Reptiles Aren’t ‘Pets’: PETA Explains Why

Would you still want a snake, lizard, or turtle if you knew how likely they’d be to die within a year? It’s estimated that up to 75% of “pet” reptiles die within the first year in a person’s home. Reptiles are sensitive animals who require specialized care, yet they’re sold like inanimate merchandise to people who often buy them on impulse, with little to no knowledge of their proper care and special needs for space, heat, humidity, lighting, live prey, and more.

struggling "pet" reptile at petsmart supplier mill

Bearded dragons at a massive PetSmart supplier in Ohio were given only shriveled-up leafy green vegetables as a source of “water,” a PETA undercover investigation revealed.

Numerous studies show that, like all other animals, reptiles can experience anxiety, stress, distress, excitement, fear, frustration, pain, and suffering. Snakes are loving and protective mothers who don’t let their young out of their sight for three weeks after they’re born. Lizards have individual personalities, just like cats and dogs: Some are shy, while others are bold. In their natural habitat, many reptiles enjoy swimming, climbing, jumping, burrowing, and exploring their territories, which range from about a square mile to hundreds of square miles in size. Reptiles kept as “pets” for human amusement are denied these essential pleasures, relegated to lives devoid of joy or meaning.

Exotic Animals for Sale: The Deadly Truth

These animals’ suffering begins long before they end up on pet store shelves. PETA undercover investigations have revealed rampant abuse and neglect in the businesses that transport and sell “pet” reptiles. At U.S. Global Exotics—one of the nation’s largest sellers of exotic animals to distributors who in turn supply pet stores, including Petco and PetSmart—PETA’s investigator found animals confined to barren cages and bins for months at a time, denied basic necessities like food, water, adequate air and space, suitable habitat, temperature and humidity control, and veterinary treatment. Some animals had died from illness, malnutrition, and lack of care. Sick ones were tossed into chest freezers to endure a slow, horrifying death.

"pet" reptiles left in a freezer to die

The freezer in which countless snakes and other “pet” reptiles were slowly and cruelly frozen to death

Lizards, turtles, and other animals were shipped from all over the world to Reptiles by Mack, another PetSmart supplier, in plastic soda bottles, milk jugs, and wooden crates. Tens of thousands of animals at this facility were kept in crowded plastic bins, without heat or UV lamps, fresh food, or water. Buying any animal from a pet store supports these cruel suppliers and ensures that they will keep exploiting animals.

Is It Cruel to Keep Snakes as ‘Pets’?

In their natural habitat, snakes warm themselves in the sun, cool off by burrowing underground, climb trees, and swim gracefully. They’re sensitive animals who experience anguish and trauma when forced to live in a cramped glass tank. They need to be able to stretch out to their full length. They also need exercise and room to move: One python who had been fitted with a tracking device traveled 22 miles in 75 days.

"pet" reptiles suffer from a lack of opportunity to engage in natural behavior© iStock.com/Natt Boonyatecha
Rather than exploring lush jungles and swamps and experiencing all the sensory pleasures that they’re so keenly attuned to, captive snakes are relegated to small tanks where they’re unable to straighten their bodies, hide from perceived threats, regulate their temperature, seek out a natural and balanced diet, or move more than a few inches in any direction.

Companies like Zoo Med, Zilla, and Exo Terra sell snake enclosures and kits at Petco, PetSmart, and Walmart, which they advertise as “appropriate” or “ideal” but which are not. For instance, some habitats—which are no more than glorified fish tanks—are so small that snakes can’t stretch out fully, even though reptile experts emphasize that being able to straighten out completely is essential to their health and well-being and that those who are unable to do so are susceptible to stress, injury, and disease.

Many people purchase snakes only to realize that they can’t meet these animals’ extensive and expensive needs. As a result, many snakes are dumped each year or escape as a result of improper care. Others are abused and killed: In Florida, a 6-foot boa constrictor died after being found in a garbage bin with a crushed skull. Florida authorities also organize annual python-killing competitions and invite inexperienced hunters to kill the snakes using bolt guns, firearms, or decapitation, which can cause a prolonged, agonizing death.

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What’s Wrong With Keeping a ‘Pet’ Lizard?

Lizards have complex personalities and specific physical and social needs. Without proper care, many suffer from serious and painful health problems, including metabolic bone disease from calcium deficiency, mouth rot, respiratory disease, abscesses, and ulcers. These sensitive animals often show their distress and longing to be free by rubbing their noses against the glass windows of enclosures.

dead reptiles petsmart supplier mill

While at a reptile mill that breeds and sells “pet” reptiles to PetSmart, a PETA investigator documented the deaths of more than 675 animals, including these lizards.

People often purchase iguanas when they’re small, without realizing that they can grow to be 6 feet long and live for 20 years and that caring for them can cost hundreds of dollars a year. As with pythons, many people abandon these animals when their novelty wears off and the reality of caring for them sets in. Iguana populations in South Florida have surged since the 1960s, when they were introduced as exotic pets. Authorities have responded by trying to kill them off: The city of Miami Beach, for example, hired a hunting service to kill iguanas who were just trying to survive.

It’s Shell on Earth for ‘Pet’ Turtles

In the U.S., most native species of turtles sold in pet stores have been snatched from their homes and families in nature. When turtles grow larger than expected, they’re often illegally dumped outdoors in areas where they crowd out native species and introduce disease. Red-eared sliders are the turtle species most commonly victimized by the “pet” industry. In their natural habitat, these turtles can wander up to 5.5 miles from water to find suitable habitat, search for a mate, or lay their eggs—but kept as pets, they’re often relegated to cramped, barren bowls or tanks that are wholly inadequate for their needs.

turtles petsmart supplier mill

At Reptiles by Mack, a PetSmart supplier, many species (including these turtles kept in kiddie pools situated on a concrete floor) were denied adequate lighting, a heat source, and other necessities.

They’re unable to enjoy any natural pleasures or follow their instincts, and they usually die young in captivity—often after only about a year, as opposed to living up to 70 years in their natural habitat.

Are ‘Pet’ Alligators Legal? Here’s Why They Shouldn’t Be

Crocodiles and alligators are complex, sensitive animals who should never be kept as “pets.” In their natural homes, mother alligators protect their eggs from predators by staying near them until they hatch. If some eggs are taking too long to hatch, she gently rolls them around in her mouth to help them open. She carries her newly hatched babies around in her mouth and teaches them to swim.

© iStock.com/A_Moment_In_Time
Alligators aren’t “pet” reptiles—they’re complex, sensitive individuals who (like all other animals) deserve to be left in peace.

Captivity simply can’t meet these animals’ needs, and anyone who buys a baby alligator or crocodile is sure to be quickly overwhelmed by the massive size they attain. And although they may have a “tough” appearance, these animals are highly susceptible to stress and can develop painful abnormalities and deformities from living in small enclosures where they’re unable to walk or swim at will.

Common Reptile Diseases Can Be Deadly to Humans

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration warn against keeping “pet” reptiles, because of the high risk of contracting potentially deadly salmonella. Turtles, lizards, and amphibians can carry salmonella bacteria on their skin and shells, and they can be found in the animals’ enclosures. The bacteria can be transmitted just from holding them, cleaning their enclosures in a sink, allowing them to walk around on floors or surfaces, or allowing children to touch them and then later touch their own mouths.

gecko and mealworms

CDC figures indicate that in just one year, more than 200 people were infected with salmonella and 41% of them were younger than 5 years old. Salmonella infection leads to diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and headache and can be deadly to children, the elderly, and people with medical conditions.

PETA’s investigations into alligator- and crocodile-breeding facilities have shown that these animals are kept in stressful and unhygienic conditions, and the coronavirus pandemic has taught us that stressed animals kept in captivity are more likely to carry diseases.

Whether reptiles are bred as pets, for their flesh, or for their skin, it’s clear that the filthy, crowded conditions in which they’re confined are breeding grounds for disease.

Planning to Buy a ‘Pet’ Reptile? Don’t Do It

Bringing a reptile into your family is a huge commitment of time, space, and resources. These animals have extremely complex needs that can only be met by letting them stay in their natural habitat. Please, never purchase reptiles from breeders. Doing so supports industries that are rife with cruelty, where sentient beings are snatched from their unique ecosystems or bred in miserable warehouses and treated as disposable products. Instead of relegating one of these sensitive animals to a life of deprivation and suffering, consider adopting another kind of animal—such as a dog, cat, or rabbit—who can thrive when properly cared for in a human home environment.

You Can Do More for Reptiles

Help “pet” reptiles victimized by the exotic-animal trade:

Urge PetSmart to Stop Selling Reptiles and Other Live Animals

If you feel that you were misled into purchasing a reptile habitat that doesn’t support the animal’s most basic needs, like stretching out, climbing, and burrowing, please let us know: Contact PETA about your experience buying a reptile habitat.

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind