DISCLAIMER: We have been asked to point out that Clifford Warwick is not linked in any way with any form of animal liberation movement, nor does he support the use of his work by such groups. We are happy to do this, and accept that however much we may disagree with him, he is acting as he sees fit.
BBC Wildlife magazine is usually an interesting read that manages to avoid veering to the extremes of the animal rights movement. I was therefore dismayed to see on the front cover of the March 2001 issue the sub-heading "Exotic temptation - should we give in to the reptile trade?". What troubled me more was that the author of this article was Clifford Warwick, a man noted for his extreme anti-exotics stance.
I was not surprised, therefore, on reading the article, to find it highly emotive, offering selective data or unsupported claims. However, Mr Warwick did once edit a weighty tome on reptile care with other respected authors, so we should at least give him a fair hearing. I therefore want to offer a critique of Clifford Warwick's article on this page.
This seems to be one of the biggest arguments cited by the anti-exotics lobby, particularly by Mr Warwick when trying to persuade local councils to ban reptile fairs. Thus his article starts with the sad account of the death of a child due to salmonellosis contracted from the family's pet lizard. This is tragic, but we cannot ignore his tacit assertion that salmonellosis contracted from reptiles is both prevalent and fatal.
In reality in the year 1999 there were just 7 cases in the UK where salmonellosis was purportedly contracted from reptiles.1 Compared with the number of cases where salmonella or similarly toxic infections were contracted from dogs or cats, or outside the area of captive animals, from poorly-cooked chicken or other food, and the salmonella-from-reptiles scare begins to look significantly less sinister. In reality the answer to the threat of salmonella from reptiles is the same as for any other animal: wash your hands after handling your pet, be it iguana, cat, dog or rabbit.
The most ludicrous claim made by Mr Warwick is that the life of a captive lizard is 2½, and that of a captive snake 3½, years. Again no evidence is cited or quoted in the article to support this claim, which flies completely in the face of the massed experience of reptile keepers, academic institutions and zoos worldwide. There are plenty of records in both zoos and private collections of both small lizards, such as Leopard Geckos, and large lizards such as Rhinoceros Iguanas, living over 20 years. For further evidence of this, visit Frank and Kate Slavens' longevity database (consisting of records from both private keepers and zoological collections) at http://www.halcyon.com/slavens/longev.html. I can testify that of my own collection, several geckos and other lizards have spent at least four years with us and are going strong.
What exactly is this supposed to mean? That birds, mammals, fish and every other living creature are not somehow as adapted for a life in the wild as reptiles? Or that they make better pets? Or that reptiles can flourish only in the wild? In reality every creature born in the wild is "hard-wired" for a life in the wild: any species that was not would presumably soon become extinct.
Perhaps Mr Warwick is implying that due to differences between the reptilian and the mammalian brain, reptiles are somehow more instinctive and therefore cannot deal with the demands of an alien captivity or adjust as do mammals. However the experience of herpetoculturists and keepers indicates otherwise. Snakes, those most instinctive of reptiles, are actually among the easiest of reptiles to care for: they are undemanding, happy to be fed once a week with a very unvarying diet (just as in the wild), and apart from the occasional exploration of their terrarium spend much time coiled up beneath a tight-fitting hiding place of some sort.
But to answer the charge that reptiles can flourish only in the wild (as opposed to birds, mammals and the rest), experience of keeping reptiles has proved that many reptilian species can lead as decent captive lives as any other creatures. Leopard geckos and bearded dragons are flourishing in captivity, and even green iguanas do well if properly cared for by informed keepers. This, of course, raises the question as to whether the long-term aim of Mr Warwick's allies, or at least co-belligerents, such as the Captive Animals Protection Society and Animal Aid is to have legislation passed banning the keeping of all "non-domesticated" animals by humans in any sort of companion relationship, which the most extreme liberationists regard as "speciesist" and exploitative. Certainly this appears to be the ultimate goal of groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). One might well add the warning, aquarists, rodent fanciers and bird keepers beware, you could be next!
Once again Mr Warwick makes a sweeping but unsupported claim, saying that there is no doubt that collecting for the pet trade is the biggest culprit for the reduction of native populations. Oh, really? A little common sense and a look at the contemporary ecological situation would suggest otherwise. Deforestation would probably still be causing pressure on the Solomon Islands Skink Corucia zebrata even if its numbers were not being collected (a practice, incidentally, that leading pro-hobbyists such as Philippe de Vosjoli have denounced due to its short-term and destructive effects). Slash-and-burn agricultural practices on Madagascar, which are threatening the habitats not just of the island's fabulous geckos and chameleons but of all its unique wildlife, bear little or no relation to the pet trade and would doubtless continue even if all collecting were to cease tomorrow. Indeed, as programmes with seahorses in SE Asia have shown, allowing some collection of native wildlife at a sensible rate actually encourages conservation of both habitat and the creatures' numbers, since it grants the local population a stake in the survival of the animals. The same is being encouraged of green iguanas in Central America. Although we Westerners may not like the idea of our favourite species being put in the pot, sustainable farming (or collection) is surely better than either the anarchy of unmonitored and irresponsible exploitation, or the rather arrogant attitude whereby developed nations pressurise local governments into banning any exploitation (often in areas that are needy) and thus creating resentment not only towards authority but towards the animals themselves.
For the record, neither IUCN (The World Conservation Union) nor TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) are against sustainable development. IUCN states that it “seeks to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable... Through its six commissions, IUCN draws together over 6000 expert volunteers in project teams and action groups, focusing in particular on species and biodiversity conservation and the management of habitats and natural resources.” TRAFFIC's stated mission is “To help ensure that wildlife trade is sustainable and in accordance with domestic and international laws and agreements through the investigation, monitoring and reporting of such trade, particularly that which is detrimental to the survival of flora and fauna and that which is illegal. TRAFFIC’s reports and advice shall provide a technical basis for the establishment of effective conservation policies and programs for wildlife in trade.” (Source for both these statements: http://www.melbourne.net/animals_australia/facts/wildlife.htm, an anti-sustainable development website).
Another of Mr Warwick's sweeping, offensive and unquantifiable statements is in the "Action and books" box on page 62, where he tells readers:
"You won't get quality information from pet shops or anyone who either sells animals or promotes keeping them. Don't rely on herpetological groups, especially British ones: many are linked to animal dealers."
Note the obvious inferrals here: everybody who sells or promotes the keeping of reptiles is either a fool or has too much of a special interest in the subject to produce honest or accurate information. This insulting and patronising assertion presumably includes not only some cowboy dealer with a grubby premises who has got into herpetology as a way of making a quick buck but also such scientifically rigorous bodies such as the British Herpetological Society who are based at London Zoo, and all those vets (some of whose qualifications are actually equal to or greater than Mr Warwick's, see note 1 below) who are willing to treat pet reptiles and to regard them as a legitimate captive group.
As C S Lewis once remarked, the man in the office who tells you to trust nobody expects you to make an implicit exception for him. Mr Warwick mentions the Captive Animals Protection Society twice in his article: in fact he has worked alongside them and his comments are included on their page on "reptile fayres". It might be therefore considered that he might himself have an interest to declare, as CAPS are an animal rights movement. I quote from their website:
"Our Aims... CAPS is opposed to the use of performing animals in circuses and wishes to see animal circuses outlawed. CAPS seeks to prevent the use and exploitation of captive and performing animals [my italics], and investigates cases of alleged cruelty against captive and performing animals."
Warwick has also produced similar material for the animal rights movement Animal Aid in which he makes the same claims that he has rehashed for the BBC article. Animal Aid has a mini-biography of Clifford Warwick on their website, and openly boast of their success in getting reptile shows closed down.
Of the books recommended by Warwick on page 62, two of the five were either authored or co-authored by Clifford Warwick himself. Furthermore, although the Animal Welfare Institute's publication The Animal Dealers: Evidence of abuse in the commercial trade 1952-1997 was put together by Mary Ellen Dreyer, the only chapter that is mentioned as dealing specifically with reptiles (chapter 13, "The Shelf Life of Reptiles") was written by Mr Warwick. Some might say that this is hardly a sign of impartiality. The anti-sustainable development book was written by John A Hoyt, President Emeritus of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The HSUS is an animal rights group that could be characterised as having similar aims to CAPS and Animal Aid.
The interesting twist, however, is that one of Mr Warwick's co-authors on The Health and Welfare of Captive Reptiles was FL Frye. Dr Fredric L Frye recently retired from practice, but after the publication of the work that he produced with Messrs Warwick and Murphy he went on to produce other manuals including Iguana iguana, A Guide for Successful Captive Care (Krieger Publishing Co, 1995), Self Assessment Colour Review of Reptiles and Amphibians (co-author David L Williams) and, if my memory serves me correctly, a two-volume set on reptile care for TFH books, who produce books for reptile hobbyists. Dr Frye's advice is also cited on reptile hobbyist websites (eg http://crocodilian.com/crocfaq/faq-7.html). As Dr Frye seems to have been actively involved in veterinary work involving reptiles and amphibians and to have produced books for reptile hobbyists, and has recently become a patron of the Reptile Trust, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his opinions about keeping reptiles in captivity differ somewhat from Mr Warwick's.
Having said all this in refutation of the main thrust of Clifford Warwick's article (namely that the keeping of reptiles in captivity is morally wrong and by implication should be banned), we should acknowledge that, even in this extreme form, he does raise legitimate concerns. Too often there are unscrupulous wildlife dealers, unscrupulous or careless pet shops, and ignorant or wrongly-motivated customers. I have addressed these concerns elsewhere on the website (see especially Why Herpetology must put its house in order). The one good idea that Mr Warwick suggests is a stricter enforcement of CITES2, with which responsible keepers and traders would agree. Even from an unemotive financial point of view (no, I'm not a dealer or trader!) it makes no sense to over-exploit a limited resource to the point where it can no longer sustain any return. Ethically too we owe it to future generations to guard the heritage of our planet. Tragically, in the heat of the ecological battle we are engaged in, some people are advocating extreme solutions. A cool head is rather what is needed.
They concluded that a person keeping reptiles was about 2,500 times more likely to contract the disease from food as from a reptile. This article bears reading as it is by two veterinary professionals whose interpretation of data (that they quote, unlike Mr Warwick in this article) differs considerably from his!
After reading the BBC Wildlife Magazine article I sent a reply to Mr Warwick's article to the magazine. Without informing me they saw fit to pass my reply directly onto Clifford Warwick, whose assistant, Catrina Steedman, sent me an E-mail. To read our exchange of communications, click here.
In the same issue of the magazine, the editor Rosamund Kidman Cox produced a biased and ill-informed editorial attacking the reptile trade and lauding Mr Warwick's article. I reproduce her editorial and my observations on it here.
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