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Reptiles as pets: Five common myths debunked

July 23, 2018

A swaying elephant. A feather-plucked parrot. A pacing tiger. For many exotic animals, the signs of poor welfare in captivity are easy to spot. But what about reptiles? How can we tell when a snake is suffering? Can a snake suffer?

The traditional view

Reptiles have long been regarded as simple animals with little capacity for learning or emotion. “They’re basically seen as instinct-driven robots,” says Meghann Cant, BC SPCA animal welfare educator. “It’s a common misconception.”

A new perspective

Thanks to a growing interest in reptile cognition and behaviour, the view of reptiles as robots is slowly changing. “We’re discovering more and more about their abilities all the time,” says Cant.

Research now shows, for instance, that reptiles can navigate mazes, solve food puzzles and use tools. They are known to hunt in groups and take on babysitting duties. Some even play games like tug-of-war and keep-away.

Clearly, evidence is accumulating that reptiles are more mentally and emotionally complex than previously assumed. “It would seem that snakes can suffer, after all,” says Cant. “This should really call into question the way we’ve traditionally cared for these animals in captivity.”

Beginner pets?

Unfortunately, reptiles are often marketed and sold as “easy-to-keep” pets for beginners. But no animal with complex – and, in many cases, poorly understood – needs, is easy to care for, argues Cant. She points to a number of other common but harmful myths about reptiles still being perpetuated:

Myth: Reptiles don’t need a lot of space.

“There’s a perception that reptiles are lazy,” says Cant. But studies of wild reptiles have shown many to be highly active animals, travelling within home ranges several hundred square metres to hundreds or thousands of square kilometres in size. “Yet we’re still keeping snakes in tanks that don’t even allow them to stretch out straight,” says Cant.

Myth: Reptiles don’t need a complex environment.

In the wild, reptiles have plenty of activities to choose from – like basking, foraging for food, burrowing, climbing trees, patrolling territory and searching for mates. “They don’t just lay around all day,” says Cant. “But lots of products made for reptiles still reflect this view.” So-called ‘starter kits’, for instance, allow an animal to do little more than perch, hide, eat and drink. Yet, she says, these kits are advertised as having all of the elements necessary for the animal to ‘thrive’.

Myth: Reptiles don’t need specialized environmental conditions.

Pet stores routinely tell customers that all reptiles need is a cool area and a warm area to help them regulate their body temperature, and perhaps a mist of water to maintain humidity levels, says Cant. In contrast, wild reptiles are able to move between microhabitats with differing microclimates to meet their needs – not only during the day, but from season to season as well. “Captive environments just can’t replicate this complexity,” says Cant.

Myth: Reptiles don’t need specialized nutrition.

Many reptiles in captivity are fed diets consisting entirely of frozen rodents like mice and rats or live insects like crickets and mealworms. Obviously, though, reptiles in the wild have a far more varied diet that provides different scents, tastes, textures and nutrition – not to mention foraging challenges. “Again, it’s just another example of a need that we’ve assumed is simple and easy to meet,” says Cant.

The bottom line? According to Cant, these myths about reptiles are not only harmful because of the suffering they can cause, they also stand in the way of us truly understanding these fascinating animals. “There’s a difference between surviving and thriving in our care,” she says. “I think it’s time that we ask ourselves what’s in it for the animal.”

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