In an article written by David Fleshler (reporter for the long-known, heavily biased, Sun-sentinel news) on December 7th, 2015, titled “The snake lobby defends your right to own a spitting cobra” there have been yet another long list of exaggerations, blatant lies, and intentional manipulations of interview responses. Of course, we certainly don’t expect much different, but the inaccuracies and lies within this article should be addressed so that those who don’t wish to simply base their opinions off of one source of information have the ability to have a balanced perspective.
First issue to consider, is why are we captive producing reptiles in the first place? Truthfully, captive breeding science has intrigued many who have ventured into reptile keeping. Many species are quite difficult to produce in a captive setting. It’s not the same as cats and dogs, going into heat and then just feeling compelled to “do the deed”. For many species, there are times of year that must be calculated, temperature fluctuations, misting at specific intervals, day/night cycle adjustments and more that have to be considered in order to induce mating behavior in a wide range of species. As such, proponents for restrictive legislation making claims against unnatural housing conditions begin to fall apart for this very reason. In order to successfully get these animals to breed, they must be of the proper age and weight, as well as given the proper environmental conditions in order to induce mating behavior. Weight is a vitally important part of the equation as it ensures the proper health of the female so that she can ensure a healthy, viable litter/clutch. You only get an animal up to proper weight if they are eating sufficiently, and they only eat sufficiently if they feel secure and content in their captive surroundings. Animals that are not content, usually refuse to eat at all or will eat sparingly. Females subjected to these conditions will often times refuse to breed or, if they do pair, will retain sperm until laying conditions are ideal. Remember, breeding is a very metabolically expensive activity for any animal.
The next issue to factor in is regarding the “stacked housing” concerns. Many reptile breeders use what are called “racks” in which thick, plastic containers are stored in a sliding system which make for easier and quicker maintenance of their charges. Further, this also helps to maintain more sanitary conditions and quicker cleaning capability when maintaining a larger number of animals. Each compartment is equipped with water source, bedding, and usually a hide box of some assortment. In the wild, despite all of the pretty scenery in which these animals have practically zero appreciation for, that is their primary concern. Shelter, food, water and temperature control are their specific needs and essentially what their biological functions allow for. Reptiles are the ultimate of the energy conservationists. They eat sparingly in the wild compared to most mammals, they move into the open only at times when they need to in order to adjust their body temperature, eat, drink, or mate. The remainder of their time is spent hidden, as they most commonly fall prey to larger predators. One only needs to spend some time in the field studying these animals to see how they normally behave in the wild. Their activity is very calculated and only when necessary.
In a captive setting, simpler setups may not be pretty, but they are functional. They ensure that cleaning is quicker and more efficient, and allow keepers to better track their daily activities. If you compare housing conditions for these animals compared to the chicken that most of you put on your plates for your family to consume…they are living quite well. They aren’t overstocked together (nor should they be) and they are not (and should not) be subjected to walking around in excessive bodily waste and places where the keeper has to wear a respirator just to service them unlike factory farm workers do with your food. Responsible keepers ensure that they have their own enclosure, are given their own food and water source, as well as their own hide source. They only share those environments when breeding is set to occur. Once breeding is completed, they are again given their own space.
The buildings or rooms where the animals are kept are maintained at a specific base temperature to ensure that all of the charges within the facility/room are given the correct temperature ranges so that they may thermoregulate (adjust their body temperature as needed) with the help of additional heat sources specifically given to the individual animal in question. These heat sources are usually overhead heat lamps or underbelly heating pads so they may lay on a warmer portion of their enclosure. Again, keepers are mimicking the exact behaviors that they would use in the wild. Further, the drawer systems (racks) used for these animals provide a much needed sense of security as multiple sides are blocked in around them. This is essential for the psychological wellbeing of the animals, and certain species cannot be kept in captivity without this need fulfilled. This is also especially helpful when rearing newborns since this sense of security is imperative to ensuring they are started in life properly and eat their first meals sooner.
Another issue brought up are the safety concerns of keeping such reptiles as large constricting snakes and venomous snakes. Not every type of animal is good for every keeper. This is just common knowledge. Just as a certain breeds of dogs aren’t necessarily a good fit for some owners, nor is a large and powerful constrictor or venomous snake. Another example of this is with horses. A horse may not be necessarily a good animal to own for just anyone. However, for the person with the knowledge, space, and experience, a horse is absolutely wonderful to have. Horses are large, powerful animals which have taken many human lives annually and most of them had no malicious intent when doing so. It was just mere reaction to something they didn’t like which carried with it deadly consequences for the owner/rider. Additionally, each day we get into our motor vehicles, which claimed over 32,000 lives in 2014. Yet we do so without thinking twice about our personal safety. Owning and driving a motor vehicle come with inherent risks that we willingly accept every time we sit in the driver’s seat. While there are motorists who take every precaution, you can’t always control what other drivers will do and responsible drivers are not held accountable for the reckless actions of a few. Owning a large snake, venomous snake, or any snake is no different. How can most people be comfortable with driving a motor vehicle, but consider snake ownership a safety concern?
“…dogs and cats have been bred over millennia to be our friends. Pythons have not, as several surprised snake owners realized in their final moments. Dogs need us. Pythons don’t.”
The above is a direct quote from the article, driving hard at making a point…and failing miserably. It’s correct, that dogs and cats have been bred for many years by people in an effort to make them more personable as pets and companions. Yet that hasn’t stopped 38 dogs from killing people in 2012 (latest statistic available at this time) and yet nobody thinks twice about getting a puppy for their kid for Christmas. We also don’t encourage anyone to NOT consider purchasing a dog. Dogs are great. But they are animals and have the potential to bite if not conditioned correctly by the owner. Dogs and cats have personalities, and their conditioning while they are raised can very well be an influence as to their ability to be suitable as your pet. Snakes on the other hand, are instinctual. Keepers know what they’re capable of and can handle them accordingly. As such, for the RIGHT owner, they make a much more reliable or manageable pet than a dog. Add to that the reduced concerns for dander allergies and they simply are a much better choice in some respects. Further, the average snake bite (from a non-venomous snake) is MUCH less damaging than the bite from even some small breed dogs. Cat bites are notorious for resulting in severe infections. This doesn’t even include the damage that can result from their claws.
Venomous reptiles are in a league of their own. Yes, the inherent risks of keeping venomous reptiles are much greater than most non-venomous reptiles. However, this doesn’t make them any less reasonable for the right keeper than others. Every day human lives are saved with the use of medicines that were developed using the venom of reptiles and other creatures. Venom doesn’t just grow itself inside of test tubes for scientific study. It must be extracted and it requires experienced and skilled venomous reptile keepers and handlers to do that. Zoos do not offer this service in most cases and even when they do, they have limited numbers to work with. Venomous reptile breeders are the primary source of venom production and while there are specific labs in which the extractions take place, the species variability often comes from the private breeding sector. With that being said, we certainly do not recommend anyone to just jump into keeping venomous reptiles. Those considering venomous reptile husbandry should ensure that they have proper containment, secondary containment and an escape proof room in which to ensure that they never escape the facility premises. Beyond that, all other risk is to the keeper themselves which is the business of them and them alone.
Issues are often raised about the food sources for reptiles, which in most cases are rodents. Claims are made that they are housed in large numbers with cramped conditions. While this may happen from time to time, again we get to compare this to chickens and cattle which are housed for the purpose of human consumption. Yet, we don’t see too many regulations being passed to ban factory farming for poultry or beef. Further, as opposed to chickens and cattle, rodents live naturally in colonies, many times which can be quite sizeable in numbers. The large numbers that the rodents are housed in are only temporary as the rodents are culled (ideally in the most humane manner possible) and then packaged and frozen for sale. Every single carnivorous animal, in most cases and ourselves included, ingests meat that was harvested in a very similar manner. Yet when rodents are maintained in the same manner (if not arguably better) it becomes an issue.
The above is written to help the reader to understand the methods to the “madness” of keeping reptiles as reporters most often fail at trying to help their readers see both sides of the story while working to paint a picture of their own personal biases. While this article does not address all points, for further information you are welcomed to read our other articles here to help you better understand the many misconceptions of reptile keepers and the reptile industry. We will not lie and state that there have not been and will not be bad actors in our industry which paint all of us in a negative light. However, they are the exception and not the rule. Our community strives to improve standards of keeping and maintaining these animals as better science and practices continue to surface and we will continue to do so.