20 July 2012

Reptile Miscellany

By Tony Jones

Who killed the Archbishop of Canterbury's pet tortoise? Tony Jones reveals the answer and unearths some fascinating facts and figures from the world of reptile retailing.

The reptile sector comes of age

Reptiles have been the fastest growing sector of the pet industry for the past two decades. According to AMA research, the UK pet trade was valued at £4.7 billion in 2008 with the reptile sector of the pet industry valued at over £130 million by The Reptile and Amphibian Pet Trade Association (REPTA). It employed over 47,000 people and there were over 5,000 pet shops, of which approximately 3,000 sold livestock. Of these an estimated 35% sold reptiles. The number of shops stocking livestock is increased year or year.

Move over Rover

A survey conducted by REPTA in 2008 estimated that over 1.2 million households were home to over seven million pet reptiles. Given the industry growth rate it is widely accepted that Britain now has more pet reptiles than dogs. The survey used the sales of specialist reptile food to determine their estimate figures. Back in 2004 the UK the cricket farms were producing on average one million crickets a week. By 2008 the same farms were producing approximately two million crickets a week. In addition to the doubling of cricket production, the volume of locusts more than quadrupled. It is estimated that over 1,000,000 frozen mice are sold each week for snake food. In addition to the rodents bred for the purpose in the UK and EU, we are currently importing approximately 3.5 tons of frozen rodents from outside the EU each month. Over 1,000 vivariums are sold in pet shops each week.

Reptiles from history

The British have been keeping reptiles for centuries and the earliest records of reptile keeping date back Tower of London menagerie, which was founded back in the thirteenth century. Records show that William Laud, Bishop of London, purchased a Spur-Thighed Tortoise in 1625. Eight years later he became the Archbishop of Canterbury and the tortoise moved with him to Lambeth Palace, where it lived for another 120 years before being accidentally decapitated by a careless gardener. The earliest records of reptile breeding date back to 1828 when a pair of pythons, probably Burmese Pythons, bred and laid eggs in the same collection. At the time the snakes had been in captivity for over two years but sadly we do not know if the eggs hatched or not.

The information age

Pet Marketing Services is the UK's largest distributor of books on companion animals. Their catalogue lists 200 titles on reptiles compared with only 136 on cats and 104 on horses.

The first English language book on how to keep and breed reptiles in captivity was published in 1897. It was written by the Reverend George Bateman and was entitled The Vivarium. The first ever reptile book was published in Germany by Johann Matthaus Bechstein in 1797.

Aquarist and Pondkeeper magazine is still in production today, but back in the 1930's it incorporated the ""Reptilian Review" a magazine for reptile keepers. Included were reptile dealers' pricelists such as the example below.

The Aquarist & Pond Keeper Magazine May/June 1935 incorporating the "Reptilian Review"
(Advertisement for Australian animals for sale)

L Cura & Sons, Warner Street, Mount Pleasant, London, EC1

Stump-Tailed Lizards15/-(£0.75)
Blue Tongue Lizards5/-(£1.25)
Diamond Pythons40/- to 80/-(£2.00 - £4.00)
Lerruers Water Dragons20/-(£1.00)

The second safest pet you can get

There are more than 8,000 species of reptiles on the planet, and they live on every continent except Antarctica (where it is too cold). Most of the world's snakes (nearly two-thirds) are non-venomous. Only about 500 snake species are venomous and less than forty of those are considered harmful to humans - in other words, less than 2 percent.

It is estimated (HASS) that 65,000 people seek hospital treatment for dog attacks each year. Of these a 1,000 will require surgery, 100 will have serious permanent disfigurement and between three and five of these will die as a result of the attack. Over 60% of these are likely to be children. Over the past 100 years there has been only one single death from an attack by a pet reptile. More Americans die each year from bee stings than from snake bites.

Several zoonotic diseases can be transmitted from dogs to man. These include Brucella canis infection, Campylobacter infection, Cryptosporidium infection, Giardia infection, Hookworm, Leptospirosis, Lyme disease, Q Fever, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Rabies, Roundworm, Tapeworm, Toxocara infection and Salmonellosis.

Only one can be transmitted to man from reptiles: Salmonellosis

Back from the brink of extinction

The Crested Gecko was thought to be extinct until 1994 when it was rediscovered after a tropical storm on their native island of New Caledonia. Today it is the fifth most commonly bred lizard in captivity. At one time chameleons were considered impossible to keep in captivity, but today, there are more veiled chameleons in captivity than exist in the wild. Chameleons are the only animals to be able to move and focus their eyes separately; rotating them in different directions and giving them the ability to look in two different directions and focus on completely separate objects simultaneously.

Reptiles rule

The UK governments' advisors on animal welfare believe that some reptiles are easier to keep than many traditional pet species. To quote the Companion Animal Welfare Council's report on non-domesticated pets kept as companions: "it may be easier to keep some non-domesticated species to high welfare standards than some that are domesticated. Thus, meeting all the requirements - space, dietary, social, thermal, and so on - of a small, hardy reptile may be more readily achievable for many people than adequately fulfilling all the needs of some breeds of dog"

Recent RSPCA statistics support this statement. Although the numbers of pet dogs and the number of pet reptiles in the UK are almost identical, the RSPCA rescue or rehome on average 25,000 dogs a year compared with only 1000 reptiles.

The captive breeding revolution

Colubrid snakes (such as corn snakes, rat snakes and milk snakes), leopard geckos, bearded dragons and tortoises represent in excess of 65% of reptiles sold in Britain.

90-95% of reptiles sold are captive bred.

Over 250,000 reptiles and amphibians are bred in the UK each year, and this is increasing annually.

The sex of a turtle is determined by the temperature at which the egg is incubated, with warmer temperatures producing females, cooler temperatures producing males and temperatures in the middle resulting in a mixed clutch. The situation is reversed for crocodiles, with males predominating at higher temperatures. The gender of a snake is determined by chromosomes, as it is in the case of mammals and birds. Some reptile species are known to store sperm and produce young up to six years after a single, successful mating. In some cases, it is possible to have an infertile clutch followed by a fertile clutch without further matings.

Thank you to Chris Newman (REPTA) for providing these industry statistics.

First published: Pet Product Marketing 2012

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