Controversial research into pet reptile death rates in the home has been criticised as misleading by some of the world’s top experts in reptile science. The study estimated that 3.6% of pet reptiles die within their first year in the home. Reptile experts, however, say that distorted conclusions may have been a consequence of the flawed methodology underpinning the study.
A major criticism of the survey-based study was its reliance on ‘honest’ declarations from attendees at two events known to be associated with illegal wild animal dealing. The reptile markets at Doncaster and Kempton Park Racecourses were known to attract a large number of hardcore exotic animal keepers and dealers, who are not representative of the ordinary pet-keeping public. The surveyors then applied the sample of answers from 265 market attendees to the population of pet reptiles currently kept in UK homes (independently estimated to be 1.1 million animals).
Those interviewed for the study were asked conundrum-like questions such as: “Of the X (number of reptiles) that you acquired over the last five years, how many died within the first 12 months?” – requiring not only some understanding, but also perfect recall and complete honesty to answer. For animal keepers and dealers who may have lost hundreds of animals, truthful responses could be embarrassing or even perceived as involving risk of prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Techniques used by the surveyors for asking sensitive questions and ensuring confidentiality may not have overcome these challenges. To exacerbate matters, the researchers involved exotic pet market organisers beforehand to promote the study. This stimulated an online discussion amongst animal keepers and dealers around the importance of the study conveying the message that pet reptile mortality is low - so potentially skewing the results even further.
Says Elaine Toland, BSc(Hons) MRSB FRSPH biologist and Director of the Animal Protection Agency:
“We greatly welcome good quality research into exotic pet mortality, but sadly we feel that the methodology was fundamentally flawed at the outset, and that the study is unhelpful to reptile welfare and conservation efforts.”
Says Phillip C Arena, BSc(Hons) PhD a leading academic in reptile biology:
“I think it is unfortunate that this investigation was published because the methodology is questionable and conclusions are based on dubious assumptions and determination of data. In my view, the study contributes nothing to the field of reptile conservation and welfare.”
Says Clifford Warwick, PGDipMedSci CBiol CSci EurProBiol FOCAE FRSB one of the world’s most senior research scientists in reptile biology:
“In my view, this study typifies the adage ‘ask a silly question, get a silly answer’. I suspect that the main subscribers to the study’s conclusions will be those with subjective trade and hobby propagandist agendas.”
A recent and more wide-ranging study found that at least 75% of pet reptiles die in the home in their first year. Last year, another detailed scientific study found that 70% of exotic pets die at wholesalers within just six weeks.