Having heard so much about Clifford Warwick, the reptile expert from the UK, I worried that he might not match his reputation. But, when I attended a lecture he gave in Toronto two weeks ago and chatted with him over a vegan meal later, I realized that he was one of those people who, indeed, is an exceptional individual. He cares deeply about all animals, while drawing upon his background in science and exhaustive experience in field and laboratory to clearly describe appalling abuses of these animals that go largely unrecorded, unnoticed, and unremitted.
I took no notes, so here I will not be citing statistics. His talk, and another by the bird veterinarian and staunch defender of birds against the horrors of the exotic "pet" trade, Dr. Anthony Pliny, was recorded by Zoocheck, and I will be referencing it in the months ahead.
I have spent my life learning about birds, but like so many animal protectionists, my knowledge of reptile welfare and husbandry is deficient. Necessary knowledge is also deficient among self- and otherwise-proclaimed experts, including those who keep them captive, or breed and sell them. Pet store employees chronically misinform buyers about the nature and needs of herps, and yet all too often are seen by the public as "expert."
Lack of vitally important knowledge in no way keeps the general public from fueling this horrific branch of the pet industry with its purchases of so many turtles, tortoises, snakes, lizards, caimans and other reptiles, and amphibians, collectively sometimes called "herps," after the science of herpetology that studies reptiles and amphibians.
What I do know more about is the "other end" of the reptile: the fate of reptiles and amphibians in the wild and entering into the supply chain, with few surviving capture and shipment, and populations in rapid decline worldwide.
They are of an ancient lineage, the amphibians literally emerging from the Devonian seas some 400 million years ago, long before there were dinosaurs, with reptiles diverging from these very early ancestors more than 300 million years ago. But, now they are in trouble, as we move into another era of mass extinction - of a magnitude not seen since the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinctions of some 65 million years ago that killed off the giants among them.
One microcosmic indicator of the severity of the problem is that, of the eight turtle species native to my home province of Ontario, seven are listed as anything from "species of concern" to "endangered." The situation is far worse in many tropical countries, where huge numbers of herps are exploited domestically or exported for food, leather, bogus medicinal values, or - and here is what should concern North Americans the most - the insatiable exotic pet industry. Unlike in Ontario, there are often no data on population sizes, or the biology and needs of the animals, nor laws to protect them (or adequate enforcement where such laws do exist).
Entire populations of little-known herps - some newly-discovered species with very tiny habitats for which there is no information on how many there might be - are scooped up and sold to collectors. The mortality rate from the field to the store is horrifically high, maybe exceeding 90 percent. But, since they are literally free for the taking, they still generate profits.
And, so do captive-bred animals. The industry often says that, because there are so many "domesticated" species captive-bred, you can buy such animals with no impact on wild populations. But, there is much more to my concern than the loss of so many species. These breeding facilities also fail to provide anything approaching humane standards. Like puppy mills or factory farms, the animals are treated as mere means to a profitable end: poorly kept, suffering, being used to maximize financial return while minimizing costs, and then discarded when worn out (or dead).
And, make no mistake; although not automatons and certainly capable of feeling stress and pain, herps are emphatically not domestic. Yes, they can be bred into all manners of color mutations, but they retain all the needs and instincts of animals fresh from the wild.
Warwick showed image after image of huge numbers of dead and dying herps confiscated in the confines of various dealers and traders in the UK and the US. There were further close-up images of diseased and seriously injured animals in very large numbers, found among the animals destined for the pet trade.
For every herp seen for sale in a pet shop, dozens suffer and die, yes - but it does not stop there. Most people often can't tell a healthy reptile from one suffering disease or malnutrition, and unknowingly buy animals already dying. The sellers want to minimize the degree of effort needed to adequately serve the needs of the animals, so as not to discourage sales and profits.
And, because reptiles have low metabolisms compared to mammals and birds, they can endure long enough for their demise to be attributed to "natural causes," the symptoms of illness and malnourishment unrecognized by most people.
Space does not allow me to even list, let alone discuss, the large assembly of mistakes made by the sellers, buyers, and some owners of reptiles. And yet, I am convinced that people who claim to be compassionate, if sincere, would never, ever keep any of these species in the average home or apartment. And so, in future blogs, I will discuss specific issues that you probably won't hear about from the zoo or pet industry, and may be unlikely to think about yourself, that cumulatively show why the tiny percentage of herps who make it to the pet shop are still likely to face an early, unpleasant death.
Keep Wildlife in the Wild,