Pet Trade Horrors

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by Matt Ellerbeck - The Snake Man
Snake Advocate & Conservationist

Protect Snakes From Cruelty - Boycott The Exotic Pet Trade

In recent years snakes have become increasingly popular in the exotic pet trade. This popularity has unfortunately plagued snakes with a number of very serious problems. Most concerning is the intense suffering, abuse, and death of literally millions of reptiles annually. According to Altherr, S. & Freyer, D. (2001), the reptile pet trade also has a negative impact on individual animal welfare. During the past several years, the Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare and the UK-based Animal Aid and Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have published materials highlighting the suffering of reptiles during capture, holding, transit and post-purchase, and the unacceptable levels of mortality inherent during each step of the trade process.

Aside from being an issue of tremendous animal cruelty, the pet trade is also a huge conservation concern. Numerous snake species, including rare and endangered ones, are harvested directly from the wild to be sent off to the pet trade. This severely depletes the natural population. The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) proclaims that while reptile pet proponents often claim that the majority of reptiles in trade are now bred by expert hobbyists and commercial breeders, trade records indicate a very different state of affairs. A significant percentage of reptiles sold and kept as pets in North America were caught in the wild, with many of them originating in African, Asian and Latin American countries. A significant number of reptiles are also legally (and illegally) caught in the United States and a much smaller but still significant number in Canada. According to C. Warwick's Cold Blooded Conspiracy (2001), an estimated 90 - 95% of non-farmed reptiles in the pet trade are still wild-caught.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), states that as demand for rare and exotic reptile species has increased, so has the illegal trade in reptiles. The United States is the world's largest consumer of illegally traded plants and animals. This illegal trade is valued at approximately $3 billion annually and reptiles constitute a significant part of it. Unfortunately, the more endangered and rare a reptile species is, the higher the price people will pay for it. This creates great monetary incentive for people to illegally collect and trade in these species. Each year, thousands of reptiles are seized by customs officials at airports from people who attempt to smuggle the reptiles into the United States.

Snakes are often caught from their habitats by being stunned or by being dragged out of their hiding spots by hooked sticks. Such methods inflict painful and sometimes life-threatening injuries on the snakes. Another popular method for harvesting snakes is to pour chemicals such as gasoline into snake dens and burrows. Expert estimations suggest that for every snake successfully caught ten others are killed during the process.

After capture snakes are housed in holding facilities for weeks on end. Here they are deprived of care and many die in neglectful conditions, devoid of food, lacking water, and proper temperatures. Those snakes that do survive are shipped off to pet stores. Many of these die during shipment due to grossly unsanitary and inadequate conditions. Shipping times can literally be days long. The snakes are again denied any sort of care during this period.

The surviving wild-caught snakes enter both the pet trade and private collections infested with both internal and external parasites. These parasites take a serious toll on the health of the snakes and many will die.

Once the snakes reach pet stores they are treated like products, as opposed to forms of life, and many more die due to the improper care they receive. Most pet stores have staff that know little to nothing about the proper care of the snakes they keep. Snakes are frequently housed in setups with improper substrates, temperatures, humidity levels, and improper diets, all of which result in premature death. A 2003 Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals report about UK pet stores cited numerous shortfalls in the advice given to customers interested in purchasing exotic animals, including reptiles. In an Arrowhead Reptile Rescue Opinion Editorial entitled "What's Wrong With the Reptile Industry?," the author proclaims that many reptiles end up in the hands of ill-informed owners who are not provided with accurate information. The author goes on to state that "Alligators, crocodiles, giant snakes and many other large and/or imposing species are readily available to anyone with money in hand. Iguanas and hatchling turtles are cranked out by the thousands and dumped on the market into public venues, to be sold to anyone who comes along who discovers a temporary interest in them. I have yet to see one pet store or retailer give complete, accurate information to the average naive buyer before they purchase these animals."

In the wild snakes have very cryptic habits and prefer to remain hidden under rocks, leaf litter, and other shelters. In pet stores they are routinely housed without any sort of "hide". This is so the animals will be in full view and will encourage a sale. Being denied a place of security causes a great deal of stress on the snakes and this can have detrimental effects on their overall health.

Another problem that the pet trade presents is that it allows for any irresponsible individual to obtain snakes as captives, regardless of the fact they may be unable to provide the snakes with proper care and husbandry, and may subject the animals to many forms of abuse and neglect. Many pet snakes ultimately end up in absolutely deplorable conditions. Around 90% of all pet reptiles die prematurely due to the improper conditions they are forced to endure.

Those animals that do survive are often abandoned when their owners become bored with them. Many exotic pets are released outside in non-native habitats. Releasing exotic pets into the wild can upset the natural balance of the ecosystem. Here they can transmit diseases which wild animals have no defense against. Wild populations of snakes also suffer when people release invasive species that were once pets into non-native habitats. Dr. Whit Gibbons and ten coauthors of a study in Bioscience identified six principal threats contributing to the decline in reptiles. The study listed the introduction of invasive species, which happens largely because of the pet trade, as the most serious of these threats aside from the destruction and degradation of natural habitat.

A prime example of the hazards that the pet trade has caused for snakes can clearly be seen in the case of the Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) in Florida. Thousands of these pythons, which are native to Southern and Southeast Asia, were abandoned by their owners and are now roaming throughout the Florida everglades. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) authorized a special python hunting season in March 2010 to eliminate pythons. It is unfortunate that these snakes were unwillingly forced into the pet trade, disregarded and abandoned by their owners and then finally sentenced to be killed, all because individuals wanted to exploit them for profit.

Wild populations of snakes also suffer from people releasing invasive species that were once pets into non-native habitats. Dr. Whit Gibbons and ten coauthors of a study in Bioscience identified six principal threats contributing to the decline in reptiles. The study listed the introduction of invasive species, which happens largely because of the pet trade, as the most serious of these threats aside from the destruction and degradation of natural habitat.

Due to the fact that snakes are continually abused, misused, and exploited by the exotic pet trade it is strongly recommended that people do not obtain snakes as captives.

The absolute only circumstances in which snakes should be held in captivity are when captive breeding programs are run in conjunction with habitat preservation and restoration endeavors to assist in the conservation and recovery of declining or endangered species, or for use in educational displays that actively promote the conservation and welfare of snakes (not entertainment displays).

Reptile Hobbyists often state that the captive-breeding of reptiles helps reduce the number of animals caught directly from the wild by supplying the demand with reptiles produced in captivity. However, this statement is untrue.

According to the WSPA's Scales and Tails publication, despite the purported advantages of captive-bred reptiles, breeders may find it difficult to compete with imported wild-caught animals that can be procured at much lower cost by wholesalers and retailers. As well, the growth in the reptile pet market has far outpaced the ability of breeders to satisfy the demand. While the number of reptile breeders has increased, so have the number of wild-caught animals. Certainly some of the demand for particular kinds of reptiles (e.g., red-eared sliders, leopard geckos, corn snakes) may at times be satisfied through captive breeding, but overall this does not seem to have resulted in a decrease in removals from the wild. Reptile pet trade proponents often claim that the keeping and breeding of their reptile pets somehow contributes to their conservation. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The reptile pet trade involves the suffering and death of millions of individual animals every year; the removal of millions of reptiles from wild habitats around the world; and the disruption of ecosystems.

Therefore, the commercial reptile trade is completely unnecessary and there are absolutely no good reasons for the commercial breeding of snakes for hobbyists to exist.

Personal Observations and Experiences

Supporters of the pet trade argue that the commercial captive-breeding of snakes has been beneficial to their conservation. However, hobbyists who collect and hoard snakes, and breeders who sell snakes like lifeless commodities have nothing to do with the conservation or welfare of these animals. Meetings with numerous hobbyists over the years confirmed that their only concern with snakes was either to collect them or sell them for profit. They had no interest in their conservation statuses or well-being.

Supporters also argue that the inclusion of snakes in the pet trade helps change people's perceptions of these animals and improves attitudes towards snakes. However, meetings with snake keepers over nearly a ten year period revealed that the majority of these individuals kept snakes for shock value. Many enjoyed displaying the snakes fighting with rats and mice. They sensationalized the animals and enjoyed inspiring fear in those who visited their collections. These actions only further perpetuate the negative stereotypes that many people have for snakes. Many of these keepers also bought snakes for the novelty, and when this novelty wears off the quality of care begins to severely decline.

I am aware that some breeders and keepers do take amazing care of their animals. However, these exceptions do not justify the wide scale suffering, abuse, and death of snakes that occurs as a result of them being sold as pets; whether in pet stores or from private breeders.

It staggers me how people who claim to love these animals continue to support this grotesque cruelty.

If individuals have an affinity for snakes then they should strive to help them by taking on land stewardship initiatives to help restore and protect habitat, or by donating to snake conservation projects, in opposed to just accumulating, hoarding, and collecting snakes for their own desires.

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