For millennia, demand for exotic pets has been part of human culture [1
]. A diverse range of wild animals was used for human entertainment and companionship in Ancient Egyptian [2
], Greek, and Roman culture [3
]. Today, trade is booming [4
], and influenced by modern factors such as demand, infrastructure, and accessibility [5
]. For example, widespread demand for reptiles as exotic pets is a relatively recent phenomenon, with this taxonomic group only becoming popular since the 1940s [6
] and intensified (on a commercial scale) in subsequent decades [7
]. Yet, this rise in popularity has now grown to the extent that they are currently thought to represent the second most species-rich vertebrate class, after birds [5
] and fishes [8
] in the international exotic pet trade.
Reptiles, like other taxonomic groups utilised as exotic pets, may be sourced directly from the wild, taken from the wild as juveniles (or in some cases eggs), or bred/born in captivity [5
]. Irrespective of how they are sourced, the exotic pet trade can impact negatively on the welfare of the reptiles involved at all stages from “source” to “sink” (i.e., during collection, transport, and private ownership) [11
]. One study involving self-declared mortalities among reptile breeders and keepers attending hobbyist events suggested a first-year rate of 3.6% [13
], whereas another study involving supply versus resident populations of reptiles in private households over six years suggested a first-year rate of 75% [14
] which highlights how these estimates can vary depending on source data.
Wildlife markets are one of the major acquisition channels for the modern exotic pet trade. They occur in several regions of the world where they take different forms. In North America and Europe, these “exotic pet expositions” typically involve indoor areas, and throughout the year the public may pay entry fees to gain access in many examples [15
]. Proponents, organisers and sellers associated with wildlife markets have claimed that the animals kept and offered for sale at the events are not subject to stressful conditions [15
]. Relatedly, proponents also claim that the temporary nature of the expositions (commonly one-day sales) means that the short-term housing and minimalistic provisions typically associated with these animals is acceptable [15
Another major component of the modern exotic pet trade chain, at least in parts of the world where there is ready access to computers and the Internet, is a vast online culture of exotic pet videos and posts [18
]. More than three billion people access, and are exposed to, content on social media every day (as of 2018, wearesocial.com), and the power of social media to influence public attitudes, consumer behaviour and lifestyle choices, including those relating to exotic pet ownership, is well recognised and references therein [19
]. However, the posting of content involving exotic pets and the conditions in which they are being privately kept by enthusiasts and commercial breeders, also provides a growing unique opportunity to observe and assess the animal husbandry and potential animal welfare impacts of exotic pet ownership.
A poster child of the modern exotic pet trade, the Ball (or Royal) python (Python regius
, family Pythonidae), a species distributed in western and central Africa, is the single most traded live animal legally exported from Africa under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) [21
]. The popularity of this species in the US and EU partly arises from its relatively docile nature, and the misconception that they require little specialised care [22
]. Much of this international trade can be traced back to a number of registered reptile “farms” that are in operation across West Africa, most notably Benin, Togo and Ghana [13
]. However, a significant proportion of the captive-bred reptile industry is based on the development of novel colour/pattern strains (also known as morphs) through artificial breeding selection [25
International global regulations regarding the specific animal husbandry requirements for the private ownership and commercial captive breeding of reptiles, including the Ball python, are currently lacking. However, the welfare of reptiles is considered in some key pieces of national legislation, for example in England and Wales the Animal Welfare Act (2006) (under which all vertebrate species are covered). NGOs such as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) also provide a number of key albeit non-binding recommendations. These include that Ball pythons should be provided with: (1) a vivarium that allows them to fully stretch out (i.e., with an enclosure at least as long as the snake’s total length, and a width and height being equal to at least a third of the snake’s length); (2) multiple shelters within their enclosures that provide them with the opportunity to hide; (3) a water bowl that is large enough to allow them to bathe fully submerged; and (4) appropriate substrate that allows them to maintain hygiene levels, and to express burrowing behaviour [26
], and this guidance is broadly well supported in the objective scientific literature [27
Our research focused on two components of current trade in Ball pythons as exotic pets described above: (1) exotic pet expositions; and (2) videos shared on social media platforms by Ball python breeders/sellers. Specifically, in this study we aimed to assess the housing conditions of Ball pythons at exotic pet expositions across Europe and North America, and those snakes being kept in “rack systems” as shared on the social media platform “YouTube”. We also aimed to quantify the number of vendors who provided husbandry information to potential Ball python consumers, both at exotic pet expositions and online via their public websites or social media platforms. Herein, it is hoped that our study will provide new insights into the animal welfare implications associated with the live trade in one of the most commonly traded reptile species involved in the global exotic pet industry, and that it can inform future management strategies and legislation.
We recognise that wild animal husbandry best practice constitutes an ever-evolving field of research and that guidance on how best to maintain animal welfare standards can differ greatly between sources and between countries in some cases dependent on an entities role in the exotic pet industry. In particular non-scientific “folklore” guidance has been noted as a major source of utilised information that can have unintentional negative impacts on the welfare of captive animals including exotic pets [29
]. It is important to note that it was beyond the scope of our study to compare how guidance on Ball python husbandry has differed over time or between sources. However, in the absence of independent internationally recognised standards, we chose the RSPCA UK guidelines as the basis of our housing assessment criteria because they were developed and recently updated by a long-standing NGO whose stated public aim is “ensuring that every pet is cared for properly and has a good home”, and because, as stated previously, this guidance is broadly well supported in the objective scientific literature.
Our study was necessarily limited (by factors such as time, resources and access) and could not be exhaustive. Specifically, we restricted our welfare assessments to six exotic pet expositions located on two continents and to 113 videos identified via search terms in one language that were posted on one social media platform. Similarly, we restricted our welfare assessment to a particular set of housing related criteria that could be carried out quickly and that did not involve direct handling, physical examinations or behavioural observations. Equally, we recognise that information on Ball python husbandry could be provided via other sources not examined in this study, e.g., verbally or in hobbyist magazines and books. However, in lieu of detailed readily accessible public information, we believe that this study presents preliminary data for over 4800 Ball pythons and represents one of the most comprehensive reviews focused on the animal welfare impacts of current practices in the exotic pet industry that has been carried out to date.
Given the current prevalence of reptiles at exotic pet expositions and in private ownership as exotic pets, more welfare-related research is required to investigate the impacts of this large-scale commercial practice. Our study provides a useful insight into the impacts of this industry on one of the most commonly utilised species (the Ball python) that can help to guide such future research effort. In particular we recommend that future initiatives look to expand on the welfare criteria utilised in this study to also incorporate other housing criteria (e.g., light, temperature, humidity and ventilation), physical examinations and behavioural criteria. Research to further compare welfare conditions at a broader range of expositions and to assess the welfare impacts of non-commercial private owners should be considered. Research focused on the welfare impacts of the artificial selective breeding of morphs is also recommended. Such information could help inform a range of different operational initiatives aimed at reducing negative animal welfare impacts, including improved husbandry and policy change. Arguably this data should be based upon increased understanding of the natural history of this species including its behaviour and biology in the wild.
Research (gathered through interviews and focus group discussions) could aim to understand Ball python breeders/sellers and keepers motivations for acquiring this species and also their perceptions and beliefs around reptile sentience and welfare, two issues of increasing relevance [55
]. It would also be valuable to explore the common health problems experienced by Ball pythons when brought to veterinarians by their owners. This information could be gathered by surveying veterinary clinics. Such information could aid consumer behaviour change programmes, which aim to reduce the demand for exotic pets [56
] and also aid the development of educational materials. In this study we found that 100% of the YouTube sellers/breeders were male, further demographic information could be gathered that could further inform tailored interventions. We suggest that more consistent guidance, adherence to agreed husbandry principles, and more potent operating models that are formally incorporated into relevant legislation would greatly aid existing and future efforts to safeguard animal welfare in this regard.