Reptile Awareness Day – 4 welfare issues facing reptiles

Today is Reptile Awareness Day! This is the perfect opportunity to shine a spotlight on the welfare issues facing reptiles, the work being done to protect them, and the simple, conscious choices you can make in your life to help these sentient individuals.

The exotic pet trade

A turtle walking on stones

Millions of reptiles are traded globally to meet the demands of the exotic pet trade. This demand appears to be growing in the UK, with the Pet Food Manufacturers Association reporting over 1.2 million turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards kept as ‘pets’ in UK households in 2021.

Back when we published our ‘Scotland’s Exotic Pets’ report in 2016, this figure sat at 900,000. This might not even scratch the surface, with the Reptile and Pet Trade Association estimating significantly higher numbers.

An important part of reversing this trend is raising public consciousness about the welfare needs of these sentient, wild animals, which can never be fully met in captive, domesticated environments.

Not only do reptile species tend to have complex dietary and housing requirements, some may need companions or to be kept solitary, depending on their social needs. Sadly, lack of awareness around these needs can lead to abandonment of reptiles when their human guardians find themselves unable to provide adequate care.


A close up of a snake

Sadly, reptiles are still exploited for entertainment purposes across the world. Snakes, lizards and turtles are often used in ‘close encounter’ activities where members of the public are allowed to hold reptiles and other animals for entertainment and photo opportunities.

These activities can be particularly harmful to the welfare of reptiles, who are incapable of regulating their own body temperature. As a result, they are sensitive to the temperature fluctuations linked to being taken from their optimal environment.

Added to this is the stress experienced by these wild animals when they are handled by humans. In snakes for example, this manifests in biting as a defense mechanism. Consequently, their teeth and venom glands may be removed, and in some cases, their jaws may be taped, wired or sewn shut.


A chameleon in a cage

OneKind believes that there is no justification for any animal to be kept in a zoo, including reptiles. While zoos might be able to provide better conditions for reptiles than many people can in their homes, these wild individuals can never have their needs fully met in captive environments.

For example, the potential stress caused by captivity is demonstrated in this case study of a captive snake by the Zoological Society of London. The individual was observed frequently engaging in abnormal, repetitive movements in contact with the glass of their enclosure.

Not all zoos are made equal either. For example, one in 5 animals died in the space of a year at a zoo in Wales, including a number of reptiles.

Hunting and farming of reptiles for clothing and food

A crocodile in a cage

Reptiles like crocodiles and snakes can be subject to horrific treatment in the name of fashion. Raised in cramped cages on farms, these individuals face cruel deaths – in some cases being skinned alive to make bags, shoes and other clothing.

Farmed crocodiles are also raised for their meat abroad, which is exported to countries like the UK as part of the exotic meat trade.

What OneKind is doing

For years, OneKind has been urging the Scottish Government to introduce a Positive List of species that are suitable to keep as companions in the home. The aim of this is to ensure that only those animals whose needs can be met in domesticated environments are kept as such.

In Norway, a positive list for reptiles already exists, and a positive list for mammals has already been introduced in the Netherlands and Belgium, where it has helped limit the illegal trade in exotic pet mammals.

In their interim report on the keeping of exotic animals as ‘pets’ in Scotland, the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission have expressed interest in exploring the idea of positive lists further.

Regarding the use of reptiles for entertainment, earlier this year, we sent a joint letter to the Scottish Government with Born Free Foundation, calling on them to introduce legislation prohibiting the use of wild animals for exhibition or performance in Scotland.

We also successfully secured the removal of a Valentines Day event involving exotic animals, including reptiles, at a hotel owned by Marston’s in Livingston. This followed a joint letter we sent with Born Free to the CEO of the hotel chain, urging for the event’s cancellation.

What you can do

You can help reptiles by not supporting the exotic pet trade, avoiding exotic animal encounters and refusing to purchase clothing made with animal skins or reptile meat.

If you’d like to adopt a rescued reptile from a reputable animal sanctuary, please only do so if you are certain that you can look after them properly.