A Natural World

Natural products have infiltrated every pet care category, including small animal, herptile, bird and fish.



By Edward C. Taylor

Environmentally friendly aquatics might seem like an oxymoron to some veterans in the pet trade. When people first started to keep fish in aquariums, there was virtually no external power source required (or available) to maintain the animals. There were no filters, aerators, heaters or artificial lights. Gradually, as technology became more sophisticated, a multiplicity of devices were developed that enhanced the fish-keeping experience. Today, this has evolved into the possibility of actually maintaining and growing corals in captivity. We have come a long way.

Truthfully, the livestock end of the aquatics trade has always taken a “green” approach to the business. From day one, fish farmers and aquarium hobbyists have been dedicated to breeding fish in captivity, rather than collecting them from the wild. Less collecting in the wild means there is less environmental impact in nature. Of course, wild-caught specimens will always be a part of the trade because new items generate enthusiasm and keep old customers coming back for more.

The Marine Hobby

In the marine hobby, there has been nothing short of a revolution in cultured reproduction of both fish and invertebrates. The sedative species were obviously the first to be bred in captivity. Clownfish, gobies and blennies hang out on the substrate and guard nests of eggs that can easily be hatched in tanks or vats. Once it was figured out how to raise the fry, the rest was easy. Today, other similar species have been added to the list, including dottybacks, cardinals and many damsels. Even pelagic spawners, such as angels, tangs, wrasses, rabbitfish and triggerfish can be raised from eggs collected in the plankton.

By far, the most exciting development in the aquatics trade is the captive propagation of hard, stony or reef-building corals. This is “green” to the max, since the impact on nature is extremely limited. Let’s say that a permit is given to a company to collect no more than a few pieces of rare coral from a tiny, isolated location, such as Lord Howe Island. If handled properly, that’s all that is needed to generate hundreds and eventually thousands of coral fragments, or “frags,” that can be sold to hobbyists. It’s even easier with soft corals or coral-like animals. These can literally be cut apart with a razor blade or scalpel. Once they are glued to rocks, their survivability is excellent.

The best thing that the reef hobby has accomplished is to illustrate the diversity of life on the coral reef while bringing it into the home. So there is maximum impact with minimum habitat degradation. More and more people are personally able to maintain and appreciate animals from a coral reef biotope. This creates new environmentally savvy consumers who will enthusiastically support international efforts to protect coral reefs around the world.

On the freshwater front, as a former commercial fish breeder, I am very impressed by the variety of species being spawned and raised in captivity. These include many fish that could be over-collected in the wild due to their popularity. Some of these items are leopard Ctenopoma, black ghosts, clown loaches, Monodactylus sebae, tiretrack, fire eels and several Synodontis catfish species. This is positive for both the trade and the consumer since it guarantees a steady supply of well-known species at reduced prices.

The great thing about maintaining exotic animals is that it gives people a better understanding of nature. It’s what I call the “zoo effect.” Some people believe that zoos are a bad idea, but I believe that if you don’t expose people to nature in a real way (not through movies, TV or the Internet), they will no longer care. When humans become unattached from nature, they lose their connections to the real world. Keeping exotics strengthens that bond in a way no other activity ever can.


By Robyn Bright

Long before the green movement started to hit the pet industry hard, bird products were way ahead of the game, as they had to be extremely safe. The reason for this is that birds have very sensitive respiratory systems but are also very curious and will check out everything around them by grabbing it in their bill and using their tongue to touch it. This makes parrots very susceptible to getting sick from any cleaners used around them, and also why parrot owners must be very careful about what goes into their pet’s cage.

Any type of aerosol sprays, including scents and cleaners, should never be used around any birds, even if they are an all-natural product. The lungs of a bird never have any residual air, and so they react quickly to a point of becoming ill or even dying if exposed to certain sprays or fumes. Cleaning the cage was often best done with the bird in another room, even if the cleaner is all-natural and made for cleaning birdcages.

Bird owners wanted to be able to spot clean their pet’s cage, and so non-aerosol cleaners with natural enzymes were developed. The best thing about these cleaners is that they are “green,” in the sense that they are biodegradable, a huge selling point in being environmentally friendly. Although there are websites that instruct bird owners on what they can mix up at home to use as a natural cleaner, these homemade solutions will never clean as well as those products with natural enzymes that help break down bird feces.

Sanitizing a birdcage was another issue, as there are a number of very infectious viral and bacterial infections that birds can succumb to. Products that are great at sanitizing, such as bleach or ammonia, cannot be used around birds as the fumes from these chemicals are very toxic. Products have been available for a long time that specifically kill any pathogens on a cage, and more of these sanitizers are now made with all natural products. They are still very effective, but are much safer to use at home and in the environment.

Most of the all-natural cleaners for birdcages can also be used for products in the cage that are made of non-porous surfaces like glass, plastic and metal. When using any cleaner, however, all items must be rinsed well with plain water before they are put back into the cage. Porous items, such as rope toys and wood perches, may be cleaned lightly, but it is best just to place them in locations where they will not get pooped on and to replace them every six months or so to keep the bird healthy.

Bird Diets
Besides cleaners, bird diets have also gone through a green revolution over the years. Once it was realized that a mainly seed diet is not good for most pet birds, pellets were developed; and soon these were made with only natural products. Preservative- and dye-free products have become an important part of the evolution of bird food, and some companies use organic products to make the diets even safer. Even birds that eat seeds as their main diet are now being offered organic seed mixes in which no pesticides are used.

The green movement has definitely been a good thing for all pets and will certainly help them live longer, healthier lives. Birds needed to have safe products used around them from early on because of their unique respiratory system and behavior, but the newer and even “greener” developments in these cleaning products, and even more importantly in bird diets, is only going to improve the lives of pet birds, their owners and the environment.


By Debbie Ducommun

In the small animal category, the trend toward more environmentally friendly products has mostly been seen in bedding products, and to a lesser extent, in food. Small animal beddings made from recycled, reclaimed or repurposed materials continue to grow in popularity.

The main category of these “greener” products is soft paper bedding. While paper is not usually thought of as an ecologically sound product, these paper bedding products use a material that used to be disposed of in landfills. The production of paper, including paper towels and toilet paper, requires cellulose fibers long enough to interlock. Fibers too short to do so must be screened out and discarded. So, small animal paper bedding products help the environment in two ways: first by reducing the amount of material taken to landfills, and second, by reducing the number of trees made into chips or shavings to be used as small animal bedding, allowing the trees to be used for other purposes.

There are also small animal litters composed of pellets made from recycled newspaper, another material that used to be discarded in landfills. Although it seems the media world is moving away from printed news and toward digital formats, there will likely still be discarded newspapers for many years to come, making recycled newspaper pellet products a popular choice for environmentally conscious consumers.

Other bedding products good for the environment include pellets made out of agricultural by-products, such as wheat straw, which would otherwise be burned, adding to air pollution as well as global warming. In the recent past there was a wide selection of products in this category, but currently the market seems to have shaken out most of them, with just a few brands remaining. That seems unfortunate, because bedding pellets seem to be a good way to use these by-products. In addition, pellets made from wheat straw and other similar materials have natural odor-control properties. However, while paper fibers do not have any natural odor-control factors of their own, an additional substance which does, such as baking soda, can be incorporated into the product during the manufacturing process.

Another reason why alternative beddings are growing in popularity with small animal owners is that these products can be composted. Small amounts can even be flushed down the toilet, where they will eventually be made into compost.

There has been a similar, but smaller, trend toward “green” products in the small pet food department. Some manufacturers seem more interested in producing diets that better match the animal’s natural food in the wild. For instance, hay that includes herbs and other plants is now available for herbivorous small mammals.

There are also organic brands of foods for some small pets, including rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters and gerbils. While these foods still comprise a very small section of the market as of yet, their very existence means the demand for this type of product is growing. Such products are likely seen by pet owners as both healthier for their pets and better for the environment.


By Owen Maerks

If any sector of the pet industry has lacked impact from the green movement, it would be herptiles. Why? Because the segment has always been green. Very little in the herp field is processed–our focus has always been to bring the natural world into the home.
As our industry grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s, however, manufacturers did attempt to “modernize” us with prefab plastic cages, snake “sausage” food and floor mat-style precut substrates. While there is still a small contingent of adherents to these products, most hobbyists still prefer wood and glass cages, fresh and real food items and natural, or at least recycled, beddings.

So, how has the eco-friendly consciousness hit the reptile business? I would say it has been a boon for us. Of course, there are radicals afoot who want to shut down pet sales entirely (we just recently avoided such legislation in San Francisco), but most environmentally friendly people will quickly understand that if a store’s focus is on captive-produced animals and they are kept humanely, the store is bringing a positive message into people’s lives. I like to point out to folks that there isn’t an environmental scientist, zoologist or zookeeper alive who didn’t start out as a child by keeping wildlife in captivity. This is one of the most direct methods for developing a love of the natural world and personalizing our relationship with wildlife.

For full-line stores, the focus in a successful herp department might well be on marketing existing products rather than switching to new ones. Why not call feeder rats and crickets a “renewable resource?” Aren’t most of the wood shavings and soil beddings we sell “all-natural?” Personally, I am very fond of beddings made entirely of recycled newspaper, but I often forget to promote them from that angle. I am always amused when I walk through a grocery store and see foods loaded with salt and refined sugar and thus wretchedly unhealthy proclaim in big bold letters that they are “Fat Free!” Horribly misleading, but you know that stuff works or they wouldn’t do it. In our field, we don’t have to be at all deceptive when we make similar claims about the products we sell. 

Here’s an exercise that will be instructive to retailers and, if it goes well, will be revealing to customers as well. Take a pack of post-its or stickers and walk through the herp section marking every cage of captive-produced animals. If you end up marking less than half, you probably should reevaluate the inventory and the resources for livestock. The more captive-produced pets a retailer produces, the better the store’s profile will look to the community.

Once you have those numbers up to a level that looks good, start prominently labeling the cages “Captive Produced.” For many, this will be an impressive and positive pronouncement. For the less eco-conscious, it might get them to ask why that would be important. Aside from the obvious ecological advantage, point out that captive production tends to produce better adjusted, prettier and healthier animals. I also point out that, should we be able to reverse current trends in habitat destruction, we would then have a captive “genetic bank” for repopulating restored habitats.

I like to think that those of us in the ever-expanding herptile field are promoting the development of a future generation that will relate to the natural environment in a more personal and conscientious way as a result of our work. We’ve spent the last few hundred years separating man from the natural world, and now we have a way to bring our relationship with nature back into focus. Vive the home terrarium!

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