Pet snake

This is the Chinese Year of the Snake, and for many in China, a snake in your house is considered to be a sign of good luck. But how lucky is it for snakes and other reptiles to join someone’s home as a pet? And where do they come from? Let’s take a look.

Here in the United States, snakes and reptiles are popular household pets and part of a billion dollar industry. Approximately 13 million of these fascinating animals are kept as pets, according to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Association. This translates into about 4.6 million U.S. households that own reptiles, including snakes.

The Importation Problem

Tens of millions of reptiles have been imported into and exported from the U.S. over the past few years, but imports have been declining lately due to economic reasons. The most commonly imported reptiles are iguanas, geckos and lizards, and countries such as Vietnam, El Salvador, Ghana and Indonesia currently ship the most reptiles to the U.S. Unfortunately, many imported reptiles are wild-caught (although they may be falsely labeled as captive-bred), and many will die either during shipment or after their first year of captivity. Since there is no real way to distinguish wild-caught reptiles from captive-bred ones, potential buyers need to realize that every time you buy one of these animals as a pet, you may be inadvertently contributing to the illegal wildlife trade.

Reptiles are usually purchased from local pet shops, exotic pet shows, private citizens and even online. They also are sometimes given away as carnival prizes. Some states and municipalities have prohibited this practice, however, because prize winners (and their parents) are usually unprepared to care for reptiles and their unique needs. Recently, a bill to prohibit using live animals as prizes was introduced in the Arizona legislature. Yet another potential source of these pets is from rescue-related organizations. A cursory search on shows that many animal shelters and rescues also have unwanted reptiles available for adoption to the right families.

Reptiles Need Expert Care

If you are considering buying one of these animals, you need to think it through. According to Gary Stolz, refuge manager at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, while reptiles are incredible, fascinating animals, he cautions against impulse buying. “They are not toys. They are living creatures who can live a long time, sometimes longer than humans. They require specialized care: proper food, space, heat and light. Some require multiple light sources. Burmese pythons can grow to 20 to 25 feet long, and African spur thigh tortoises can grow to 150 pounds. Do your homework first.”

That homework includes knowing how to properly care for an animal that will have unique and perhaps expensive care needs throughout her life — which, as has been noted, can be lengthy. Dr. Anneliese Strunk, a board-certified exotics specialist at Research Boulevard Pet and Bird Hospital in Austin, Texas, says, “The most common illnesses I see in my reptile patients can be directly related to inadequate care. Owners try to do the right thing, but don’t always have the right resources," she says. "Regardless of the initial cost of the pet, owners need to be prepared to put money and time into the setup and ongoing care as well. Just because you learn how to care for a reptile when you get one, we are always learning more and more about the needs of different species, making it important to routinely learn about and revise your reptile's husbandry. There are veterinarians dedicated to keeping up-to-date on current care recommendations as well as high-quality websites that are updated regularly.” A veterinarian who specializes in reptile care is an excellent information resource for any potential or current owner.

Because of these concerns, however, some groups feel that reptiles should not be kept as pets at all. For example, the position of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is that "reptiles are not suitable pets for health and safety reasons as well as animal-welfare reasons. [They] are not suited to life as a companion pet in a traditional household. Giving pet reptiles a great quality of life and high degree of welfare requires a huge commitment of space, expense and education," according to Kirsten Theisen, HSUS director of Pet Care Issues.

However, positions such as the one held by the HSUS do not seem to have an impact on the millions of people who still love owning these fascinating creatures. For that reason, along with understanding how to care for these unique species, it is also critical to know the laws that may oversee reptile ownership in your area.

Reptiles Are Regulated

There are international, federal, state and local laws regarding the trade, capture and release of various reptiles. Some localities have restrictions on the size of reptiles kept as pets and their type (e.g., bans on venomous or constricting species). States also require permits or set restrictions regarding the capture of wild reptiles. Such laws exist not only for wildlife conservation purposes but also public safety. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) restricts the importation of turtles with shell lengths shorter than four inches in order to prevent the spread of Salmonella, especially to young children. Reptiles are known carriers of Salmonella sp. and Mycobacterium sp., so thorough hand washing is vital after handling reptiles.

A major impact of the popularity of pet reptiles is their release into the outdoors when people can no longer take care of them. Anyone who has a pet reptile (or any animal for that matter) should never release her outside. They should try to find a local animal shelter or wildlife rehabilitator who can take the animal or refer someone who can. Many reptiles kept as pets do not naturally exist in this country or the regions in which they are released. The release of non-native or invasive animals not only puts the abandoned pets at risk but also can wreak havoc on local wildlife populations and habitats.

Many Species Are Now Prohibited

Because of this, in 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced prohibited international and interstate trade in Python molurus (which includes Burmese and Indian pythons), Northern African pythons (Python sebae), Southern African pythons (Python natalensis), and yellow anacondas (Eunectes notaeus) by listing them as Injurious Species under the Lacey Act.

In Florida, the negative impact of Burmese pythons being released outdoors is so widespread that it started a Python Challenge, which is a hunt for Burmese pythons meant to reduce these non-native animals from the Florida Everglades and elsewhere, and to educate the public about the hazards of releasing unwanted animals. Those who capture (and unfortunately usually kill) the most pythons are awarded monetary prizes.

So, if you think you’re up for a pet python (or turtle or lizard) challenge of your own, carefully consider all of these factors. Check out a shelter or wildlife rehabilitation facility first to see if you can rehome an abandoned animal. Finally, if you do add a reptile to your home, be sure you and your family really are ready to properly care and pay for your pet’s unique needs for the rest of her life.

Crystal Miller-Spiegel has an M.S. degree in animals and public policy from the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. She is a policy analyst for the American Anti-Vivisection Society, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Animal Policy and Advocacy for Humane Society University, and the author of numerous papers, articles and reports. One of her recent reports was "Primates by the Numbers: The Use and Importation of Nonhuman Primates for Research and Testing in the United States," a document she authored for the AAVS. As a result of her work, she has been exposed to many facets of the exotic animal importation trade.