A statement by Clifford Warwick, CBiol FIBiol MIBI, Consultant Biologist, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the request of Animal Aid I examined the documentary proposal titled: 'World of Reptiles, Project Overview/Educational Programme' and I was asked to comment on the validity or otherwise of the content of this document. It is important to note that this opinion/commentary has been prepared subject to restrictive limitations of time imposed by the Commercial Manager, Millennium Coastal Park. Accordingly, this report should be regarded as a highly abbreviated submission. Section titles in CAPITALS are used in direct reference to corresponding sections in the documentary material to be discussed.
The stated aims are broadly commendable, although the first statement is somewhat unclear and confused. The second statement is by no means adequately supported by the provisions in general in the documents. This will become evident later in this report.
The 'Project Leader', Mr. Peter Kriel, indicated in the proposal is referred to as 'a highly experienced Conservationist (and 'Biologist') from South Africa'. Clearly, scientific and professional background, ethics, responsibility, motives, integrity and conduct, among other things, are key considerations in whether an individual is suitably qualified to oversee all aspects of public health and safety, animal husbandry and well-being, technical standing, and a great diversity of factors fundamental to major projects. While the following observations on Mr. Kriel cannot be considered definitive, I feel that they may be significant. Having long worked as a professional biologist, specialising in reptile biology, welfare and conservation in many countries, I am familiar with most leading authorities in these fields. However, I had not heard of Mr. Kriel in any capacity and asked colleagues to offer any comments on knowledge of his background and any scientific achievements. Unfortunately, none of the 18 close and very active scientists and conservationists whom I called on had any knowledge of Mr. Kriel whatsoever, and this included one senior South African academic and conservationist and one South African veterinarian, both of whom are from geographical areas relatively local to Mr. Kriel's. Colleagues mounted a literature search for any published papers and were unsuccessful, although current time constraints may have been partly responsible for this deficit. Colleagues also ran an extensive internet search for background and published work by Mr. Kriel to no avail, despite using various search methods and name/initial variants. There were some references to people named 'Kriel' (with female first names) and related to reptile issues, and these reports did not offer positive references. Lastly, while no one knew of Mr Kriel, South Africa-based experts I consulted were aware of several snake parks in the geographical area where Mr Kriel had his own interests. None of these establishments received, from my colleagues, a positive review with respect to public health and safety, animal husbandry and welfare, or educational and conservation policies.
The proposed project is certainly a major undertaking that would require highly skilled scientists to manage it even at a basic level. Well-established zoos within Europe, North America and elsewhere have attempted and failed to achieve what Mr. Kriel claims as feasible. Animal health and well-being in the best of zoos is often actually very poor, with captivity-stress observed in many cases, and mortalities from stress-related degenerative diseases being common. Frequent claims by zoos that they are centres of conservation are enormously overstated, and educational efforts are known to be generally poor and often even misleading. This poor success in 'well-run' zoos that already possess some highly qualified biologists should be considered a serious cautionary situation for those contemplating formal support of a new venture such as World of Reptiles.
The issues involved with maintaining reptiles in captivity under artificial conditions are so diverse and complex that it is not possible to offer even a basic sketch of why a new undertaking, that will effectively exacerbate the many severe problems associated with captive wildlife, should be contraindicated. However, scientific work is steadily revealing that reptiles are highly sensitive to captivity and that even elaborate zoo facilities continue to impose unacceptable levels of stress on these animals. As someone with a history of more than 20 years of scientific research in reptilian behavioural problems and stress-related disorders, I can attest to the abundance of largely insurmountable stressors in artificial surroundings, and these are directly and indirectly causally-related to suffering, disease, and mortality.
The claims that animals would be purchased from 'recognised institutions' and will be 'captive-bred' may intentionally be honourable but in practice are without substance. There are no reptile dealerships that verifiably meet the requirements set by Mr. Kriel. Such dealers are regarded by scientific authorities, as well as the R.S.P.C.A., as being highly destructive to animals, the environment and the public. Furthermore, captive-bred reptiles also endure highly stressful lives during both intensive production and later husbandry. Given the above, it is rather ironic that Mr. Kriel has stated elsewhere (in a telephone conversation with an Animal Aid supporter) that he is opposed to the pet reptile trade.
The claim that reptiles may be effectively 'repatriated' (my term) to their original conservation areas is naïve, overly optimistic and untenable. Zoo-originated relocation projects are negligibly represented and almost always highly dubious scientifically. This situation arises for a number of reasons, including that ecologically competent 'natural' sites are almost impossible to locate and verify, and that animals are routinely carriers of potentially severe pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms that, despite claims, cannot be clinically rendered 'safe' or potentially disease free.
The stated policy regarding handling is a reasonable one. Reptiles do not usually benefit from handling, and indeed, handling can be a significant stressor. The educational foundation in the proposal is, however, not a practical strategy. Educational programmes using zoo-type settings are notoriously ineffectual, especially where reptiles are concerned. Zoo-based surveys have confirmed frequent suspicions and have demonstrated that despite substantial investment of time and resources, and careful education schemes, the public spend only a few seconds at each reptile exhibit, and do not assimilate the formal presentations either. The public simply do not take the time to absorb important cues, and what they do learn is often misleading or inaccurate. Should World of Reptiles, for instance, during a presentation make statements to a 'captive audience' that were in line with numerous claims in their proposal, they would most certainly themselves be responsible for serious misinformation.
Claims regarding construction, safety, acceptability etc. are all essentially unsubstantiated, and I doubt, based on apparent evidence concerning preparation, whether the proposer has considered the range and extent of the considerations necessary to fulfil even the fundamentals of the issues.
As mentioned above, the 'educational' component is highly dubious, and to emphasise again, this is not only because gaining the 'high standard' of information cited would be more difficult that the proposer appears to have gauged, but also because educational efforts are known to be thwarted by public apathy. Many would also argue that the intentional placement of reptiles in captivity is in itself educationally counter-productive: subjecting animals to inevitable unnecessary distress in the facility; the unfortunate associated encouragement of animal dealerships; and the overall impression being given that captive wildlife is 'acceptable'. None of these factors would be desirable.
The proposal restates the perceived value of the facility to species conservation. While such claims are often genuinely ventured, and believed, by enthusiasts these claims are greatly over-exaggerated at best and in the vast majority of cases totally without foundation. My review of the proposal and related documents convinces me that no verifiable benefits to species conservation exist in the proposed venture. Indeed, negative impacts on species conservation are more likely in that the stated aim of acquiring display reptiles from dealerships would undoubtedly impact deleteriously on wildlife due to the complex problematical issues of wildlife trafficking that are endemic to the pet dealer industry.
Comparisons are made between perceived conservation benefits of World of Reptiles and apparent resurrection of crocodilian populations in Africa and Australia, which the proposer has somewhat attributed to crocodilian farming. This issue is not as straight-forward as the claim suggests, and indeed, the crocodilian products industry cannot justifiably absorb overriding credit for apparent recoveries. In addition, the actual links between visitors to a captive animal centre in Wales and the making of a real difference to wildlife in southern Africa are extremely tenuous at best.
Of great additional importance is the issue of zoonoses (diseases contracted by humans from animals). Reptiles are established as a major source of disease in humans and further evidence is fast emerging of the potential threats to public health and safety associated with reptile-occupied environments. Many strains of pathogenic organism are routinely harboured in reptiles and these may remain latent for long periods, manifest and become a significant cause of human disease. The fact that direct contact with a reptile is not necessary to acquire harmful infection must be emphasised. In particular, microorganisms such as Salmonella (which are probably found in more than 90% of reptiles) may viably persist on general environmental surfaces for several weeks, in tap water for up to three months, and in faecal material for 30 months. Reptile-related zoonoses are frequently acquired via remote transmission, eg. due to even microscopic reptile debris contaminating the general environment and this being inadvertently picked-up by people who may visit such sites. It will not be possible to guarantee a 'safe' public environment at World of Reptiles.
The very 'nature' of keeping wildlife captive undermines the veracity of a holistic educational strategy regarding reptile welfare and conservation. The most advanced scientific perspectives are steadily constructing the view that reptiles should not be in captivity for reasons directly relevant to World of Reptiles. Thus, were World of Reptiles to conscientiously and responsibly carry through a sound education policy this would effectively negate its existence. Poor levels of biological knowledge seem to be especially endemic to the herpetological field, and this has largely come about because captive reptile centres and private hobbyists perpetuate biologically inferior principles and opinions.
Finally, I receive the impression that the proposer is genuinely keen to promulgate greater public respect for reptiles, and this is clearly a commendable aim. However, I am quite convinced, based on salient scientific principles, data, personal experience, and evaluation of the proposal, that the World of Reptiles project is not the safe, nor the feasible, nor the right way to progress.
Notes to Editors
- For further information, contact Elaine Toland or Andrew Tyler on 01732 364 546.
- We have an ISDN line for broadcast-quality interviews.
- Also see mini-biography of Clifford Warwick.