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Keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets: challenges and rewards
  1. G. M. Burghardt, SB, PhD1
  1. 1Departments of Psychology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology University of Tennessee,, Knoxville, TN 37996-0900,, USA
  1. E-mail for correspondence: gburghar{at}

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Reptiles and amphibians are, for many of us, the most fascinating animals on earth, with morphological, physiological, reproductive, behavioural and life style diversity far beyond anything found in mammals and birds, the typical focus of veterinary research and practice. When I started my career in reptile behaviour there was comparatively little interest in reptiles and amphibians in ethology, comparative psychology or veterinary medicine. This has changed dramatically in the last few decades due to several factors.

Why the interest in exotic species?

Herptiles have become increasingly popular in the pet trade. While hatchling turtles and green anoles were an ever present dime store item, at least in the 1940s and 1950s when I came of age, they were cheap, disposable and the suggested housing and diet horrendous. Most died. I still remember when green anoles (chameleons) were sold at state fairs and other events harnessed to pins to be worn as living jewelry! Green iguanas were the first breakout pet species in the 1970s and since then there has been no looking back as they were overtaken in popularity by bearded dragons, ball pythons, boa constrictors, designer snakes of all types, tortoises and exotic salamanders and frogs.

A second factor was the increased captive breeding of herptiles of major groups for the pet trade, as well as the meat and skin markets. They were often promoted as cash crops to wean people off exploiting locally threatened populations, including breeding farms for green iguanas in Central America. Such agribusiness raises health, reproduction and genetic concerns as overcrowding, nutritional deficiencies and domestication take place. Slaughter (for meat and skins), shipping and trafficking of both wild-caught and captive-reared animals often involve suffering due both to greed and ignorance of the psychological traits of animals to which crude anthropomorphism cannot be easily applied. Ignorance towards animals’ behaviour is thus a …

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