Reptiles have evolved to live in a diversity of aquatic, terrestrial, fossorial and arboreal habitats. In captivity however, only the most basic aspects of a reptile’s natural living conditions can be provided. Even in the best situations, captive environments only rarely provide even a fraction of the complexity and variety that wild reptiles experience. The natural habitats of reptiles cannot be replicated in any meaningful way in captivity.
Compared to the wild, most captive reptiles live in spatially limited, sterile, unchanging surroundings, such as small plastic containers and glass aquariums. Almost everything captive reptiles experience in these environments is artificial and imposed. They have little opportunity to move about or behave in a natural way, their environmental conditions are inappropriately simplistic and they are required to eat a fixed diet that typically bears no resemblance to what they would eat in the wild.
Generally speaking, reptiles are not as biologically and behaviorally flexible as other of kinds of animals, so they are less able to cope with inadequate environments or inappropriate situations. As a result, many captive reptiles live lives of emptiness, frustration and various states of deprivation. This diminishes their welfare and causes them to suffer.
Several factors have led to the current poor state of reptile welfare. They include:
- the false belief (promoted by reptile sellers) that reptiles are simple, highly adaptable animals that do well in captivity;poor quality information supplied to purchasers of reptiles;
- lack of knowledge about the natural lifestyles of reptiles, including their intellectual, emotional and social capabilities;
- difficulty recognizing distress and suffering in captive reptiles; and
- a general reluctance to change husbandry methods.
Reptile pets are routinely kept in totally inappropriate conditions. Even when the needs of reptiles are known, they are often overlooked or ignored. A few of the more important reptile husbandry considerations are listed below.
Reptile pets are almost always kept in relatively uniform plastic or glass containers that allow easy viewing and cleaning. These containers are convenient for reptile keepers but do little to address the actual needs of the animals. Not only are they usually quite small, they often lack adequate ventilation and environmental conditions. They may also cause excessive interaction with transparent boundaries (ITB); behaviors in which confined reptiles repeatedly move back and forth along the walls of their container, abrading and injuring themselves in the process. Unfortunately, plastic and glass containers are ubiquitous in reptile keeping.
Many reptiles are kept in spaces so small they are forced into a state of almost perpetual idleness. Lack of space suppresses natural movements and behaviors resulting in frustration, stress and the development of abnormal, often self-destructive behaviors, such as running into walls when frightened, excessive periods of inactivity or anorexia. It is far better for a reptile to have more space than it requires, than to require more space and not have it. Unfortunately, most reptile housing appears to be based on convenience and budget and not on the actual spatial needs of reptiles.
To a large degree the lives of reptiles are temperature dependent. Each species thrives within a specific temperature range and employs a variety of behavioral and physiological thermoregulatory strategies to stay within that range, even when the ambient temperature fluctuates widely. Most captive reptiles live in relatively uniform thermal environments. Often a single overhead lamp, heating pad or hot rock is the only heat source provided, dividing the animal’s space into one warm and one cool area. This kind of set up can hinder normal thermoregulatory behaviors. In some cases where enclosure heating is insufficient, reptiles may burn themselves by staying too close to the heat source as they attempt to warm their bodies to an appropriate level.
The quantity, quality and timing of light received by captive reptiles can affect their health and welfare. Some reptiles require ultraviolet (UV) light for the synthesis of Vitamin D3 in their skin, while others (i.e., nocturnal reptiles) may find prolonged expo-sure to light stressful or physically harmful. As well, even though the natural light cycles experienced by wild reptiles may be important both physically and behaviorally, they are rarely replicated in captivity. Inadequate or inappropriate lighting can seriously affect reptile health and welfare. Unfortunately, many reptile pets are subjected to a quality and quantity of light that is nothing like what they would experience in the wild.
For reasons of hygiene, many reptiles are kept in barren, clinical conditions, free from any natural debris or excrement. While excessive build-up of excrement should be avoided, a balance must be struck between the need for good hygiene and the needs of reptiles. Providing a naturalistic captive environment may mitigate against some of the effects of a marginally more contaminated environment by providing reptiles with significantly higher comfort levels, less stress and greater disease resistance. Unfortunately, many reptiles are still kept in excessively sterile, clinical environments that fail to address their full range full range of biological and behavioral needs.
Lack of an appropriate diet can result in a range of problems, including the common and preventable Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), often described as calcium deficiency. Common in green iguanas that are fed a low quality diet of greens or insectivorous species that are fed entirely on crickets or meal worms, MBD can result in a range of bone deformities. Poor diet can also cause numerous other conditions and diseases, and, along with lack of activity, obesity. Unfortunately, few reptile pets are fed diets that approximate what they would experience in the wild. Instead many are fed a fixed diet that fails to address their nutritional and food-related behavioral needs.
Replicating a natural environment that encourages a full range of normal movements and species-typical behaviors in captivity is a difficult, if not impossible undertaking. Few reptile keepers make the attempt. Even when the basic husbandry needs of reptiles are unknown, they are routinely overlooked, ignored or dismissed by reptile keepers. This has resulted in the majority of reptile pets being kept in spatially limited, sterile, unchanging surroundings that do little to address their true needs and that cause them to suffer. For animal welfare reasons, Zoocheck recommends that members of the public avoid purchasing reptiles as pets.