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Reptile Keeping

Photo and essay by Ian Adrian. Ian is a former reptile breeder turned wildlife photographer.

Website: https://iannaturephotography.com/about/

Insta: @iannaturephotography

At the age of 3, I met and captured my very first snake. This adorable creature was a baby garter snake who had taken up residence alongside my home. I was ecstatic! This is my very earliest childhood memory and one I shall always cherish.

My formative years were filled with nature forays nearly always involving some "creepy crawly" or another, be it the tiny red-backed salamanders who took refuge under the cinder blocks in front of my house, or the beetles hidden beneath rotting logs in the forest. Upon reflection, it's little wonder that, many years later, adult me became completely obsessed with exotic creatures and eventually delegated multiple rooms of his own home for keeping and breeding reptiles.

Over the course of several years, I became very skilled at caring for and persuading these incredible creatures to procreate. I had countless projects ranging from tarantulas and millipedes, to snakes and rare gecko species that were so unknown to the general public that humans hadn't even conceived a common name for them. Most days, I spent hours caring for my scaled (and occasionally slimy) companions. On weekends, it wasn't unusual to spend every waking moment preparing for a reptile expo sometimes many hours away. Vacations, however short, were extremely stressful and always resulted in some unwelcome surprise upon return. Every time that someone gave birth, however, was a very special time, indeed. On those days, I felt giddy as a schoolboy. Needless to say, this was my life.

During these years, I gained an abundance of knowledge about the lives of these often lesser-appreciated creatures, in addition to the many shortcomings of the industry that fuels our perceived ownership of them. Following my eventual departure from the industry, many friends, family members, and fellow animal breeders, perplexed by my "sudden" change of heart, inquired as to the reasoning. I offered many different explanations to many different people. Every single answer was truthful, but few if any truly encompassed the scope of my disdain for reptile-keeping and why I felt compelled to leave this life behind.

The following insights are not offered with the intent of making anyone feel shameful about keeping these creatures, but rather, in the hope of working through yucky energy I have held onto and perhaps planting seeds which may offer perspective to others.

First and most certainly foremost is my qualm with playing God. Humans have a knack for treating our world with a sense of entitlement. We act as if we have some sort of divine right to pillage the Earth for resources, reallocating them for our own tiny lives with disregard for the big picture. Like most humans, I still partake in this sort of behavior. The emissions from driving a car or the excessive use of water in daily showers are great examples. While I have no intention of abandoning showers, there are far more extreme examples of these tendencies. Feeding animals to other animals is right at the top of that list. In the wild, a snake or lizard has every right to catch food in the effort of survival. It's actually really great that they do as this is a fantastic safeguard against the spread of rodent and insect-born disease. In the wild, mice and insects also have every right and opportunity to avoid capture. The scales are balanced. In captivity, however, we breed living creatures with the sole intention of feeding them to others. In doing so, we make a bold statement that the life of one creature holds more value than the life of another. Contained within a tiny cage, there is no chance of escape.

Imagine some higher race breeding humans as food for tigers. You're trapped in a tiny, often filthy enclosure with your family until a hand that you have come to associate with food one day reaches in and brusquely grabs your sister. Despite the abruptness, she doesn't bite or try too hard to escape as this hand has always previously been the source of nourishment. Unsure of where she is or what is happening, you're terrified. A few minutes pass in silence until you and your family hear an earsplitting scream from another room. You recognize that scream as the voice of your sister, but have never before heard such a blood-curdling shriek from her. The silence immediately returns but the air now holds a pestilence, an emptiness. This is the life of a "feeder" mouse.

In that same vein, rodent breeding truly is a disgusting endeavor. I suspect that some rodent breeders do keep their facilities quite clean. Largely, however, this is not the case. Mice and rats poop and pee a lot. Replacing their bedding costs money and requires labor, making it an easy department to skimp on. If you've never visited such a facility, DON'T! The smell alone, even from outside, can be intolerable, and state / federal regulations tend to be vague and loosely enforced, if at all. This environment can be downright toxic just for the human employees who have the luxury to leave after their 8-hour shift.

Moving away from the plight of our furry friends, the reptile-breeding industry is an unusual medley of people from all walks of life. Within the industry, one is likely to encounter plenty of extremely clever folk, such as biologists and others who are truly captivated by the life-cycles and behavior of these creatures. One is also likely to encounter those who believe the world is perfectly fine with 10 billion plus human habitants and unchecked pollution. Believe it or not, the reptile industry, itself, actually employs lobbyists. I suppose it should come as not entirely unbelievable since every special interest seems to employ them. Despite the multitude of scientists within the reptile-breeding industry, these lobbyists will actively oppose regulations that threaten reptile-keeping, even if the proposed law benefits our planet. Some species of reptiles and amphibians are very difficult to keep and breed in captivity, so the lobbyists ensure that it remains legal to capture individuals from the wild, stealing these creatures from lives of freedom within their chosen habitats, simply so collectors can "own" more species.

The reptile industry often bills itself as benevolent and working toward the conservation of these mystical creatures, but aside from specific institutions oriented toward such projects, little could be further from the truth. Private collectors and breeders do what they do primarily to make money. They are often intrigued by the creatures in their "ownership," but these animals are not being bred for reintroduction to their former habitats. Many reptile breeders focus on producing unusual color variations, line-breeding inferior genetics to create beautiful reptiles and amphibians that would almost never occur or survive in the wild.

Another major issue with keeping nearly any exotic animal in captivity is that we, humans, really haven't the faintest idea of their basic psychological needs. For example, let's use a lizard who traverses a territory of several square acres. Sure, this lizard probably wouldn't travel that far if all of his / her basic needs were met within a smaller range. With that in mind, one could make the argument that it's not entirely necessary for the lizard in question to have such a large area to roam. Fair point, but imagine squeezing that same lizard into a 20 gallon aquarium tank. Cats and dogs have ways of communicating their basic needs to us and, although plenty of folks fall short in that department as well, reptiles really can't communicate these needs to us (as far as we know). Even if they did, would we care to listen? In some examples, the 20 gallon tank is even generous. Not unlike many other keepers, I once kept a number of snakes in small, plastic sweater or shoe boxes. Why house them in spacious tanks when reptiles can be so efficiently housed in these small, stackable containers?

Many exotic animal keepers don't even bother to seek out the appropriate information or equipment to properly house their "pets." Even when providing my former customers with detailed animal care sheets, I lost count on the number of instances in which a reptile or amphibian I had painstakingly raised from birth was kept in conditions far too hot or cold, or was just blatantly neglected. The creature in question often died as a result. Those text messages never failed to make my skin crawl.

Despite everything mentioned above, day-to-day life for most captive herps (reptiles and amphibians), is a damn joy in comparison to their experience at a reptile expo. Just imagine yourself crammed into a tiny, transparent container. Fully-exposed and with nowhere to hide, you can barely move. Lots of abrupt movement, inconsistent temperatures, and strange sounds / smells coming from all directions. Sometimes a passerby abruptly grabs the tiny container in which you're housed and shakes it a bit. The only consolation of your miserable container is that it doesn't hurt nearly as much when you are brutishly jostled. You are dehydrated and now you feel a bowel movement coming along. You may be stuck in the container with this turd for the remainder of the day and well into nighttime. At these expos, I have seen tortoises crammed into tubs so small they couldn't turn around and snakes / lizards packed so tightly they were forced into a permanent ball. By human comparison, an uncomfortable airplane ride is heaven.

While keeping herps, so many small creatures died at my hands. When possible, I would first use carbon dioxide to gas rats and mice for a more "humane" death prior to their being consumed. Sometimes, however, this was not possible and the live animal would be thrown into an inescapable enclosure (as described above) only to be squeezed to death by a snake. I exploited reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates to satisfy my own obsession with monetizing what was once a beautiful passion. Upon reflection, I feel disgusted not only to have so actively partaken in this cruel lifestyle, but that we, as conscious beings still condone this type of obscene animal mistreatment. If you formerly kept these beautiful creatures and have undergone similar revelations, I commend you. If you still, however, keep exotics in captivity, I hope that you will consider this article as a little piece of inspiration from a former reptile breeder.

A number of years have now passed since my era of reptile breeding. In the wake of those dark days, I have come to feel a growing adoration for encounters with wild herps. Even the most robust gecko housed within a palatial vivarium no longer evokes a sense of joy. Encountering that same gecko, happy and thriving within his / her natural environment, however, never ceases to bring a smile to my lips. Wildlife photography has become a far more inspiring replacement to my former endeavors. Rather than perpetuate that narrative, I can introduce others to the incredible beauty of our scaly and occasionally slimy wild friends. This has come to be a wonderful way to spread appreciation for these frequently under-appreciated animals. Upon reflection, I cannot help but view this transformation as a great atonement to my childhood self who was perfectly satisfied enjoying wild creatures in their natural habitats. As Ghandi once said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

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