There doesn’t seem to be a day when the media isn’t reporting that some snake, turtle, lizard, or generally reptilian pet that some people are terrified of, escaping or being captured. But sadly all is not as it initially seems.
Whilst there is no doubt that some animals do manage to escape, there is a lot more that are dumped in the wild. A quick look on pet classified sites will show that the three main reptile species being offered free to a good home are bearded dragons, slider and cooter turtles and corn snakes. Often purchased with poor advice, unaware of the costs and size they will eventually reach the owners desperately turn to rescues to take the unwanted pet, only to find that few if any rescues have space for these sort of species, and normally have hundreds already desperate for long term homes. The only options seem to be putting the time and money into improving the animal’s conditions, having them put to sleep, or dumping them in the wild to fend for themselves. Sadly as many of these animals originally come from warmer sunnier climes than the British Isles, they die a slow and cruel death, unless they are lucky enough to be found and rescued, at which point the rescue will have limited options with what to do with one more unwanted reptile.
Pets, especially reptiles can and do escape, it can be that a normally docile pet suddenly wakes up and feels the need to find a mate, lay eggs, get away from the other reptile sharing it’s enclosure, or to hide from a change in the weather, in which case a previously secure enclosure is easily breached. Video on-line shows turtles scaling concrete walls and chain link fences, snakes pushing open unlocked vivarium doors, and lizards lifting tank tops clear before slipping out. But for the most they are then contained within another room, garden, shed etc. which then they are hopefully caught.
So where does the blame lie for the pets that are dumped in the wild. The bulk of the blame must be laid at the feet of the owner who decided to release a pet that they had purchased and then decide to abandon. With today’s technology and the ease at which you can research animals it is almost impossible for the owner to be able to say they hadn’t been able to research their new purchase. You have both a legal and a moral obligation to take care of that animal for the rest of its life. By dumping an animal in the wild a person is breaking a number of laws, many of which carry hefty fines or even custodial sentences.
However some of the blame must also be handed to the industry. More than one pet shop has sold large species telling the owner they will only reach half their true size, along with an expensive and yet inadequate set up. Once the new pet owner has got home and found out that they have too many animals that will get too large and not have enough space they have few if any options. But it still has to be said there is no excuse for just dumping an animal. Even if all other options are exhausted it is better to have the animal humanely destroyed than thrown out to alter the natural habitats in the UK, or die a slow death once the winter arrives.
There is a third and somewhat more cynical aspect to the media reports. At present there is some significant legislation going through European courts which may start to limit the exotics that can be kept in Europe and specifically for us, the UK. Whilst there are millions of reptile keepers there are also a vocal minority of people who would like the hobby banned. They oppose the keeping of reptiles as pets, but are less demonstrative about the use of reptiles as food, or clothing such as snakeskin bags and shoes. It is important for this vocal minority that at this stage of the legislative procedure that all the negative aspects of the reptile keeping hobby is exposed. Meaning that every single animal in the wild is reported, and the more suspicion reptile keepers believing that many of the phots of ‘escaped’ snakes are in fact staged to create stories where there are none. Whatever the truth may be significant damage is done to the natural ecosystem of Britain by feral rabbits (remember that rabbits are an invasive species to this country), cats, and animals such as mink released by animal rights activists from fur farms. The number of domestic reptiles escaping are statistically insignificant when compared to this.
For many species there are too many to be practically housed in rescues, and there is a constant stream of imports. Many ideas have been put forward, including…
We wouldn’t condone someone throwing a dog on to the streets, and we hopefully would make our displeasure known if a friend or relative took their hamsters out for a drive and left them in a forest to die of the cold. So it’s important that we stop abandoning reptiles being culturally acceptable.
Most importantly before we buy any animal we have to know that we can take care of it for the rest of its life.