5 reasons why we need to protect reptiles from the exotic pet trade


Reptile Awareness Day (October 21) is the perfect opportunity to learn more about our scaly friends and why we need to protect them.

The more you know about a reptile’s journey in the exotic pet trade, the more you will want to protect them from it.

The reptile trade is both legal and illegal

It is legal to breed exotic reptiles in Canada as long as breeding operations abide by the few regulations that exist. What is problematic however, is that many breeding operations are not transparent; the public is usually not able to visit these facilities and breeders might operate outside a municipality’s knowledge – enforcement officials may not even know there are breeding facilities in their jurisdiction. While little information is known about these breeding operations, we know that reptiles are bred in unnatural and intense conditions, reducing these animals to mere commodities.

While most reptiles you find in retail stores, like PetSmart, are thought to be captive bred, wild capture of these animals still occurs to replenish the gene-pool for captive breeding purposes. Breeding and wild capture of reptiles are both common practices in the exotic pet trade, and in many cases legal.

Laws about which reptiles can be wild caught and traded across borders vary between countries. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) regulates the trade in endangered species, but approximately 91% of all reptiles remain unprotected.

Additionally, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that the legal trade fuels the demand, and therefore is a driver for the illegal trade of reptiles. The illegal trade includes poaching, breeding of prohibited animals and trading and sales of prohibited reptiles – some of which happens here in Canada.

What is common to both the legal and illegal trade is how animal welfare becomes an afterthought. Reptiles should be treated as wildlife, not commodities.

Ball python held by hunter - photo by Aaron Gekoski for World Animal Protection

Reptiles are carriers of zoonotic diseases

Salmonellosis is one type of zoonotic disease that reptiles can transmit to humans. Reptiles shed Salmonella from their intestinal tract and can carry it on their skin or shell. While harmless to reptiles, Salmonella infections can cause illness in humans and has led to hospitalization and even death. Young children, the elderly, pregnant women and any immunocompromised individuals are at greatest risk.

In December 2019, Public Health Canada issued a notice about a Salmonella outbreak in Canada, over 90 cases were reported and linked to the keeping of snakes. The latest Salmonella outbreak in North America was reported by the Centers for Disease and Control in the USA. In these cases, Salmonella was linked with the keeping of hedgehogs and bearded dragons.

Other zoonotic diseases that have been associated with the keeping of reptiles include Botulism, a serious and life-threatening illness caused by a toxin released by the Clostridium bacterium that causes paralysis and death; Campylobacteriosis, a bowel infection; Leptospirosis, a liver disease; and Trichinellosis, a disease of muscles, the nervous system and the heart and lungs. The severity of these diseases can range from minor discomfort to hospitalization and death.

It is thought that 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases over the past three decades are zoonotic and mainly come from wildlife. Knowing this, it is concerning to learn that one of the major groups of animals being imported into Canada, reptiles and amphibians, does not require any health certificate or permit. Likewise, there are no restrictions regarding the purpose of import, country of origin or the source of the animal (i.e., wild caught or captive bred).

A snake on a vendors shoulder, and cages of animals at a market in Jakarta, Indonesia. Credit Line: World Animal Protection / Aaron Gekoski

Reptiles cannot have their needs met in captivity

Providing food and water and housing a reptile in a tank is not enough to ensure good physical and psychological welfare. Reptiles must have the opportunity to engage in natural behaviours that help them cope with negative states (e.g., hunger and thirst) but also enable them to experience positive states, including but not limited to: engaging in seasonal movements and activities, social interactions with conspecifics (other members of the same species), maternal care and engaging in play behaviour.

While we know that pet owners do their best to take care of their animals, it is impossible to meet all of a reptile’s needs in captivity. In a home or an enclosure, there is no way to replicate the complex habitat, climate, space, and freedom these animals enjoy in the wild.

Adding to the issue is that many reptile species have not yet been studied in their natural environment. Consequently, the needs, and conditions recommended by the pet industry often don’t reflect what reptiles would experience in the wild but are rather based on information that has been gathered through the keeping of reptiles in captivity.

A turtle looking up

Photo by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden on Unsplash

Social media is fueling the reptile trade

Social media has helped popularize the keeping of exotic pets. Images and videos of reptiles and other wild animals in close proximity with humans affects people’s desirability to own exotic pets.

These images and videos depict a false narrative that keeping these wild animals as pets is easy, fun and acceptable for the animal.

Another consequence of social media is that it provides an easy way for traffickers and buyers to connect. People have been able to purchase wild animals on social platforms like Facebook Marketplace with just the click of a button.

A bearded dragon on a rock

Photo by Liam Edwards on Unsplash

Many reptile owners are unaware that their exotic pet is a wild animal

Being born in captivity does not make an animal domesticated or suitable as a pet. Unlike dogs and cats, reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and turtles are not domesticated; they have not co-evolved to live alongside humans. This might be a surprise to read because reptiles are sold as pets. But genetically and instinctually speaking these animals are wild, having similar traits (behaviours and psychological needs) as their wild counterparts.

We know that most people purchase a reptile as an exotic pet because they love animals. But many people are unaware of their complex needs and do not understand reptile-specific behaviours that indicate illness or distress. Where a dog or cat can usually vocalize or communicate in other ways if something is wrong, reptiles don’t necessarily have that ability. For example, sedentary behaviour is often misinterpreted as a natural state of being for certain reptile species. However, the actual behaviour that might be witnessed can be lethargic behaviour, an abnormal behaviour that often indicates something is wrong with the animal.

We encourage everyone to appreciate and respect reptiles by keeping them in the wild where they belong. We should only bring domesticated animals into our home as pets, whose needs can be completely met in captivity.

Further reading: The reality of Canada’s exotic pets – unwanted and disposed