Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Ethics and Resources

Up for Discussion

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, Fall/Winter 1998, 21(3-4): 31-32


Wildlife rehabilitators' interests range far beyond the direct care and handling of wildlife. Standards, ethics, wildlife policy, and community involvement are among the many issues that have a direct impact on the work rehabilitators do every day. Since these issues benefit from broad public discussion, this section of the Journal is designed to offer a forum for wildlife rehabilitators to exchange ideas about challenging issues, which are "up for discussion" by you, our readers. Some of the cases may also be discussed at upcoming IWRC conferences.

The following "cases" will present either hypothetical situations or real-life problems facing active rehabilitators. Each case is followed with several questions for readers, and responses from people involved in wildlife rehabilitation. To encourage a free exchange of ideas, both attributed and anonymous responses are welcome.

I specialize in reptiles and amphibians. I have not turned away any animal for which I had space since I started doing this. I have had to turn away some very large snakes and Monitors due to lack of proper facilities for them.

As time has passed, I have noted that the bulk of the exotics I get are of the following types: Giant Snakes (Burmese and Reticulated pythons, etc.) and Giant Lizards (Iguanas, Monitors, etc.). Some of these animals are endangered in their native countries, others are "food animals" there, but most of the ones I receive are pretty obviously captive bred (CB). In my opinion and observation, the large animals have the following characteristics:

  • I don't see most of them as being suitable for pets for most people.
  • They are dangerous (Burmese, Retics, large Monitors) or difficult to keep properly (iguanas, tegus), if not both.
  • The pet trade is unloading most of these animals at heartbreaking prices ($7-$12 for iguanas, $50 for Burms) and thus many people are picking them up as "disposable" pets.
  • When I see them they are nearly always ill, many are abused, and some are so tar gone that even breakneck efforts involving hundreds of dollars in veterinary bills per animal and many individual hours of care will not bring them back from the edge.
  • As "giant" animals they require specific (and very expensive) habitats compared to most native species. Without properly secured habitats, both my community and I are at risk from these animals.

During the course of a year I can only spend so much money on animals, since most of it is "out of pocket" (try getting people to donate money for these "slimy" creatures!). I improve my facility every year, but I can only do so much. I would like to add a hibernaculum this year for turtles, but probably won't because my exotics' vet bills clobbered my improvement budget (it's gone).

  • I want to help any of these animals I can, but I feel as though I can't keep on dealing with abandoned pet iguanas and burms for a number of reasons:
  • They are proliferating at a huge pace (both CB and wild-caught). More and more unqualified people are buying them, and then people like myself and the local shelters are being asked to pick up the slack when the animals prove unruly, dangerous, or simply "too much to deal with" for their owners.
  • I have limited resources and I would prefer to give better care rather than more care where it is possible.
  • I have a "no kill" policy. Once an animal is in my doors, I am committed to fighting whatever is wrong with it until such time as the vet tells me there is no hope. I can't see changing this.
  • There are only so many cooperators out there with facilities for these guys. One of my best ran out of room this year - she has no more space. I have one contact left to take the big guys off my hands when I get them healed up enough to set them up for adoption. No one appears willing to take iguanas at this point.
  • I don't want to burn out spending time trying to get these guys adopted after spending months getting them healthy. I can't put them back into the same sort of scenarios I got them out of. Adoptions take a lot of time and effort away from caring for sick animals.

I am getting more and more nonreleasable natives. They are healthy but have been kept as pets or exposed to CB exotics or their habitat has been destroyed. These need long-term homes.

Melissa Kaplan, Reptile & Environmental Education, California

In a perfect world, this discussion would be unnecessary, as there are relatively few native reptile species brought to wildlife centers. In a perfect world, pets would not be cheap nor would they be treated as disposable when they became inconvenient. Only people knowledgeable about what they were getting into, and committed to life-long care, would be allowed to buy such pets.

Wildlife rehabilitators, along with independent reptile rescuers, have been feeling the brunt of our imperfect world for many years now. Once it is known that you will take in exotic pet reptiles, the floodgates seem to open.

Animal regulatory agencies, humane societies, SPCAs, police departments, parks departments, state departments of fish and game, and federal wildlife offices begin directing pet owners and finders of escaped and illegally released pets to your door. With the first three agencies; this increasingly happens despite the fact that they themselves often have the facilities, staffing, and funding to keep these animals until permanent homes can be found or the decision is made to euthanize them.

By sending the owners and animals to rehabilitators and rescuers (the latter of whom generally operate out of their own personal pockets), these agencies duck taking the reptiles in and successfully avoid dealing with the underlying issues.

Thus is the problem both commercial - a pet trade that thrives on cheap fad animals and high sales to inappropriate customers - and legislative, with city, county, state, and federal agencies avoiding making any decision by sweeping it under the rehabilitators/rescuers' carpet.

A sampling of 32 iguana rescuers two years ago yielded the astounding figure of over 10,000 green iguanas (Iguana iguana) being dumped that year in the United States. Talking to iguana and other reptile rescuers in other countries finds dumps on the rise in Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

As other giant snakes gain in popularity - and prices continue to decline - not only are we seeing increases in the number of Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) dumped, but also other large snakes, such as the usually aggressive Reticulated Pythons (P. reticulatus) and even the smaller, gentler Red-tailed Boa Constrictors (Boa constrictor ssp.). It is feared that soon we will start seeing the African Spurred Tortoise, (Geochelone sulcata), once forewarned yet persistently dense owners realize just how much a 90-100-pound tortoise defecates and rearranges their backyard topography.

Faced with increasing numbers of non-releasable and non-adoptable animals, including large numbers of very sick animals requiring veterinary care and intensive hands-on care and maintenance, refusing admittance to numbers beyond what the facility can handle becomes a necessity, as does euthanasia.

Will refusing to take animals in excess of what the facility can physically and financially handle affect the facilities relationship with the cooperating agencies? Would they prefer you took in animals you had no way to care for? Would they prefer that you lower your overall standards of care so that you can make their lives easier (that carpet thing again)? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then there are some bigger problems that need to be addressed besides the ones affecting your facility.

Will expending a great deal of time and very finite financial and veterinary resources to help an untamed, aggressive, six-foot iguana (for whom you will never be able to find a suitable home) be a good use of resources, or should the iguana be euthanized upon admission? If there is no one left in your community who can effectively care for and handle such a large slashing-and-biting machine, expending resources that could otherwise be used to treat a number of native species and adoptable or placeable pet species doesn't make sense.

If the only option for placing a recovered Burmese python (or other large boid) is with a person who will turn around and breed more of these prolific snakes, selling the offspring for $30-50, then perhaps the placement should not be done, facility resources conserved, with the snake euthanized upon admission and resource review. (The issue of euthanizing these animals is not one I take lightly, especially given my appreciation and respect for iguana intelligence and the usually gentle and inquisitive nature of Burmese pythons.)

Finally, anything any of us do to save exotic species and take over the education of the consumer that should have been done prior to or at the point of sale, promotes the continuation of the pet industry as we know it. Until we are able to effect legislative changes at the local, state, and federal level that will severely limit imports, dramatically increase the per-animal sales price, and make it more difficult for consumers to acquire them, or until everyone starts dumping unwanted reptiles right back on the pet stores' doorsteps, wildlife rehabilitators and reptile rescuers will continue to clean up the pet industry's and and society's garbage.

Bridget Sparks, WildKind, Humane Society for Larimer County, Colorado

I find myself in a similar situation to the person seeking answers to the dilemma of exotic animal rescue. I am also a wildlife rehabilitator who finds herself caring for more and more abandoned, and abused reptiles (and other exotic pets as well). However, working for a Humane Society that contracts out animal control services for the county automatically rules out two of the options for Inc. I cannot stop taking in these animals, nor can I set limits. Our contracts state that we must take all of these animals. Working at an animal shelter also, makes me graphically aware on a daily basis of the number of animals that are killed each year simply because they are surplus, yesterday's fad, old news.

I really see no short-term solution that is not simply a Band-Aid solution (at this point I often rely on veterinarians, herpetological societies, and reptile rescue groups to help me place the larger and/or more exotic species). I believe it will take a very large concerted effort on the part of all the stakeholders involved - the wildlife rehabilitators, the veterinarians, the herpetological societies, the animal protection/welfare groups, the local, state, and federal agencies - to reach a solution. And I think it will be an arduous fight. There is a lot of money in the exotic animal trade and importers and breeders will not give up this income easily.

We, the caretakers, must begin the effort by making the rest of the stakeholder groups and the general public acutely aware of what is happening in the exotics industry. It should include a sweeping education campaign hitting everyone from school children, to the exotic pet owners, to law-makers. We could even involve the media when necessary to bring our point home.

It may be necessary to form a coalition of local, state, and national organizations and mount a major campaign to make governing agencies aware of the possible impacts not only on the exotic animals themselves but on indigenous wildlife and human health and safety. It must be made clear to these agencies that changes in the laws and enforcement of those changes is imperative. We must point out discrepancies in the laws that exist (i.e. some jurisdictions have a size limitation on snakes, however; in many of those same jurisdictions it is legal to sell a snake that will far exceed the size limitation as long as it doesn't exceed the limitation at the time of sale) and work to create new and better legislation to stop this steady stream of unwanted, neglected animals.

David Wrede, Wrede's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Inc., Florida

When you talk about exotics, you are talking about the right for people to have pets. We cannot refuse the right of people to have pets, but we can make them understand what is involved in choosing exotics.

First people need to be licensed or permitted by the state to have exotics. The states need to take control of people having these types of animals by passing strict laws for exotics owners requiring at least 1,000 hours training per species. Florida has three classes of licenses. However, class 3 is easy to get at this time. Class 1 and 2 require a test and 100 to 500 hours, or no test and 1,000 hours at a facility with the relevant type of animal. Class I no longer covers private individuals who want to own lions, tigers, and other big cats.

We have to remember that most of us are wildlife rehabilitators. We have taken on the job to help the animals that no one else wants to. We have to help the wild birds, mammals, and reptiles. We have to do this the best way we can with the resources that we have.

Some centers take in 5,000 to 10,000 animals per year and have paid staff. Others take in 2,000 or more with very little monies. But no matter the scale, we have to do the best we can. Some centers don't agree with others as far as who is doing what. But most of us agree that we have to help the critters that need help. Some have resources to help them take care of exotics that come in, and others don't. Our center takes in about 1,000 animals per year on a budget of $15,000-25,000 annually. We cover 9 counties and we get called 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are staffed by 10 to 12 volunteers.

We receive about 200 exotics per year. But we can either keep taking in the exotics and forget about the wildlife, or take in the wildlife and turn down the exotics. I wish that we could keep them all, but we can't.

Exotics can sell for 57-10,000 per animal or more. We need stronger state and federal laws and game wardens to enforce them. We need to do our part by telling people that wild animals don't make good pets, and that they can hurt you if you are not careful. We also have to let the game wardens know of any laws that are being broken by people that have exotics.

NOTE: The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC) makes no claims as to the accuracy or truth of the information contained in the following cases, nor does it endorse any particular answer or viewpoint.

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