The Dollars & Sense of Captive Bred Reptiles

5 Nov

Calling out the retailers

Recently, my colleague and I Gary Rolfe of Northampton Reptile Centre were discussing the much-debated topic of captive bred reptiles versus wild caught reptiles. Anyone who’s passionate about reptiles knows the subject. It’s talked about in most circles, whether you’re working with bearded dragons Pogona vitticeps or the West Indian Epicrates that Tom Crutchfield of Tom Crutchfield Reptiles is currently working with, the subject has been broached by someone that you know.

To put this all into perspective Gary and I were discussing the advantages of purchasing a captive bred reptile and I relayed the fact that I had seen some breeders at shows who would put the initials ‘CB’ on the containers when the reptiles were actually wild caught usually signified by ‘WC’. This is a common practice in the reptile industry and most people know this and accept this. However, at one show I saw a breeder using these initials to represent Captive Born reptiles. Now if this particular breeder were asked they would say that yes it was a ‘farmed or captive born animal’ Why not be upfront in the first place. I think Gary put it best when he said, “I call for all retailers to honestly display the origins of their reptiles for sale.”

Now at first to the uninitiated captive born may sound just as good as captive bred reptiles. This couldn’t be farther from the truth as diseases and parasites can be passed on to the hatchlings from the mother. There are many cases of people; unaware of the difference between captive breeding and wild caught or captive born species taking the reptile home only to discover months later that their new reptile is infested with some type of parasite or has a disease. At this point what generally takes place is not only is the new reptile owner been given a dire look into the world of herpetoculture but now is stuck with a vet bill that could have been prevented. Worst-case scenario the reptile is released in the wild or abandoned as it was purchased so cheaply it’s now considered a disposable pet. However, the discussion doesn’t end there.

No dumb questions

Now I am in not saying that this is the common practice of reptile breeders. I am stating that I have seen it occur on more than one occasion. It’s a buyer beware market as can be evidenced by Bryan Hughes of Phoenix Rattlesnake Solutions whom you might recall from our first ever guest post here Rattlesnakes & Baseball Cards Lessons on Keeping Venomous Reptiles. He explained the following,

“any day, you can find lists of illegally offered animals.” This brought up another subject that I hadn’t even considered. How do we know that the wild caught reptiles we may or may not purchase were captured legally? Bryan goes on

“Any animal that originates from Arizona, whether it be wild caught or CB, or CB in another state, is illegal to sell. Of course when its over state lines it can’t be prosecuted, but it doesn’t mean it is legal. Breeders will say that CB from WC is fine, but calling game and fish dept will tell otherwise.”

Therefore, as you can see, there are never any dumb questions and if the person you’re buying from is hesitant to answer your questions or cannot produce documentation to prove the reptiles that you’re purchasing were obtained under legal circumstances then I wouldn’t buy from them period. For any breeder that wants to maintain a good standing in this industry it is the opinion of many people, myself included that transparency is of the utmost importance so that people purchasing reptiles can make a better informed decision on what they are buying. As an example Gary Rolfe of the Northampton Reptile Centre and Jeff Peterson of Flying Fish Aquatics and Pets both stated that their stores buy captive bred as much as possible and to my knowledge Northampton Reptile Centre only buys and sells captive bred animals.

Excuses or Genetics? 

The reasoning some people give for collecting wild caught reptiles is that the current genetics that exist in their particular state or country are too close to one another to breed together and if they did breed them, there would be an issue. Chris Law stated the following.

“To be honest, there will always at some point be a need for fresh blood at one point in time or another. The reason for this is, since all of these specimens are wild caught, it is highly unlikely that anyone is keeping records on specific locals, etc. So, eventually, and at the rate everyone is breeding things now this could happen sooner rather than later, blood lines will be ran too thin if you outlaw import of any new blood.
So, it’s best to have a process that safeguards protection of wild specimens, but still allows breeders who are willing to jump through a couple hoops, the opportunity to obtain fresh blood for their genetic diversity.”

I understand what Chris is saying, not being a breeder personally, but being privy to some in depth conversations on the subject I would agree. Now then, this is another point for another story but we need to remember that there are people out there who started this industry and have tips, pointers, etc and are willing to help us ‘younger folks’ get our stuff together as it were. This can be seen in the words of Tom Crutchfield when he says.

“inbreeding in most herps can go on for quite a while with little problems BUT some things are becoming seriously inbred which is why all these morphs pop out from time to time. I’m in agreement that on some species the private sector needs to set up something similar to the SSP programs in the AZA”

Tom went on to mention that some species of snakes especially the West Indian Epicrates look very similar to one another so much that unless is DNA is tested there could indeed be cross-breeding of species going on unbeknownst to the breeder due to them not having access to test the DNA. This would again lead to the new morphs of boa this boa species, which according to Tom ‘seriously imperils pure Boa c. constrictor and many others.’

Now if you’re an avid herpetoculturist you might ask yourself, why all the misinformation and how do we fix it? Again, Tom has the answer to this. “There is a paucity of folks with baseline info.” In order to remedy this Tom says we need to have meetings and educate ourselves with herpetology 101 insofar as taxonomy and ethology. I do believe what Mr. Crutchfield is correct and many breeders have only baseline knowledge and therefore are willing to collect wild caught specimens for captive breeding without seeing the larger picture which is that of destroying the species in the wild due to lack of knowledge.

Internet resources vs. Books

Julie Bergman of Gecko Ranch LLC states ‘People these days don’t use all their info resources or know what those resources are in the first place.’ I must agree here that if you go into any large retailer the lack of knowledge is abhorrent as can be evidenced when I wanted to purchase my Yellow Spotted Night Lizards Lepidophyma flavimaculatum. The person helping me had no idea first what they were as they were labeled as Nicaraguan Alligator Lizards without any genus or species names. After a long conversation, I asked to see the shipping manifest where I was able to at least find a genus name and then went home to correctly identify the species.

Julie also said ‘For those of us raised with reading books and journals that are edited and cited properly it just makes us roll our eyes!’ My contention with this statement is the fact that even today being an amateur herpetologist and knowing how to research I am very capable of finding many journals or papers online. The issue is, these journals and papers generally speaking cost money to get and being a ‘starving writer’ as it were spending anywhere from thirty-five dollars and up on a paper is not always an option. This goes without saying that there is a certain amount of contention when a member of academia knows that you’re a herpetoculturists and sees us as just making a buck instead of actually caring for the species we enjoy. Whether our intentions are good or not if we reveal that we are interested in breeding a certain species the doors to the ‘Ivory tower’ are closed and the drawbridge brought up. This is not the case with all academia and I can say, from personal experience there are some academia out there that are willing to work with our community.

On the flipside of this same topic, there are extremely knowledgeable breeders out there and I have interviewed several for our internet radio program. However, others simply refuse to talk about their chosen species, as they do not want to reveal trade secrets that may allow a competitor an edge. To these breeders and the academia that turn us away I say this. If we don’t start sharing the various amounts of knowledge we have with one another we are all losing out and especially herpetoculture as this one simple thing may kill our industry and who will we have to blame then? It’s no secret that the government is already trying to regulate the industry but if we don’t provide our customers and future herpers with the proper knowledge it’s our own fault isn’t it.

Export and Import

Another thing is that some countries have closed their doors to exportation due to populations being collected to the point of dangerously low levels and they feel the need to protect them. Well, at least that’s what I thought anyway. But here again, Tom Crutchfield sets the record straight.

“Bearded Dragons even though smuggled into the U.S. have done more to take pressure off wild caught Pet Store lizards than any other single factor. Were the populations of Pogona in Australia hurt by taking a few lizards? The answer is a resounding no it did not. It is against Australian law so it was illegal at the time. Was it good or bad that now these are produced by the tens of thousands in captivity. One thing is for sure and that is that NO ONE would ever smuggle another one because they are cheaper here than in Australia…Most wildlife laws are archaic and some downright harmful.”

To back up this claim Tom gives the example of the crocodile specialist group within the IUCN which is the acronym of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  Tom stated that Alligators were poached in Florida until Alligator farming was allowed. He also makes a point to explain that once a law is put into place that it ‘Takes and act of God to undo.’ Tom believes in and coined the term “Conservation through commercialization.” Is this the right path to go down? Looking at past incidents of where this is applicable, it would seem as thought it just might be a viable option.

Now the overall question driving this entire discussion is this. Who gets the wild caught species? Should we allow new reptile owners to obtain these potentially valuable species, which could be the last progenitors of their species to ever be imported? How do we regulate this practice of bringing in new bloodlines to boost the inbred populations that are already here? You may recall above where Chris Law talked about limiting the number of species to be imported and to those breeders who were willing to “jump through some extra hoops”. Is that answer in the end?

Spreading the Wealth

Again referring back to Tom Crutchfield, he said we needed to have meetings to establish these practices and educate ourselves. This idea is lost on none of the people that were involved in the discussion but the glaring fact, which I personally never revealed until this moment, is this. I asked people to take a survey regarding their personal ownership of reptiles, where they purchased them; where they got their information, and in my opinion, the most important question of all did they belong to herp club or reptile society? The numbers were frightening. 63% didn’t/don’t belong to club or society. Now I cannot say why this is I just know that this is how people answered the question.

Therefore, here’s the question that I pose to you as reptile enthusiast and reader of this article. Are you going to allow this industry to fall because of your personal inaction or are you going to stop complaining and do something? I am not asking you change the world, just change your part of it. If there’s not a herp club in your area start one. If there is already one that’s available join in and get educated. Talk with people, find those with more knowledge than you have and ask them questions. Then pass on that knowledge to anyone willing to listen. There are enough avenues to get the information out there don’t let it waste away without sharing it. People hunger for knowledge. They may never read a journal or a book. But does that give us the right to look down our noses at the technology today? If you’re that vehement about it get in there and do something. Not to blow up my own ego, but I run three separate websites and dedicate my life to educating the public at large about reptiles. What are you doing?

You can hear exclusive interviews with everyone mentioned above at our sister site The Reptile Living Room.

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