Added 25 April 2000

A bad case of

Bad Publicity

Why herpetology must put its own house in order, and how it can

The problem

How do people in the UK (or the USA, Germany or Australia) perceive herpetology? Think about that for a moment, then click here to read a sample (real) BBC news item. Then think again.

Notice that, like many soundbite news items, there is a degree of sensationalism involved, as well as some vagueness, eg the rabbits and rodents mentioned - do they count as exotic pets? Plus it is doubtful whether a four foot iguana could have given anyone a serious bite, at least not in the life-threatening way it seems to be described here. Notice also the photograph of the, er, eccentric-looking person handling the python at the bottom of the page.

There are two issues I want to raise here:

Marginalisation and perception

Let's take the first point. How many people who know you know that you keep reptiles, amphibians or invertebrates, and if so, how do you consider their reaction to you? Equally importantly, how do you make them feel?

There will always be some narrow-minded people who dislike anything remotely out of the ordinary, and keeping cold-blooded pets other than fish will be seen as extraordinary for some time yet because it is still a comparatively young pursuit. Dogs began to be domesticated in 8,000 BC, while fish have been kept and bred by the Chinese and Japanese for hundreds of years. But the large scale pursuit of herpetology and the keeping of invertebrates only seems to have really taken off in recent decades, partly due to the special needs of the animals which technology has only been able to supply recently in countries where these animals are not native. Also, cold-blooded pets (including fish) do not necessarily match up to most people's concept of a "pet". None of them are warm and furry (unless you count a tarantula's hairs!), most don't like to be picked up or cuddled, and most don't behaviour in the familiar mammalian pattern. So in some ways herpetology could be considered a pursuit less usual than, say, keeping a cat or dog.

Unfortunately some zealous keepers of cold-blooded pets reinforce the negative stereotype that some people have of us as a group. They appear wildly dressed (or undressed) in public, displaying their animals for maximum shock value. This sort of behaviour tends to be worst with this sort of person that owns a large snake, as they will parade it around in public regardless of the genuine phobias that many people suffer from with snakes. For the benefit of a cheap thrill and the chance to frighten Joe Public, they do the rest of us a great deal of damage. The fact that most keepers of cold-bloods hold down responsible jobs, diligently research their hobby and act in an adult manner is lost on the public, especially when they see such displays of frankly childish behaviour.

Moving on to the trade section of herpetology, we find the same problem. The fact that many retail outlets, particularly those that deliberately specialise in cold-blooded terrestrial invertebrates, are well run, their owners making a modest profit and seeking to inform and educate would-be buyers, is lost each time a crooked or incompetent pet shop owner or employee is convicted of negligence or cruelty. Again, people forget that this sort of person is in the trade for the supposed profit margin, not the love of or interest in the animals themselves. As Philippe de Vosjoli points out in one of his books, it is an unfortunate fact also that a lot of fly-by-nights and get-rich-quick merchants have entered the breeding business in the search for the crock of gold. When they fail to make the hoped for killing they give up and go on to the next big thing, leaving a mess of dead or inbred animals and disappointed buyers and owners - not to mention an understandably disgusted general public. The fact that some pedigree dogs are hopelessly inbred, and that some goldfish breeds have also been mutated to a frankly bizarre and unhealthy form, is not so often noticed.

Who is the real enemy?

The West has seen the rise in the past couple of decades of varying degrees of support for animal rights. Animal rights and animal welfare are often linked, but in fact philosophically they are fundamentally different. While supporters of animal rights vary to the degree in which they press their case, a very vocal minority have taken the concept to its limit. No-one wishes to contend with the belief that animals have the right to protection from wanton human cruelty as displayed in such cases as bear- or badger-baiting, torturing animals to perform pointless tricks or even swotting insects for the sake of it. But some groups have pressed the argument to the point where it is seen as fundamentally wrong for one species to prey on another, even in the interest of survival (ie eating meat). The fact that this argument can neither be comprehended or adhered to by the vast majority of the animal kingdom passes these believers by. Some groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in the USA promote vegetarianism and wish to end all companion animal relationships altogether, seeing such as exploitation. Others even more extreme, such as the Animal Liberation Front in the UK, push the logic to a horrifying extreme and plant bombs and release captive mink into the countryside, ignoring (or ignorant of) the ecological havoc that they cause in doing so.

In one sense these organisations could be seen as our enemy, and in some ways they are (though God forbid we should ever look on their members as personal enemies - that way lies fanaticism, crusades and no compromise). But irresponsible herpetology gives ammunition to these "enemies". Every time an unwanted or difficult exotic pet is dumped, a giant python escapes or a badly-run pet shop is closed down, we shoot ourselves in the foot. The fact is that in the West, the media mainly lives on a diet of sensationalism as inescapably as a monitor eats meat. These cases may not represent the majority of herpetologists, but they are taken by the media to do so because it makes a good story. To a certain degree, even dog lovers suffer from this sort of knock-on effect every time somebody is savaged by a rogue alsation or rottweiler - and look at some of the ill-judged legislation that was forced through in the nineties to supposedly deal with the problem, and the suffering it caused both owners and animals. Yet if we know enough responsible owners of German shepherds and other dogs, we know that the yob who lets his rottweiler run out of control is just that - a yob - and that it's his fault, not the dog's.

What can we do?

Basically there are two areas we ought to be concentrating on:

  1. Getting our own house in order. We need first of all to establish high standards for ourselves and our animals and to work on eliminating the bad publicity and horror stories. One way we can do this is by informing the appropriate authorities ourselves when we see a badly run pet shop that is obviously neglecting the animals, and letting them know that we are doing so precisely because we care about the cold-blooded creatures that nobody else loves very much. On a personal level, if we know a private keeper who is doing the same, then it is more difficult. Obviously nobody wants to be a supergrass, even if there is wilful neglect or ignorance. In such cases persuasion is probably the better course, even if it means persuading that person to give up keeping an inappropriate animal or giving it to somebody else better qualified to look after it. It also means not indulging in stupid antics in public that reflect badly upon our interest, and making a bit of effort to show people that we're not irresponsible crazies. Sometimes little things matter, like turning up in a situation where you're going as a representative of herpetology (eg to give a talk) dressed reasonably sensibly instead of going out of your way to look like a freak or reinforce the image of those crazy snake keepers. For instance, if I give a talk I wouldn't go in my clothes I sometimes play in my band in, although I still don't think it's necessary to have a haircut just for the occasion. If you look clean and human, people will probably feel a little easier not only with you but also your animals.

  2. Raising a positive perception of herpetology. This requires a bit more effort but could actually turn out to be enjoyable. Giving talks to the public, particularly youngsters, is often a good way of raising our profile in a positive way. If you take a few safe and interesting pets, say leopard geckos, corn snakes, fire salamanders or even Emperor Scorpions, you can introduce people gently to the cold-blooded parts of the animal kingdom without shocking or frightening them to death in the process. Pet shops can help a lot here by promoting responsible ownership with good care sheets, selling good books and majoring in cold-blooded pets that most people can keep relatively easily, rather than overstocking with green iguanas or Burmese pythons that make a good focal point but which are really beyond the means of most people. We can also read the papers and follow the media, and challenge any story that seems to be excessively sensationalist, biased or inaccurate, while joining in the condemnation of people who have been rightly convicted of irresponsiblity or cruelty.

I hope this article has given people some food for thought. With the RSPCA rightly concerned about the problems of the trade in exotic pets, and (less rightly) trying to enforce a ban on trade shows around the country, herpetology has already started to gain a higher profile in the UK, whether we like it or not. If we don't do something about it now, we may not get a second chance.

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