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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Reptiles, Daycare, and Mixed Messages

Published 08/25/08
By Monica Engebretson, Senior Program Associate

Recently I was dismayed to discover that a “special guest” was invited to my daughter’s daycare.

This “special guest” brought in exotic wild animals, mostly reptiles (pythons, hog-nosed snakes, iguanas) who were transported into the classroom in an ice chest and then carried around and restrained while the children were encouraged to pet them.

When I raised concerns about this “special guest” with the director of the daycare, I was informed that the purpose of this “activity” was to teach children “respect for wildlife” and was assured that the presenter tells the children that wild animals “don’t make good pets” ... Huh?

How could this education professional not see the inherent contradiction of this situation? Attempting to teach children to respect wildlife after pulling them from an ice chest and then telling kids that they are not “pets” while encouraging them to “pet” them as if they are.

Of course there is also the risk of salmonella (an estimated 90 percent of all reptiles carry and shed salmonella). Small children who constantly put their hands in their mouth are especially at risk.

I imagine that many parents likely encounter similar situations but may not know exactly how to sum up their concerns especially when faced with a teacher who is entirely convinced that such activities and special guests are great education tools.

So, below I’ve pasted a sample letter to help compassionate wildlife advocates educate educators on the subject.

Sample letter

I was concerned to see that captive exotic reptiles and mammals were brought into the daycare as entertainment. I understand that the goal was to provide an entertaining and educational experience for the children and I fully appreciate that.

However, I hope that after reading the information you will reconsider inviting guests who bring exotic reptiles and mammals into the classroom.

History has shown that the increased popularity of exotic animals as pets, whether wild caught or captive bred, often leads to a subsequent increase in the illegal trafficking of their wild counterparts within the U.S. and abroad.

I imagine that many of the children who saw these exotic reptiles and mammals did not go home and ask their parents how they could protect these animals in the wild — they probably asked if they could have one of their own.

I am guessing many little boys now think it’s “cool” to have a snake or a lizard as a “pet” and many little girls would love to have their own hedgehog (if they were legal to have in California — which they are not). It is great for children to gain an appreciation for these animals but not if it is misdirected and presented in a context that separates the animals from their natural habitat and place in the world.

Whether wild-caught or captive bred, exotic animals — reptiles, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, parrots — are wild animals and, as such, do not adapt well to a captive environment. The denial of instinctually driven and naturally evolved activities has been shown to cause both physical and behavioral problems in exotic animals when kept as “pets.”

Most reptiles sold and kept in the United States are (or were) captured in the wild or are the offspring of wild-caught parents. While the animal welfare concerns surrounding trade in wild-caught reptiles whether legal or illegal is obvious to most, few people are aware of the cruelty inherent in captive breeding of reptiles for the pet trade.

Reptile breeding facilities typically house and stack reptiles in small to mid-sized barren aquariums or clear plastic containers. One reptile farm’s website boasts that it houses reptiles in plastic containers that range in size between 12.5x6.75x6.75 inches to 16x10.75x6.5 inches. While such housing may be standard in the reptile industry it is hardly capable of accommodating and/or facilitating natural reptile behavior. To propagate a species only to relinquish it to an environment in such stark contrast to the habitat to which it is adapted is not humane.

Aside from the conservation and animal welfare concerns associated with the issue, there are also significant human health and safety issues to consider.

An estimated 90 percent of all reptiles carry and shed salmonella. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 93,000 salmonella cases caused by exposure to reptiles are reported each year in the United States. In fact, salmonella associated with pet reptile ownership has been described as one of the most important public health diseases affecting more people and animals than any other single disease.

In addition, like most captive wild animals, captive reptiles, especially large snakes, are unpredictable. The most common injury caused by constricting snakes such as boas and pythons are by way of biting, squeezing, asphyxiation, and transmission of salmonella.

Clearly, wild animals belong in their natural habitats, not in our homes. This is an important message that should be taught to children. However, this is a message that is inherently contradicted by bringing these animals into a classroom.

I apologize for this lengthy note, and again, I appreciate the intent behind the activity but I hope that you will re-consider doing so in the future.

Blogging off,

Monica

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