Melissa Kaplan's
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Last updated January 1, 2014

Reptile Not Repulsive - But Keeping Them Is

Nicholas Read, Vancouver Sun, September 1995


These are Clifford Warwick’s credentials: He has a doctorate in animal behaviour with a specialty in reptile studies from the University of Copenhagen; he is the director of the International Institute of Herpetology, a worldwide scientific research group dedicated to the study of reptiles; he is a consultant to dozens of zoos and conservation groups on the subject of reptiles and reptile care; and he is the director of the Reptile Protection Trust, a British-based campaigning organization.

He’s also a former reptile-keeper. Over a period of years, he kept more than 100 species in a house in London. He was always interested in reptiles as a boy, so when the opportunity came to acquire them as an adult, he took it. And took it and took it. Thus if anyone is qualified to say whether reptiles make suitable pets, Warwick is.

And his verdict: " Absolutely not." It is impossible, he says, for anyone to give a reptile proper care outside the wild.

All his animals died prematurely. But like so many other so-called enthusiasts before and after him, he just kept replacing the animals with new ones. That, he now says, was a mistake, not just for the animals, but for him, too.

"I think I would have learned more and sooner if I had not kept those animals, he said in a phone interview from his home in Worcester, England. "I was being misdirected because the biologists and vets I spoke to didn’t know what they were talking about."

That was 20 years ago. Scientists know more now than they did then, but still not enough to advise anyone how to keep a reptile properly in captivity. Because there is no proper way, Warwick says.

"Few people realize just how dramatically even a minor disturbance can affect wildlife," he writes in a forthcoming book on the exotic animal trade.

"For example, during a study of lizard behaviour in Costa Rica, it was noted that eye contact alone between the iguanas and observers was sufficiently alarming to dissuade the reptiles from returning to their normally prized arboreal perches for the remaining days of the research.

"It is simply not possible to even enter a species’ natural habitat, let alone remove a single individual, and have reason to believe that no harm is being done."

Yet, Warwick says, more that 300,000 animals are removed from the wild every year to feed the worldwide demand for exotic pets. Most of them die long before they’re adults.

Sixteen thousand of these animals arrive in Vancouver.

Most of them die, too, says Agriculture Canada, but a few make it into pet shops where they are sold to people who think it is cool to own an iguana, a boa, a python or a tortoise, despite not having the slightest idea of how to look after one.

But then there is no way to look after one, says Warwick. The best, richest zoos can try, but even they can’t reproduce wild conditions adequately. People who keep reptiles in their houses are just being cruel.

This is the opinion of arguably the foremost reptile expert in the world. Yet every day in pet shops throughout the Lower Mainland and British Columbia, iguanas and boas and pythons and tortoises are sold for large sums to people who have no idea of the harm they are doing to them.

And it’s all perfectly legal. No government at any level has seen fit yet to do the right thing and prohibit the commercial sale of reptiles and amphibians. Langley Township has come closest by banning the sale of some dangerous reptiles, but iguanas, boas, pythons and turtles are still okay.

Except they’re not okay. Not anywhere except where nature intended them to be. Just ask Clifford Warwick. He ought to know.

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