September 25, 2009
Live Reptile Trade
The reptile trade puts human health, the environment, and the animals at risk
The recent explosion in the popularity of pet reptiles—the number topped 13 million in 2009, according to the American Pet Products Association—is bad news for people, reptiles, and the environment.
People who buy reptiles as pets get more than they bargained for. Virtually all reptiles (even healthy ones) carry Salmonella bacteria. This doesn't cause a problem for the animals, but for humans, it can be deadly. In humans, salmonellosis causes diarrhea, vomiting, and fever, and may develop into invasive illnesses such as meningitis and sepsis. Children and the elderly are especially at risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 74,000 people each year get salmonellosis from reptiles and amphibians, which means 6% of Salmonella cases in the United States can be linked to these animals.
For the sake of human health, the CDC recommends that reptiles be kept out of households that include children and people with compromised immune systems, and that children and immunocompromised people avoid all contact with reptiles and items the animals have touched. Direct contact with a reptile is not necessary to become sick; Salmonella bacteria can live for days on surfaces.
Because of the health risk, it is illegal to sell small turtles (those with a shell length of less than 4 inches) as pets in the United States. The CDC reports that this ban prevents an additional 100,000 cases of salmonellosis among children each year.
Reptiles pose a threat beyond disease transmission. Snakes and lizards, often sold as hatchlings, can reach six feet or more—posing a physical threat to humans and companion animals. Even small turtles can outgrow their tanks, and their welcome.
A hazardous trade
While many pet reptiles are bred in captivity, many are still taken from the wild or born of wild-caught parents. Each year nearly 2 million live reptiles are imported into the United States, and about 9 million are exported. This poorly regulated trade leaves behind depleted wild populations and damaged habitats. Brute force or gasoline may be used to rouse reptiles from their burrows.
Harsh capture techniques, compounded by poor shipping methods and inadequate care, kill many reptiles before they reach the pet store or dealer. An estimated 90 percent of wild-caught reptiles die in their first year of captivity because of physical trauma prior to purchase or because their owners cannot meet their complex dietary and habitat needs.Marketed as low-maintenance pets, reptiles are often taken home by families who become overwhelmed by the level of care required. Some reptiles will be abandoned to the wild, where many of them will die from starvation, exposure, or predation. Those who survive often compete with native wildlife for food and habitat, damaging the balance of the ecosystem. Others will be relinquished to shelters, which are not usually equipped to handle these unique animals and which have few options for placing them.
For public health, conservation, and humane reasons, The HSUS recommends that the general public forgo pet reptiles. Wild animals are best left in the wild where they belong.