lack of females can absolutely be detrimental to a population’s long-term survivability. Of course, our understanding of temperature-based sex determination came from captive breeding efforts. The captive care of aquatic species provides an understanding of the importance of water quality. There are many species of salamanders, fish, frogs, newts, toads and more in captivity which are sensitive to pollutants in the water. These same pollutants can very well end up in your very own drinking water. If not that, they can seep into the water supplies for farming industries and others which provide food for people.
The preservation of wildlife and protection of their habitats is about more than just the wildlife, it’s about people, too. However, people have been well divorced from the natural environment. We have created concrete jungles, eat food provided by farms where it is processed and provided to you through people whom we will never meet and through methods which we will never be previewed to. Our abilities to comprehend our role in the environment and our dependency on it has grown complacent. Yet, there is a way we can reconnect. There is a way that we can find that appreciation and understanding once again. Through our pets.
Captive maintenance of various species of reptiles has opened doors to many children so that they may see, feel, understand and appreciate the value of these animals. These animals have helped to break fears of people of all ages and enabled their protection in the micro-habitat of a backyard to be ensured. These captive animals are representatives. They are “spokesmen” for their species. They are important ambassadors which offer humanity a peek into their mysterious world at the minimal cost of providing them with their needs in a captive setting. While it is true that many of the first specimens were wild caught and many unfortunately suffered due to misunderstanding of their captive needs, herpetoculture (the private study and keeping of reptiles and amphibians) has come a LONG way. Our understanding of captive husbandry has improved by leaps and bounds, and as such, we have the ability to reproduce these species in captivity as well as ensure proper health and longevity beyond what they would ever experience in the wild.
The ability to reproduce each of these species in captivity helps to reduce pressure on the wild populations from wild collection. Many cultures, globally, still capture/kill many of these animals for a plethora of purposes from food and medicinal use, to the skin trade and commodity. While there will most likely always be some form of wild collection (which helps to ensure healthy captive populations and reduce/prevent inbreeding), it will be much less prolific due to the sale of healthy, captive bred specimens. Captive bred animals help ensure success for both animal and owner in keeping their charges happy and healthy throughout their lives. The connections formed between animal, owner, and the lives these animals and owners will inevitably bring everyone closer to a world which they may otherwise never have seen or experienced for themselves and will ultimately, through love and experience, choose to protect.
That said, there are unscrupulous people in the industry of reptile breeding/sale, but these same types of people can be found in ANY industry and not just this one. This is an issue which can only be dealt with from within. Excessive legislation punishing even the truly passionate and dedicated of keepers does not resolve the issues, but instead further negatively impact conservation efforts globally. Money earned from many breeding operations is often placed into conservation initiatives in various parts of the globe. Wildlife needs all of the help it can get. Funding from multiple sources and organizations is crucial and not always will their opinions on politics align. However, conservation efforts world-wide are about more than personal opinions and drama. It is a very real concern which requires our attention today…not tomorrow after we’ve wasted a great deal of money determining which organization/group has the most political influence. While people are wasting precious time, resources and money campaigning for their personal belief systems…wildlife is losing. Daily.
Understanding the roles of wildlife in captivity as pets, in zoological institutions, and other settings is paramount. Is it a “perfect” solution? Perhaps not…but we live in an imperfect world where we are forced to do the best we can with the tools presented. Captive breeding of wildlife is a tool and a useful one at that. Instead of being hesitant about your neighbor’s pet snake, instead ask them some questions about it. Get to know them and find out why that animal is so important not just in its native habitat, but to them personally. Break your fears of them through compassion and understanding, and spread that knowledge so that others, too, may learn to accept and respect animals that otherwise are struggling to hold on to the little bit of “home” they have left.
Below is a short list of example organizations which are operated by and/or funded by the herpetological community and reptile industry:
Herpetological Conservation International – www.herpconservation.org
Amphibian Survival Alliance – www.amphibians.org
Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group – www.ttpg.org
International Reptile Conservation Foundation – www.ircf.org
Crocodilian Specialist Group – www.iucncsg.org
Chopsticks for Salamanders – http://amphibianrescue.org/tag/chopsticks-for-salamanders/
Josh’s Frogs and Mitsinjo: Saving frogs for the future – http://www.joshsfrogs.com/catalog/blog/2014/12/joshs-frogs-mitsinjo-saving-frogs-future/
Tom Crutchfield Reptiles and San Salvador Iguana Conservation – http://medicine.llu.edu/research/department-earth-and-biological-sciences/news-events/new-bahama-iguana-conservation-center
Turtle Survival Alliance – http://www.turtlesurvival.org/
Eastern Diamondback Conservation Foundation – http://www.savethebuzztails.org/
BioFauna Exotics has conservation aid initiatives in the works and soon to be announced!