Some high demand reptiles, such as red-eared slider turtles and green iguanas, are produced on farms in the United States, Latin America and Africa. These farms have been touted as a way of sustainably producing reptiles for the pet trade while reducing demand for wild-caught animals. Unfortunately, farms are not the solution to reptile conservation problems or to concerns about animal welfare.
Some reptile farms replenish their adult breeding stock with new animals captured from the wild or they collect eggs produced by wild females. Some snake and lizard farms claim they catch pregnant females from the wild, allow them to lay their eggs in captivity and then harmlessly release them into the wild. But there may be little incentive for them to do that. It is likely that many farms just recycle their spent wild-caught females into the pet or meat trade.
Even if reptile farms did try to release spent females back into the wild, they may not survive, as capture, confinement (often in unsanitary conditions) and egg laying leave the animals stressed and physically depleted. They may fare especially poorly if they are released into unfamiliar areas they did not previously inhabit.
As well, the targeting of adult females almost certainly has a detrimental effect on wild populations as entire clutches and egg producing females are removed. Reptile populations depend on these individuals for their survival.
Reptile farms have been known to launder wildcaught animals, especially species that live in the regions where the farms are located. Laundering involves the introduction of wild-caught animals to a farm’s existing captive-bred population. Because no one is able to tell where the animals came from, they can all be designated as captive bred.
Captive-bred specimens command higher prices, but wild-caught animals are cheaper to produce, so there is often a strong incentive for farms to launder wild-caught reptiles. Unfortunately, reptile farms are often difficult to regulate and open to abuse.
Welfare of farmed reptiles
Regardless of where reptiles are farmed, they may experience a variety of welfare problems. Probably the most significant is overcrowding resulting in stress and disease. For example, turtle farm investigations carried out by independent consultants and animal welfare organizations have revealed huge numbers of turtles being kept in cramped, filthily conditions. The farmed turtles sold and shipped out to retailers around the world often suffer even more in transit and post-purchase. Overcrowded, unsanitary conditions have been documented in many iguana and crocodile farms as well.
Commercial reptile breeders
Hundreds of independent reptile breeders produce thousands of individual reptiles for the pet trade each year. Some produce just a few animals, while others produce hundreds or thousands. Various geckos, chameleons, bearded dragons, corn snakes and Burmese pythons are among the reptiles most commonly bred in captivity.
Reptile breeders generally claim that their animals are healthy, free from parasites and disease and a better overall choice for consumers than are wild-caught animals. While captive-bred animals may at times be freer from disease (but not all diseases because some occur naturally in all reptiles), there are other factors to consider when thinking about a reptile pet. They include the fact that captive-bred reptiles may suffer from the effects of the sedentary, unnatural lifestyles that are imposed on them and from the trauma and stress of transport when they are shipped from breeder to retailer and consumer.
Many captive breeding facilities house their animals in completely artificial, clinical conditions. These animals still retain the natural, hard-wired instincts and behavioural drives of their wild counterparts. All captive reptiles should be provided with an opportunity to engage in a full range of natural movements and species-typical behaviours. Suppression of these activities can lead to problematic physical conditions, frustration, chronic stress and suffering. Captive-breeding is not the panacea it is often made out to be.
Captive breeding does not reduce wild captures
Reptile breeders often claim that by producing animals in captivity, there will be no need to take them from the wild. While there may be a grain of truth in that statement in some circumstances, the overall effect of captive breeding in this regard has been rather minimal.
Despite the purported advantages of captive bred reptiles, breeders often find it difficult to compete with imported wild-caught animals that can be procured at a 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 has the number of wild-caught animals.
There is little evidence to suggest that captive breeding of reptiles for the pet trade has resulted in significantly smaller numbers of reptiles being removed from the wild. In fact, both segments of the trade seem to have grown in tandem. As well, wild caught and captive bred reptiles both experience a range of welfare problems. For these reasons, Zoocheck recommends that the general public refrain from purchasing reptiles as pets.