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“Many animals across all classes are increasingly becoming victims of folklore husbandry”

04 February 2019, at 11:10am

"Folklore husbandry” is an emerging term describing the phenomenon of unevidenced, pseudoscientific, convenience-led habit and opinion handed down from one ill-informed animal keeper to the next.

Kevin Arbuckle, coiner of the term, outlined folklore husbandry as: “…methods or supposed ‘best practices’ which become established without proper evaluation, often justified simply because ‘it has always been done that way’ or for otherwise unknown or poorly substantiated reasons”.

It is what behavioural scientist Temple Grandin refers to as “bad practice becoming normal”, and although it’s been around a long time, and probably all vets see the consequences of it, many animals across all classes are increasingly becoming victims of folklore husbandry.

For a start, look at the legendarily and now laughable “false fact” that goldfish possess only a three-second memory, implying that by the time they have swam round their outrageously diminutive bowls it is a new experience for them and therefore not under-stimulating. Science says otherwise – goldfish have demonstrably long-term memory functions.

Still fairly well “known”, but perhaps trailing in popularity these days, is that budgerigars are “domesticated cage birds” and don’t need to fly. Not so; science finds when given real flying space they make very good use of it.

Plenty more like this are out there, but being grounded in reptile biology, my familiarity with the misunderstandings, misrepresentations and male bovine excreta that these creatures in particular have endured at the behest of folklore husbandry is staggering. In fact, recent investigations by Kevin Arbuckle and another reptile biologist, Robert Mendyk, highlight many examples where zoo and pet amphibians and reptiles become hapless victims of folklore husbandry. And it’s easy to see why. Dig into the web and many veterinary textbooks and discover a veritable goldmine of… well… nonsense.

For example: “reptiles are easy-to-keep pets”; “trading and keeping reptiles promotes conservation”; “reptiles live longer in captivity than in the wild”; “some reptiles are domesticated”; “snakes thrive in small enclosures”; “snakes are sedentary”; “snakes are insecure in large environments”; “snakes do not use space”; “snakes do not need to stretch out”; “snakes suffer from agoraphobia”; “snakes are anorexic in larger enclosures”; “snakes do not require UV”; “reptiles feed, grow and reproduce better in small enclosures”; “reptiles are clean pets”; and “reptiles are non-allergenic”.

One could scientifically dismiss each of these falsehoods in turn and at length, but spatial considerations of a textual nature require that a single rejection shall do based on two factors – first there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support any one of those claims, and second, available scientific evidence both for reptiles in the wild and in captivity contradicts each and every false fact outright.

Generally, were the popular claims correct then reptiles would long be extinct because folklore husbandry is not consistent with evolution. The notion that somehow millions of years of evolved reptile and other animal life in the wild is better served by confinement in conditions of archaic concept is, frankly, ridiculous.

Were exotic (basically wild) animals content within their miniscule plastic, wire and glass surroundings, then one could leave open all doors and lids and anticipate their own rejection of the wider or more natural world – try it and see!

Robert Mendyk said “…the expression ‘that’s what we’ve always done’ may be the five most dangerous words in the zoo lexicon, as it promotes stagnancy and complacency by discouraging scrutiny and evaluation of one’s practices”. While Robert focuses on zoos, his messages (which are a must-read for any animal keeper) are even more vital concerning exotic pets, where knowledge and husbandry bases are generally inferior.

But as variously articulated by philosophers, “falsehood moves faster and wider than fact”. Whether relating to false fact or mere mistake, the appeal of using what seem easy practices over complex and extremely demanding methodologies is a winner for the idle-minded.

Efforts by some in the more professional herpetological community are underway to counter folklore, such as Herpetological Review’s “Herpetoculture” section in their publication, and Kevin Arbuckle’s work. Also, the Animal Protection Agency, RSPCA and other welfare organisations now convey the message that “it’s easy to keep an animal if it’s done badly”. However, no matter how simple one’s messaging, correcting a belief system is very difficult and parallels a long lag phase for change.

As Robert Mendyk says: “Breaking long-held keeping traditions and paradigms, and adopting new ideas and approaches can be difficult to accept.”

Consultant Biologist and Medical Scientist

Clifford Warwick, PGDip MedSci, CBiol, CSci, EurProBiol, FOCAE, FRSB, qualified in biology in 1990 and in primary healthcare in 2004. He has been a field investigator of the wildlife trade and has produced around 150 publications in animal biology and human medicine.

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