Why Do People Keep Reptiles?
Approximately eight million reptiles, comprising at least 500 species, are kept as companions in Europe. Although keeping reptiles is common in many parts of the world, relatively little is known about how to properly care for them in captive settings. What’s more, the trade in reptiles commonly fuels the exotic animal trade, which is harmful to both animals and the environment.
A key question is, why do people want to keep reptiles as companions in the first place? Research has examined the human-animal bond when it comes to companion dogs and cats, but it’s unclear whether similar motivations drive people to acquire reptiles. Evidence suggests that humans typically prefer mammals and other animals who possess human-like characteristics, which generally excludes reptiles. However, research has found that people who keep exotic turtles often show similar affection toward their animals as cat and dog guardians.
Snakes are a particularly curious example of a companion reptile. Some scholars argue that humans have interacted with snakes longer than most animal species, including dogs. However, snakes often elicit fear and disgust reactions from humans and other primates. When asked how they feel about snakes, studies have found that children are equally likely to respond with words describing danger and beauty. It seems that when it comes to snakes and legless reptiles, the most dangerous species are also perceived as the most attractive.
Because so little is known about captive reptile care or the motivations for keeping them, this study attempts to understand the human-reptile bond. The authors hope to use this information to promote responsible guardianship, an important but often overlooked issue. They conducted an online survey of 220 reptile guardians in Portugal that asked about their animals, husbandry practices, and why they sought a reptile companion. The authors also provided a list of 10 common reptile behaviors (e.g., moving to a lighter or darker area in their enclosure, trying to climb the enclosure wall) with an accompanying list of motivations to describe each behavior (e.g., stress/fear, attempt to communicate). Respondents were asked to explain the motivations for each type of behavior.
Among the reptile guardians, 65% kept chelonians (turtles, terrapins, tortoises), while 19% kept lizards and 16% kept snakes. Most respondents purchased their animal from a shop, while a minority received their animal as a gift or bought them from a breeder. When asked how they would describe their reptile, 64% of respondents said “family member,” while 43% said “pet” and 21% said “friend.” Only one person in the survey described their reptile as a “burden.” There were variations depending on the type of reptile, as lizards were most commonly reported as family members, followed by chelonians and then snakes.
When asked to interpret the 10 common reptile behaviors, “stress/fear” was the most highly-cited descriptor. It was mentioned by 92% of chelonian guardians, 90% of reptile guardians, and 80% of snake guardians. Pain and discomfort were also commonly associated with the 10 behaviors, suggesting that the majority of reptile guardians recognize their animals as sentient beings with the capacity to feel emotions. On the other hand, while around 50% of chelonian and lizard guardians described at least one behavior as a reptile’s “attempt to communicate,” only 20% of snake guardians mentioned this capacity, suggesting that snake guardians feel differently about their animals than other reptiles.
Finally, four main themes arose regarding the motivations for acquiring a companion reptile. These were as follows:
- Affective States: 54% of guardians used at least one affective state to describe their animal. Most also described their affection for their reptile, using words like “love” and “fascination.” A few guardians explained their feelings as a love for nature as a whole.
- Motivations For First Acquiring A Reptile: Many people described a childhood dream or keeping a reptile or a memory of a previous childhood companion. Similarly, some respondents said their reptile was a gift for their child. A few respondents claimed to have rescued their reptile from a pet shop or a circumstance where they were unhappy with the conditions the animal was being kept in.
- Motivations For Keeping Reptiles Long-Term: 13% of respondents said their reptiles were a convenient and low-maintenance companion, although this is a common misconception among reptile guardians. Meanwhile, 12% said their reptiles were a form of entertainment, in that they enjoy keeping them as a hobby or like their mysterious, unusual behaviors. Only 10% described companionship as a reason for keeping reptiles, citing things like social bonds and the importance of physical interaction. Finally, 7% felt they had a duty of care toward their reptiles, as they didn’t know anyone else who would care for them.
- Negative Aspects Of Guardianship: A minority of respondents described feelings of remorse for keeping formerly wild animals or fueling the wild animal trade. Some said they didn’t know the best way to care for their companion reptile and emphasized the lack of reliable information about reptile care in captivity.
While research has found that most cat and dog guardians are motivated by companionship and affection, reptile guardians seem to have multiple reasons for keeping their animals, such as entertainment or fueling a hobby. Unfortunately, the misconception that reptiles are convenient, “easy” animals remains prevalent in this study. Previous studies have shown that as many as 85% of reptile guardians fail to meet all of the needs of their captive reptiles, and the authors of this paper note that affection alone isn’t enough to give reptiles the care they need to flourish.
To promote more responsible reptile care, animal advocates should engage in public education campaigns surrounding the realities of keeping reptiles as companions. This includes their husbandry needs, behaviors, and the animal welfare and environmental implications of the reptile trade. Because many people form their fascination with reptiles in childhood, it’s important to direct this education toward both adults and children, including campaigns in schools, wildlife centers, and other places children go to learn.