The reptile pet trade

The trade in reptiles has grown virtually unhindered since the import of Mediterranean tortoises was banned in 1984 by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The ban followed recognition by the authorities that these vulnerable and sensitive animals make highly unsuitable ‘pets’ and that the majority were living short, wretched lives. Equally, national populations were being seriously depleted as a result of dealers’ activities.

Trading in tropical tortoises, such as the elongated, was not included in the ban and dealing in these animals continues – as does the trade in scores of different species of tortoises, turtles, snakes and lizards.

A recent price list issued by Strictly Rep – a breeder and importer supplying animal retailers including the Focus Do It All chain of DIY stores – boasts a catalogue of some 103 different species. These range from Indian pythons to Vietnamese Golden geckos; from Sudanese plated lizards, to green iguanas.

Like the now-protected Mediterranean tortoise, such animals are supremely ill-suited for life in a glass tank or (the fate of larger reptiles such as the 5ft-plus long adult iguana) a solitary existence in a suburban spare bedroom.

Unlike many mammals and birds, whose adaptability to their environment is relatively flexible, reptiles are ‘pre-programmed’ for life in the wild. Unable to adapt to captivity, most reptiles die prematurely from stress, injury, disease, neglect, and incorrect husbandry, such as poor feeding, heating and humidity.

Glass boundaries confuse them. Seeing nothing in their way, they move or impact against transparent barriers and often sustain facial injuries and even broken necks, leading to paralysis. Some lizards, when threatened in the wild, will dive from trees into water or onto a deep leaf-litter substrate. In a tank, their landing is often on a hard surface, such as the base of a shallow water container. Injuries result.

Reptiles also suffer burns from inappropriate heat sources and malnutrition from a lack of vitamin D, which – for some species – is vital for the proper absorption of nutrients; in the wild, vitamin D is obtained from sunlight.

Snakes have extremely delicate muscles and skeletons that can be easily bruised or broken during handing – even by seemingly non-harmful acts, such as supporting a snake’s weight at one place rather than distributing it over at least two good points. Equally, the circulatory system of snakes is governed to cope with its largely horizontal lifestyle. Holding them vertically, as is often done by pet keepers, can cause severe displacement of body fluids.

The popular assumption is that reptiles are ‘cold blooded’ and therefore feel little or no pain. In fact, they are ectothermic rather than cold blooded. This means that (unlike endothermic mammals and birds) reptiles have little physiological control over their internal body temperature and are instead almost completely reliant on external heat sources to provide them with enough warmth for their natural activities and for metabolic processes to operate. This makes these animals extremely sensitive even to subtle changes in temperature and humidity in their captive environment.

Added to the problems arising from their ‘cold blooded’ reputation, reptiles lack the repertoire of facial expressions and vocalisations that would alert keepers to their pain and distress. A sick, hurt, or chronically stressed reptile will typically suffer in silence. The suffering will often be far more prolonged than that experienced by mammals, due to reptiles’ slow metabolic rate. Blood loss and the healing of injuries are both relatively slow, as are the consequent risk of infection and further complications.

Many customers will purchase a reptile a few inches long that, within a few years – should the animal survive – could grow into something powerful and massive. A rock python might measure 16 foot, an iguana 5ft-plus, while a terrapin – which starts life about the size of a 50 pence piece – can grow to the size of a dinner plate. It is not uncommon for such animals to be abandoned in a ‘forgotten’ part of a house or to be dumped on public ground, whereupon they invariably become objects not of sympathy but of persecution.

Most reptiles sold for the pet trade, says reptile biologist Clifford Warwick, are wild caught. But with fewer than 5 per cent of consignments inspected by Customs officers, it is a near certainty that dealers can say what they want on declaration forms with little risk of the shipments being inspected.

Often dealers state that animals are captive bred, says Warwick, because selling the species in question constitutes an offence; or because various local authorities refuse the sale of any wild caught animals in their jurisdiction. Despite the prohibitions, Warwick adds, ‘claims that animals are captive bred are rarely challenged and almost never tested – and traders know it’.

Methods used to catch wild reptiles include netting (small lizards), catching by hand and thrown into bins (snakes), and chased, grabbed and stuffed into sacks (iguanas).

Other reptiles are captive bred, often on a small scale in a house or shed. Dealers try to present captive breeding as a humane alternative to the wild caught trade. But captive breeding is associated with many of the stresses, disease risks and early mortalities found in any system of intensive farming. Additionally, many involved in captive breeding will regularly or periodically take fresh breeding stock from the wild in order to maintain profitable ‘output’.

Having personally witnessed the physical injuries to reptiles caused by their capture, storage, packaging and transport, Clifford Warwick’s one-word definition for the trade is: ‘barbaric’. Injuries, he says, cause broken bones to pierce not only the animals themselves but also stab others to death. He has also seen animals engage in panic fighting and dying from suffocation. ‘Add to this the long term psychological and behavioural deprivation caused by animals not being where they should be and you have creatures enduring lives of severe misery.’

For more information see theĀ reptile campaign index.