Debating Whether Reptiles or Amphibians Should Be House Pets

Debating Whether Reptiles or Amphibians Should Be House Pets

Collector demand for rare animals means some suppliers seek threatened, new or unclassified species in the wild, a trend that has become so problematic that scientists withhold details about the locations of species they study in publications for fear of poaching.

To bypass international trade regulations, collectors may pass off wild animals as captive-bred. Overexploitation also becomes a problem when demand is high and wild animals are cheaper to capture than breed.

Captive breeding is favored over wild capture because of conservation concerns. But it isn’t perfect and may introduce problems, like increased susceptibility to disease in some species or contributing to demand for animals falsely claimed to be captive-bred.

In your home, it’s hard to read the demands of stone-faced herps evolved for wild living. They need proper temperature, humidity, food, lighting and exercise, and have other species-specific psychological and social requirements.

If you meet these needs, you must accept that your pet could grow quite big and live a couple decades. If you don’t, yours will probably die in its first year, like 75 percent of pet reptiles and amphibians brought home as pets.

Reptiles and amphibians don’t make good pets “and should not be part of the pet trade,” said Lorelei Tibbetts, a vet technician and manager at The Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine in New York. Most of the time, animal patients come to her with metabolic or reproductive issues related to improper nutrition, husbandry and life in captivity.

“It’s really not possible for us to care for these animals in order for them to thrive and live a decent life,” she said.

People may neglect pet reptiles and amphibians no more than common pets. But even the best environments “will result in ‘controlled deprivation’,” as is also the case with caged birds and rabbits, or fish in tanks, wrote Dr. Pasmans in his review.

Just as many pet owners provide a high standard of care for dogs, cats, birds or fish, it is possible, with a lot of effort, to properly look after some reptiles and amphibians in homes, he adds. For instance, bearded dragons adapt rather well to captivity.


A bearded dragon kept as a classroom pet at an elementary school in Brooklyn.

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Clifford Warwick, a consulting biologist on exotic animal welfare and lead author of a viewpoint in the journal, said we can’t provide proper care because we don’t know what many species need. Even when we do, misinformation on the internet leads pet owners astray.

It’s easy to buy a cute pet on impulse, but “when people find out how much trouble they are, they turn them loose,” said Ms. Leahy.

Generally, the limited options for dealing with unwanted exotic pets means many owners just release them. Discarded pets can wreak havoc on nonnative ecosystems. That red-eared slider in my cart from Mississippi is a huge problem in Europe and Asia.

And Florida is dealing with the biggest invasive species problem on the planet, mostly because of the pet trade. There, iguanas have destroyed concrete infrastructure and Burmese pythons have eaten protected and common species, setting off a disease-spreading chain reaction.

Despite all these concerns, reptile and amphibian owners aren’t going to disappear any sooner than dog, cat or bird owners.

In the past, people have summoned emotional arguments to single out slick-skinned exotic pets with bad reputations. But the animals aren’t as harmful as the harm inherent in trading them.

The contributors to the review hope that by heeding scientific arguments, rules about reptile ownership will be conceived of fairly.

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