For longer than I have been on this planet people have been keeping reptiles as pets. The original reptile keepers were mostly academics, scientists fascinated by their enigmatic subjects of study. As reptiles began to enter into the pet world they were most often the choice of young boys and other people who were more …colorful …than mainstream society typically allows. The keeping of reptiles was often tolerated by the parents of young children who wanted to humor their whims and foster a love of science and nature. Thirty years ago there wasn’t a large captive bred trade in reptiles, at least not compared to what it is today. It wasn’t unusual for specimens to be either imported or, in the case of native species, self-caught. What better way to get a pet snake than to go out and catch one yourself? Those young herpers are now grown and they brought their once unusual choice in pet along with them. They grew up to enter into every facet of society across all levels of industry and income. Their choice to own a reptile was likely viewed as an oddity by many of their friends, family and co-workers. In fact, it was probably not unusual for them to simply not mention they had a reptile as a pet. Because reptiles were not mainstream and were viewed as a quirky choice in pet it was often easier to simply leave it out of conversations. Fifteen years ago I can say for sure the none of my professional co-workers knew that I kept snakes (I worked for a bank in those days). My banking buddies and I exchanged dog and cat stories often but snakes never came up during discussions about pets. On the few occasions that snakes did come up in conversation I often got the typical reaction that comes from the uninformed: disgust, fear and general discomfort at the idea of creepy crawlies slithering around my house.
Another large group of people who have long kept reptiles frequently fit one of several stereotypes; rebellious, disenfranchised with mainstream America, unwilling and unable to conform to “The Man’s” definition of life and success. They are tattooed, gruff and intimidating looking folks with whom you avoid making eye contact. They know that bongs, like cars, have carburators and they wear black leather jackets, and ride big and loud motorcycles. Their homes smell of patchouli and you will likely hear Pantera or some other ear-pounding music blaring loudly from the speakers of their smoke-filled rooms. They like the wide berth their image affords them. And a snake fits perfectly into their image. The uneducated think snakes are dangerous and the rebel loves the added air of non-conformity that a snake brings them. A seemingly perfect match, huh?
Stereotypes don’t become stereotypes without having some basis in truth. But they are always unfair to apply to everyone of a particular group. But using stereotypes is a convenient way to absolve yourself of the responsibility of having to learn about individuals who are different from you. And one of the many reasons that snakes have long been unacceptable to the average person is their negative stereotype associations. The non-conformist proudly sports their snake as a symbol of their non-compliance with society’s rules while the clean-cut white collar professional who sits smack in the middle of mainstream America keeps their pet reptile an accidental secret. The general notion is that “normal” people don’t keep snakes as pets. It’s only the outskirts of society that want them. Every single reptile breeder knows this to be completely false. The diversity of our customers is all the evidence we need.
It happens every day that I am behind someone in traffic who has a sticker on their rear window that breaks down all the members in their family. There is an avatar for each family member including the pets. I regularly see dog and cat avatars but to date have never seen a snake (or other reptile) sitting next to the other family members. And why not? I know it’s not because people aren’t keeping reptiles. Reptiles are kept as pets by multiple millions of Americans. Is it because reptile owners don’t view their ectothermic friends as members of the family? I doubt it. Is it because putting stickers on the back of your car advertising the size, age and gender of all of your family members is stupid? Quite possibly. Or is it a subtle symbol of middle America’s unwillingness to proudly profess that reptiles are an important part of their lives? I think it may very well be. The long-terms success of reptiles being kept as pets means we can’t continue to do this. It’s time to bask.
Reptiles are no longer pets on the fringe of the world of companion animals. They are truly mainstream. Of course they are not as prevalent as dogs and cats but they are a rapidly growing part of the pet trade. It is way past time for reptile owners to start proudly advertising their reptilian family members. I am not advocating that you inflict your choice of pet on your neighbors. Never take your snakes out in public unless it is safe and appropriate to do so. I’m advocating being proud of being a reptile owner and educating people who are not in the know. I do not support perpetuating fear by forcing people uncomfortable with reptiles to have to be around them. Know the laws of the community in which you reside and always be in compliance. The more of us that come out into the open and responsibly share our passion with the misinformed masses they more reptiles will be accepted as pets, even by people who choose to not keep one of their own.
The fight for the rights of reptile owners has to be fought on many fronts. Organizations like NatPet (the National Pet Association), USARK and PIJAC are actively addressing the current special interest group (HSUS, Nature Conservancy, etc.) and political opposition to reptile ownership but it is just as important for the millions of reptile owners out there to make themselves known. Our friends, neighbors and politicians need to become much more aware of the fact that the stereotypes surrounding reptile ownership are false and that we are a numerous and diverse group of people.