This is the second in a multi-part opinion series on Ethical Reptile Keeping. The series seeks to urge keepers, new and old alike, to evaluate their own husbandry habits and to think about the impact their choices, from housing to breeding, have on their personal animals as well as on the herpetology hobby as a whole. While some aspects of reptile and amphibian keeping have evolved to focus on pushing and advancing husbandry techniques to ensure that a species thrives in captivity, others have become stuck in antiquated and short-sighted practices which do not promote progress. And certain species, particularly entry-level species, are suffering as a result. I wish to draw attention to these embarrassing aspects of the herp community and encourage people to take a look at how they can grow as hobbyists and keepers, push what we know about great husbandry together, and strive for excellence, personally and as a community.
To follow along the vein of ethical housing, I wanted to elaborate upon some points I made regarding enrichment and stimulation. In an act of cosmic coincidence, I came across this phenomenal blog post in my social media, which I fully recommend that everyone read carefully and which I will discuss a little bit here.
The blog is absolutely thorough in its references and detailed in its information. The case it makes is simple; more and more we are discovering that reptiles and amphibians are more intelligent than previously thought, and that they need enrichment like any other animal in order to stay healhty and sharp. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and we must be willing to provide for a pet's mental needs as well if we are going to keep animals in captivity.
I made the case in my last post about how keeping herps in minimalistic, isolated, and unstimulating housing is lazy and a poor way to keep them, and in this one I'm going to argue that it is harmful and unhealthy. To put an animal in a plastic tote with hardly any stimulation during the day/night is to condemn them to be perpetually bored and largely inactive, and this is why herp obesity is so rampant in the community. An animal that isn't provided with the opportunity to move about and get exercise is inevitably going to develop health issues over time. And these are such easy conditions to change, and they have such a powerful impact!
When setting up a cage (regardless of what animal we are housing, be it a chameleon or a bearded dragon) it is vital that we make use of all available space. An animal will only be able to utilize the parts of the cage you give it access to, so if the height of a cage isn't being taken advantage of then you are wasting that space and limiting their range. Think of the species you are keeping. Really think about it. Forget what you may have read online about how other people keep them, just for a second, and think about what your animal has evolved over thousands of years to do. Is it a burrowing species? Is it an arboreal climber? Is it perfectly camouflaged in mossy branches? Is it an animal that spends part of the day soaking in a pool of water? Is it an active carnivorous hunter or a slow vegetarian/fructivore? Are they very shy and live hidden most of the time?
All these questions are important in helping you, as a keeper, to really understand the needs of your pet. It does a chameleon no good to be in a semi-sparce, dry, sandy cage while a bearded dragon would love it. Living in a low, horizontal cage as an arboreal green iguana would be torture, but a tortoise would feel right at home. Once you understand the nature of the species you keep, you can research how other people who have had a lot of success have been keeping theirs and make the informed decision on what tips make the most sense given what you know to be true about your species of choice.
Providing things like substrate to burrow into, things to climb, plants in which to hide, and pools in which to soak (even though, yes, they WILL make a mess all the time) will bring out such a colorful array of natural behaviors that it's absolutely worth it. Changing up the layout of the tank every few months is one way to keep it all feeling new and interesting, and changing out or adding new things occasionally will add enrichment without creating too much stress. Perhaps adding a new plant or a new hide, or changing around some large grapewood branches so that the climbing pathways are different. Changing around the food items and offering them in different ways will also add enrichment. Some handling (if tolerated) and even some free ranging around a safe area or basking outside (responsibly) are ways to add variety to their daily lives, allow them to become acclimated to you, and gives them a chance to stretch their legs beyond the confines of their own cage.
If you find that you have to reduce your pets' quality of life for the sake of fitting more animals into a given space in your home then you have reached a point where acquiring more reptiles has become unethical (in my opinion.) Remember, quality is more important than quantity in almost all aspects of life.