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

Summer Musings

Part I: Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare

©1995 Melissa Kaplan


I had a rather interesting summer, reading-wise, immersed in books and journal articles while researching issues relating to the captive care of reptiles and the use of reptiles in public education, including what we know of their responses to captivity and to interactions with humans and other animals. The material included books, journal articles and several threads of conversation on rec.pets.herp, the Internet newsgroup dealing primarily with reptiles and amphibians.

Two main issues stand out in my mind from all of this: animal welfare, as it relates to herps, and anthropomorphism. These terms can be defined as follows:

Animal welfare

  1. a continuum of philosophical beliefs relating to the health and psychological state of captive animals.

  2. a dirty word.


  1. assigning human emotions and motivations to the actions of animals.

  2. a dirty word.

As you can probably tell, philosophies--and emotions--run the gamut from "could care less" to (you should excuse the expression) rabid. Where you are viewed along this continuum has rather more to do with the person slotting you into the continuum than where you see yourself. The issues are prickly, sometimes uncomfortable, easy perhaps to dismiss but they cannot be made to go away.

So, partly because these are things which have been much in my mind, and partly because I couldn't think of any other topic I wanted to write about, I have written a couple of short articles on these topics. Part I addresses the issues of animal welfare, while Anthropomorphism will be discussed in Part II. I hope you take the time to think about the issues and figure out your place along the continuum.

Animal welfare

1. a continuum of philosophical beliefs relating to the health and psychological state of captive animals.

2. a dirty word.

Inextricably entwined in much of the reading was the issue of the welfare of herps in captivity as it affects them physiologically and psychologically.

One incredibly frightening fact that emerged is that reptiles--and all other cold-blooded animals--are excluded from federal Animal Welfare Act (7 U.S.C. 2131 et seq.). The Act defines "animal" as "any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes or as a pet..." (7 U.S.C. 2132 (g))

In other words, the mammalian and avian prey we feed our herps have more rights and protection under the law than do our reptiles and amphibians. This is in spite the fact that herps have emerged from the laboratory into being a sizable chunk of the pet trade industry and an increasing number of herp owners consider their herps to be 'pets.'

Arthur Rosenfeld, in his book Exotic Pets, talks about a baby common snapping turtle he found frigid and unmoving on his snow-swept front walk after a freak few days of spring-like weather. He picked the turtle up, took it inside and began to gently warm it and was rewarded with movement. This seemingly frozen lump of turtle-shaped ice was alive! In considering the overwintering of yet another animal on top of his already not inconsiderable colony of chelonians and other reptiles, he writes: "A pet, I concluded, is an animal that depends upon you. Although I would only pull this little turtle through one winter, he was still my pet. It made no difference that come the real spring thaw, I would release him, fattened and fresh, in a pond nearby. It didn't even matter that I did not cuddle with him, take him for long walks or fill voluminous scrapbooks with unbearably cute snapshots of him. What did matter was my interest in his welfare. It strikes me that this is the general rule. The type of pet you keep is of no consequence. You can have a pet spider, a pet elephant or a pet sea sponge. What makes any or, in my case, all of them pets is involvement and commitment."

When I talk to animal control and state humane officers, I am generally met with a sort of blank look like "why does this person even care about these animals?" It seems that their disbelief is shared by those who make the laws and regulations. But should the welfare of any animal be predicated based on how cute or cuddly it looks or acts?

I have found that many herpers are uncomfortable around the term and issues of animal welfare. You can talk about conservation, permits, or captive husbandry and there's no problem striking up and maintaining a conversation. Say "welfare" and things just sort of stop. This strikes me alternatively as being both somewhat hypocritical and like hiding one's head in the sand...this is an issue that will not go away and it cannot be derided as fanatical or meaningless regardless of your views of animal rights organizations.

There is some confusion and inappropriate blurring of the terms animal rights and animal welfare. While the former pertains to the rights of animals (which in and of itself is open to many different interpretations), the latter refers to the welfare of the animals under human jurisdiction, to the obligations of the caretaker rather than any intrinsic or extrinsic rights that accrue to non-humans.

My interpretation of animal welfare is that we are responsible for the health and well-being, physiologically and psychologically, of the animals we keep captivity, whether they are captive bred or wild-caught, vertebrate or invertebrate. The word keep I define as having possession of the animals to maintain as pets, for study and observation, for breeding, or for selling. While each type of keeping has certain factors which affect how the animals may be housed, provided for and interacted with, too often the animal's most basic requirements are completely ignored, or the fact that reptiles and amphibians have very different needs and requirements than warm blooded animals conveniently overlooked.

This insensitivity can be seen in some of the generic enclosures being produced in the pet trade. Coffins, cubes and telephone booths are sold indiscriminately and all too often contrary to the animal's needs. There is only so much that a pretty back drop, rock, log, branch, cave, or a bag of litter or a stack of old newspapers can do to meet the needs of the herp's essential nature.

 Is this reluctance to address the issue head-on because doing so would require that we alter the way many of us we keep our animals, changing their environments to meet their needs, not merely our cleaning routine? Is it because we may be more like the pet stores and wholesalers at whom we point our fingers for not keeping their stock appropriately than we care to think?

Two organizations have produced guidelines for reptile and amphibian welfare in the research area. The Canadian Council on Animal Care published its Guide to the Care and Use of Experimental Animals in 1980 (Vol. 1) and 1984 (Vol. 2). In 1979, the nonprofit Scientists Center for Animal Welfare (SCAW) was formed in the United States to address issues of humane and responsible use of animals in research, testing and (biological and medical) education. In 1992 they published The Care and Use of Amphibians, Reptiles and Fish in Research. Either the Canadian or SCAW protocols can be used by researchers but such compliance is voluntary as there is no mandate requiring any such compliance unless the research is receiving federal funding.

These protocols recognize that, with there being twice the number of reptiles and amphibians as there are mammals, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (those committees required by institutions when any research is being done on animals) themselves needed some guidance both on the proper selection of species for use and in determining the proper care for those species. They further recognized that the Public Health Service (PHS), with its broad "motherhood" set of provisions for animal care was essentially worthless for herps (and other animals). The PHS says that animals are to be provided with "adequate" space, but doesn't say how much that is. The PHS requires that a "comfortable environment" is to be provided, but doesn't say what that "comfort" is. And, unlike the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council's guidelines on maintaining animals in pet stores, SCAW recognizes that one can not make too many blanket guidelines and expect the herps to not only survive, but thrive.

So, what does all this have to do with us? It depends on how threatened you are beginning to feel as the health problems with herps, such as Salmonella, begin to appear in the mainstream press and the Centers for Disease Control's weekly Morbidity and Mortality reports.

It depends on how many relatives, people who otherwise could care less about your herp interests, call you and tell you that you're crazy for keeping animals that will make you sick.

It depends on how nervous you get when you hear that Pennsylvania has banned turtle sales due to salmonella and North Carolina is considering a ban on several types of animals including frogs and lizards.

It depends on if you think a $5 lizard gets the same care in the pet trade, from export through final sale, as a $50 or $100 lizard. It depends on if you think the buyer of that $5 lizard is going to spend the $75-100 it is going to take to set that lizard up properly.

It depends on how rational you think a permit system for herp ownership is when the agencies issuing the permits care only that the proper paperwork is filed, not that the animals are cared for properly according to species needs.

Some of the above issues are ones that I come up against when trying to reason with animal regulatory agencies and pet stores. They have started to float around in the Internet herp community and are ones I think need to be addressed by the herp community at large. If we shy away from the fact that most of the nonherp world views herps as worth less than the lowliest of mammals, how will we ever effect any change? If most of the non-herp animal community views reptiles and amphibians have being a sort or generic organism whose physiological and psychological needs are immaterial and inconvenient, how anything ever change?

As the Introduction to the SCAW guidelines states: "...the public has the greatest concern for dogs, cats, primates and possibly horses." Pocket pets such as hamsters, rats, mice, guinea pigs and ferrets are quickly carving their space in this pantheon of animals society deems worthy of protection. But, despite their ever increasing presence in the American home, herps continue to be viewed by much of the public as expendable, disposable, inherently dangerous, creepy, and now, thanks to Salmonella making headlines again, dirty.

If the scientific community can take a stab at developing guidelines that approach the species level, why doesn't the herp community develop specific guidelines for hobbyists and pet stores? There already exists two national organizations, the American Federation of Herpetoculturists (AFH) and the National Herpetological Alliance. Might not one of them, or a coalition of the two or a new organization created for just this purpose, develop such guidelines? We are very quick to point out that the agencies in charge of regulating the trade and animal welfare don't know very much about reptiles, and, despite repeated offers of assistance, they generally fail to make use of local herpetocultural resources.

Would such an undertaking be easy? No. Could it be done? Yes, given motivated and persistent individuals. Would they work? Is anything working now? I think that it could, granted consensual approval of the guidelines and the dynamic nature of such an organization, sensitive to changes both in our evolving understanding of the animals' needs and in the changes in the pet trade as new herps are introduced or become more widely available. It is for certain that, without any centralized source of knowledgeable and pertinent information, things will continue to muddle along as they have.

An interesting book that explores animal issues is Animal Rights: Opposing Voices, J Rohr, Greenhaven Press, 1989. It is part of a very readable series of books presenting differing viewpoints on a number of subjects and issues. For meatier discussions of rights vs. welfare, dive into Ethics and Animals, HB Miller and WH Williams, Humana Press, 1983.

Works cited:

Rosenfeld, A: Exotic Pets. Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York NY, 1987, 295 p. 

Schaeffer, DO; Kleinow, KM; Krulisch, L: The Care and Use of Amphibians, Reptiles and Fish in Research. Scientists Center for Animal Welfare, Bethesda, MD, 1992, 196 p. 

Warwick, C. Reptiles: Misunderstood, Mistreated & Mass-Marketed. Nower Productions, Surrey, England. 46 p.

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