Added April 24 2000. Last updated January 2004.

A problem for British Herpetologists

The RSPCA and Reptile Shows

On Saturday April 22nd 2000 I was telephoned out of the blue by a friend and fellow herpetologist, who informed me that the annual herpetological fair at Gillingham, hosted each year by the Kent branch of the International Herpetological Society, had been cancelled. His initial understanding of the reasons for this sudden move was limited but he believed it had something to do with the RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and the local council acting in concert.

Since then I read a letter in the latest issue of International Reptilian that a similar event in Watford had been cancelled on the same lines. The writer of the letter went on to say that the RSPCA has been circulating a "ten point" letter to local councils in which they urge them not to allow the holding of such events. In other words, the RSPCA (if the letter writer is to be believed) are now against herpetological shows and exhibitions in principle.

This raises a number of very serious problems, both practical and ethical, for British herpetologists and anyone who loves reptiles and amphibians.

  1. Nobody would dispute that in the past there have been shows or individual tradestands at shows where the animals on display have not been treated properly. I remember that I was extremely concerned, if not angry, at some of the "traders" (in this case cowboys would be a better description) at the first Gillingham event I went to, back in 1997. However, I must say that in the following two years the bad traders were decisively weeded out and I saw a much higher standard of care for the animals on show. The RSPCA in this case apparently wanted to impose a number of very restrictive guidelines, such as no private sellers (only registered charities) and barriers keeping the public a certain distance from the animals. These guidelines, in my opinion, are so prohibitive that I think they were imposed by a body knowing fully that they could not be met, thus necessitating the cancellation of the show. If the bodies concerned (RSPCA and Medway Council) were really thinking of the animals' welfare, a compromise could have surely been reached, such as the obligation to provide every reptile on display with a heat source.

  2. This strikes at the livelihood of some responsible individuals, namely the professional herpetologists who breed their animals in captivity and thus provide captive specimens with a view to reducing the number of animals being imported from the wild. Forget the rogue traders: these regulations won't stop them importing or selling stuff illegally, if they haven't got tired of reptiles and amphibians and gone on to next week's dodgy scam. Companies and traders that are above board, legitimate and ethical will be hurt badly by not being able to at least have a presence at shows, even if they do not go there with a view to selling many animals.

  3. Linked to above, where are herpetologists going to purchase their animals from? On the face of it this isn't too serious: I wouldn't buy a load of animals willy-nilly from a show unless I was assured of their origin, health and status vis-à-vis the law and conservation. But if responsible breeders and importers are put out of business, then the supply to pet shops will likewise dry up. In Australia, which has draconian (and often corrupt) laws enforcing wildlife conservation, some herpetologists have been reduced to obtaining animals clandestinely, ie via a sort of underground market. Nobody wants to see the law broken, but it is unrealistic to think that punishing good and bad alike is going to stop the trade in exotic animals. It would in fact make it worse, since such a black market would be unregulated and open to worse abuse.

  4. Is the RSPCA acting within its brief? The writer of the letter to International Reptilian raised a couple of interesting legal points, including challenging the status of the show as a "market". Unfortunately this would not be the first instance of a non-governmental body enforcing its will on democratically elected local councils.
What is particularly disappointing to many of us is that the RSPCA has in the past done sterling work to protect the welfare of many individual animals and has been part of the nation's social consciousness. We acknowledge too that there is legitimate concern about the role of exotic animals as pets and about the standards of care needed to give them a proper life, and that too often they have been abused, albeit usual unwittingly and in ignorance. As herpetologists we would like, and need, to put our own house in order. That goes without saying.

What particularly worries us is that the RSPCA may be moving in a direction that was not part of its founding fathers' intentions, namely from being an animal welfare organisation to becoming a clandestine animal rights movement. We have already seen how a combination of fanatical idealism and well-meaning but badly drafted legislation can make the situation intolerable for herpetologists in countries such as Australia and some parts of the USA without actually helping the animals themselves one iota.

Over the next couple of weeks we shall be trying to find out more about the RSPCA's plans, not just for reptile shows now but also concerning private ownership of exotic animals, especially reptiles, and the future of the pet trade. We will also endeavour to find out who called the shots in the Gillingham case and whether anything can be done in the future to reverse this trend.

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