Animal Rights… and Us

Ukraine. Khmelnytsky region. May 2018. Man holds a gray lizard on his hand and shows it to children


My store has been located in the city of Berkeley, Calif.—arguably Ground Zero for the animal-rights movement in the U.S.—since 1989. We moved there as our facility in neighboring Oakland was devastated by the Loma Prieta earthquake of that year. To everyone’s surprise, we have enjoyed a 30 year run without a single complaint or confrontation. I have always chalked that up to the fact that we aspire to a zoo-like level of professional care, and that our philosophy centers on the idea that we have failed at our work if anyone leaves our shop without adequate knowledge of how to care for the animals that they purchase from us.


But I suppose it was inevitable that this couldn’t last forever. This year, we have encountered a person who has regularly filed complaints with our local animal welfare office and our state Fish and Wildlife Department. She has even tried to introduce legislation on a city level that would effectively put us out of business by miring us in useless and unnecessary paperwork. Although her complaints have been found to be largely without merit and her legislation has been shot down by the Animal Welfare Commission, that has not seemed to deter her.


Just the other day, I took a phone call from a gentleman who, having reviewed our website, wanted to understand why I thought it was morally acceptable to cage animals and profit from their sales. I spent 15 minutes on the phone with him; I tried to be firm but polite in our conversation, and I tried to answer his pointed criticism as well as I could. Every time I would explain an aspect of what we do, he would counter with another question, until he was down to some essentially "what if?" scenarios that were increasingly outlandish. I finally had to tell him that while we would probably never change each other’s minds, I both appreciated his concerns and his manners in the conversation, and I ended the call.


Finding Common Ground

We have been lucky (so far) to have had so little controversy, but I know of other stores that have not. So let’s talk about what we do, why we do it and how we can cope and perhaps even find common ground with those who hold radical positions regarding keeping live animals. Obviously, if a person is proceeding from the point of view that keeping any animal in captivity is a moral sin, it will be pretty hard to dissuade them. But the first thing I might do is to explore how far this position extends. Is it OK to keep ANY animal? How about domesticated animals?


Would it be alright to keep farm animals, if, for arguments’ sake, they are not intended to be consumed? How about dogs and cats? Rats, hamsters and mice?


If there are exceptions, the next argument will probably run that it isn’t right to keep wild animals. But remember, at some point there were no domesticated animals. All domesticated animals started out as wild animals. Domestication was a long and slow process taking dozens, if not hundreds, of years. The most recent "domestic" animal is probably the hamster, which was saved from the brink of extinction a mere 80 years ago.


But, since the herpetological section of your store consists of nothing but non-domestic animals, let’s move on. At this point, the importation of wild-caught animals is an incredibly minor part of what we do. We have been emphasizing captive breeding for nearly half a century now, and we sell almost exclusively creatures that have never seen a day out in the wild.


This has dual benefits: captive-produced animals tend to be healthier, prettier and more consistent, and, more importantly, there is zero impact on wild populations. The pet industry has often been blamed for threatening wild populations, and to some extent that is valid. But that is changing, and captive propagation, as with the hamster, has been the salvation of some reptile species, from the crested gecko to the American alligator.


(At this point in my previously mentioned conversation, the gentleman asked me if I had done anything toward repopulating captive-produced animals into the wild. Of course not, I said. That would be illegal. It would also be a genetic nightmare for the wild populations that no amount of science could ever repair, and should rightfully be the purview of professional scientists).


The animals in my care get:

• A cage that is neither too small nor so large as to intimidate the animal (many of these creatures do not favor a lot of space).

• A consistent and well balanced diet, the likes of which they would never be guaranteed in the wild.

• Proper heating, lighting and cover consistent with their needs.

• Protection from predators and parasites.

Here is what they don’t get:

• The dignity and freedom of being wild.


Dignity and freedom are human constructs, and while animals with higher brain functions might not be happy being caged, this is not the case with the animals we sell. I vividly remember trips to the zoo when I was a boy; even at six years old, I was both fascinated and horrified by a lone magnificent lion, pacing relentlessly and neurotically back and forth across a small concrete-and-metal-bar cage, alone and desperate. I knew that was wrong.


It was wrong because it separated an inherently social animal from its pride; it was wrong because the cage didn’t give it a hint of what it had evolved to live in. But I don’t think there is a zoo operating in the U.S. today that would do this; they have corrected their ways.


Our animals are not lions; for the most part they do not have the social brain of a mammal. And we do not keep them in inappropriate enclosures. Their cages give them what they need to be comfortable and happy. They don’t spend a moment contemplating their lack of dignity or freedom. If you think otherwise, you are projecting your own emotions onto them.


But, someone might ask, look at that monitor clawing at the glass; surely it is trying to get out! Every once in a while when I get that question, I open the cage. Almost inevitably, the monitor pokes its head out, surveys the store and either sits contented or languorously strolls back into the cage. It is not freedom they’re after; they are merely trying to solve the mystery of glass—nothing in the millions of years of their evolution has prepared them for THAT!


I have spent a long time doing this work, and that time has afforded me the opportunity to talk to a LOT of people in the field. Not just shopkeepers; I have talked with naturalists, research scientists, educators, zookeepers and explorers. You know what unifies all of us? To a person, every one of us started out as kid catching and keeping wild animals. It is the act of bringing nature into our homes, as children, that engenders an empathy with wildlife and a love of science and nature. Every. Single. One of us. What we, as pet store owners, provide is a pathway that is respectful and good to the animals, and that sets the path for the next generation to learn and to love the natural world. We have a positive and proper role that is purely on the right side of morality in this issue.


There is plenty in this unjust world for animal rights activists to fight: puppy mills, factory farms, the loosening of environmental law. Activists, we are right there with you. We will lock arms with you in that struggle. We are not the enemy. We are your friends.  PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.