Reclining with a laptop on my couch in Brooklyn, I searched “buy lizard online” and clicked the first link. I filled my cart with a flying dragon, a couple of caimans, a red-eared slider turtle, a poison dart frog and an albino garter snake.
I agreed to the terms and conditions, certifying that I knew the laws governing reptile ownership (it is illegal for me to own some of these reptiles in New York), that I understood exceptions for baby turtles (I still don’t), and that I wouldn’t hold the company responsible.
Now all I had to do was provide a credit-card number, and my new pets would be delivered to my doorstep the next day.
That I can impulsively buy a reptile — or hundreds at the same time — without fully understanding what I’m getting into is startling to some experts concerned with animal welfare. And that is only part of a growing debate over whether it’s appropriate to keep reptiles and amphibians as pets.
At first, the justification seems simple: If you can keep an animal happy and healthy with proper food and housing, then it shouldn’t matter if it’s a dog, lizard or cat. But animals and their requirements widely vary. For reptiles, there are particular concerns about welfare, ecological sustainability and human health.
These issues were examined in articles in a recent issue of the journal Veterinary Record. The authors hope pleas based on science will inform proposed restrictions for keeping exotic animals as pets.
A century ago, you could buy a living lizard lapel pin, one of a wide variety of domestic cruelties once inflicted on reptiles. Today, people are more keenly conscious of animal welfare, and keepers and breeders know more about nutrition and husbandry of reptiles and amphibians.
Reptiles are popular pets because they are relatively quiet, odorless and “compatible with modern lifestyles,” said Gordon Burghardt, a herpetologist who specializes in behavior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (As a child in the 1950s, he got his start with dime-store turtles and lizards.)
Caring for these animals is rewarding to their keepers, inspiring for scientists, important for research, and may foster conservation efforts by improving public perceptions of reptiles like snakes, which have been unjustly killed in the past, argued Burghardt and Frank Pasmans, a veterinarian at Ghent University in Belgium and lead author of a review in the journal.
While there are worries about the impact of domestic reptiles on human health — especially in homes with children or people with compromised immune systems — the bigger concerns are animal welfare and ecological damage, Pasmans said.
On their journey to your home, reptiles and amphibians first survive unregulated and sometimes illegal methods of capture or breeding, housing and transportation.
In 2014, researchers, veterinarians and animal welfare workers investigated a major wholesale supplier of exotic animals. Eighty percent, including reptiles and amphibians, were sick, injured or dead as a result of overcrowding, stress, poor hygiene and nutrition, or cannibalism.
“High mortality rates are the cost of doing business, whether captured in the wild or bred in captivity,” said Debbie Leahy, a wildlife manager at the Humane Society of the United States who was not involved in the study.
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 locations of species they study 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 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, or it may contribute 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 of 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.
“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.
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.
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.
It’s easy to buy a cute pet, but “when people find out how much trouble they are, they turn them loose,” Leahy said.
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.
Despite 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 with scientific arguments, rules about reptile ownership will be conceived of fairly.