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Captive Reptile Welfare: Thinking Out of the Box

GUEST BLOG Author: Damien Egan - author, herpetologist, reptile consultant, fine artist & natural history illustrator
Bearded dragon sat on person's hand, Image © Giu Vicente on Unsplash

Captive Reptile Welfare: Thinking Out of the Box

Damien grew up in southern Africa, most of his life has been consumed with reptiles and amphibians, both in situ and their captive husbandry, holding senior positions at facilities including Swadini Reptile Park, the Environment and Protected Areas Authority of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Dubai Aquarium and Al Ain Zoo. His books include ‘Snakes of Arabia. A field Guide to the Snakes of the Arabian Peninsula and its Shores’ and ‘Snakes of the Middle East’. In our latest blog for Reptile Awareness Day, Damien shares with us his thoughts on reptile intelligence and what good environmental enrichment for reptiles encompasses.

When dealing with human physiology, for example, hard science is essential for collecting data, conducting experiments and proving theories. Science is the very essence of our knowledge, the study of just about every physical entity we know of. Human psychology also relies primarily on hard science, but philosophy and ‘soft’ science interpretation are valuable processes generally accepted by the medical world. Of course, human psychologists have the advantage of working with their own species.

When we start talking about an animal’s intelligence or need for stimulation however, the means by which we can calibrate this or accurately assess outcome become hazy and often subjective, and begs delving into the realm of philosophy. As philosophy has a legitimate place in human social affairs, I see no reason not to apply it in the world of non-human biology. This is where educated guesses, intuition and empathy start creeping into discussion. A hardened scientist, as well as a huge community of people (interestingly a large number of reptile keepers), who think they are scientifically minded, might reject this angle on the failure of accurate assessment and almost unquantifiable results.

So how do we validate the benefits of environmental enrichment in reptiles? Apart from physical benefits such as fitness and body conditioning, it is very tricky to get results if the scientific method is not given flexibility for further interpretation. My own stand on this is to take from the literature studies on behaviour, brain anatomy, hormone production, physiology and other anatomical subjects. The parallels that can be drawn between the reptile body plan and that of birds and mammals (including us) are in perfect evolutionary sequence.

Reptile intelligence

David Attenborough said: Reptiles and amphibians are sometimes thought of as primitive, dull and dim-witted. In fact, of course, they can be lethally fast, spectacularly beautiful, surprisingly affectionate and very sophisticated.

Reptiles, like us, possess a basal ganglia, the part of the brain responsible for, among other things, eye coordination and motor control. It is also strongly suggested that this region of the brain is responsible for motivation, mood and emotion. Crocodiles use sound and visual gestures to communicate to each other. Years of research by field scientists have allowed us to interpret many of these to the point where we have a fair, if basic, working knowledge of much of crocodile social interaction. That said, there are thousands of tiny subtleties within visual gestures that probably mean things we have no clue about. I would go so far as to say that crocodiles may have a language. I would even hypothesize that although many of the more basic gestures performed by one species might be understood by others, as many or more (particularly subtle ones) would not. Perhaps separated populations of the same species have diverged in their social dynamics and communication code to the point where they wouldn’t be able to communicate properly with each other. This could explain inappropriate interaction or aggression in captive animals of the same species from different origins.

Environmental enrichment – what’s important?

With convenient modular enclosures and in particular, opaque snake racks, having become the industry standard for a great many species, it is relatively easy to see that keeping reptiles in a genuinely enriching environment is either misunderstood and/or not being seen as important. In a situation where a reptile cannot be passively observed, the keeper can’t observe behaviour outside of times when the enclosure is opened and thus disturbed. This situation severely inhibits any practical learning curve on the part of the keeper. Even if animals were visible without opening their cage, there isn’t terribly much scope for a reptile to exhibit natural behaviour in a sterile enclosure half its own length, lined in paper or wood shavings. Many of the unique activities performed by wild reptiles are the direct product of, or reaction to external stimuli. If these stimuli are not available, what you may be left with is a reptilian battery hen.

Environmental enrichment is a bit of a catch word in zoos around the world and is often used to distraction. Environmental enrichment refers to alteration or modification of the enclosure or general environment of an animal in order to alleviate captivity-related syndromes, or to stimulate natural behaviour. Reptiles, as with other animals, benefit from a host of enrichment methods and there are many advantages to the animal’s long-term health in establishing (and improvising) a less predictable and monotonous lifestyle. It should be noted that many reptiles are extremely niche-specific and will only be found in a particular microclimate in the wild.

Applying environmental enrichment to monkeys is infinitely more straightforward than doing so for lower vertebrates. It is doubtful that many reptiles experience boredom or sadness but, at the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, they still share a high percentage of their body plan with us and all other vertebrate fauna, and it makes sense that they should not be given less than mammals or birds in the way of enrichment.

Enrichment should be structured around the sensory capabilities of the animal. Most of the stimulation a given animal will experience will naturally be through the senses that are the most highly developed. Visual barriers would be of little benefit to a blind snake but might dramatically improve the life of a nervous vine snake that relies heavily on its panoramic vision and need for security. When we apply enrichment techniques we have to think ‘out of the box’ and sometimes use quite a bit of imagination.

Good husbandry should involve the learning curve mentioned previously, whether it is a common and well-studied species, or an obscure and lesser known one. The more we discover and publish, the stronger the foundation will be for the next generation of reptile keepers. I might be wrong, but in my opinion this takes reptile husbandry to a new and more exciting level.


There are some arbitrary guidelines regarding minimum space requirements for reptiles but the bottom line is that we should provide as much space as possible.

Just how much would constitute a minimum ethical standard? It will vary dramatically from species to species, but snakes seem to get the short end of the stick in this regard, and although I can’t give an accurate minimum space requirement, I can learn about that species’ daily movement in the wild and use common sense and a level of compassion to try to accommodate it with this in mind. If we have a decent understanding of an animal’s natural history in the wild, we can make an educated decision on spatial requirements. The more space you make available to a reptile, the more options you have in terms of how to furnish that space for maximum benefit to their overall physical and mental welfare.


One of the biggest causes of reptiles not getting enough activity is warmth.

A hot spot traditionally mounted at one point in the enclosure will give an animal little incentive to go anywhere else. In the wild state, there are no such obvious heating stations for reptiles to recharge in (or at least none that remain warm 24 hours a day) and the temperature is more general when the reptile is active. My preference is general ambient heating to an ideal temperature for a given reptile’s body to function most effectively. If hot spots are used, a useful technique to get the animal moving is by mounting two or more hot spots in different parts of the enclosure and to connect them to timers in a manner that one will turn on as the previous one switches off.

Feeding stimuli:

Food is something that every animal responds to (if hungry) and if a reptile is overweight, then it is eating more calories than it is burning. Using food or, in some cases, the promise of food, can get the laziest reptile moving about in earnest. Regular exercise is of obvious benefit to anything that has muscles and if the animal is doing that exercise willingly without any stress involved, it should be encouraged. Snakes, tegus and monitor lizards can be encouraged to move around by creating scent trails in the enclosure. Mazes are another great way to get maximum activity out of reptiles that actively hunt and forage. They can be a highly effective addition to an exhibit and watching a snake or lizard toil its way through a transparent labyrinth, hitting dead ends and making wrong turns is a great experience for visitors to enjoy. The sky is the limit when designing a maze and any number of routes can be built in. A prey item can be placed at the end of one route, and various other objects and smells inserted at various points.

Visual Barriers:

Anyone who has observed reptiles in the wild will know that the vast majority of them are cryptic and fairly reclusive.

Even those that habitually sit out in the open, always do so with an escape route and cover instantly available. Colonial or gregarious reptiles, like many diurnal lizard species, don’t always get along like the big happy families we tend to think they are, and the social structure, number of individuals and interaction between members is often volatile, and largely influenced by how much space they have between them and the fact that certain members are not in constant visual contact with each other.

In the captive context visual barriers can be applied for allowing privacy to animals when they require it. Surprisingly many species actually show themselves more readily when visual barriers are plentiful in the enclosure. If an animal feels more secure, it will, over time, also feel bolder and with daily routine being a relatively stress-free affair, even naturally secretive species can be converted to extroverts. Social reptiles like iguanas and some Agamids can be displayed at a higher density with the addition of rocks, veils or ‘creeper curtains’ so as to allow group members privacy from one another.

Mixed species enclosures:

Most good public zoos are leaning more towards mixed species exhibits as a way of enhancing visitor experience, by displaying a variety of species sharing the same enclosure.

Much research needs to be done in this regard and it should never be practiced if there are any compatibility issues, however minor. Bearing in mind that they live together, even mild disagreements could cause chronic disorders over time. On the other side of things, mixing species of different genera, families and classes can be immensely beneficial to the animals. Visual and olfactory distraction, I’ve observed, have heightened interaction between members of a group of green iguanas. In one facility we had a room-sized Amazon-themed exhibit containing plumed basilisks, green iguanas, golden lion tamarins and toucans. After a month or two of introductions you could often observe an iguana basking, eyes shut, with a tamarin fastidiously peeling flakes of shed skin from him. With the large space generally required for mixed species enclosures, this has the additional advantage of providing a large space for individual animals.

Reptile husbandry is only simple to those possessed of certainty that their techniques are correct and there is no need for improvement.

The best practices and standards for reptile husbandry need to be researched and amended, at least to the level of some of the more popular, flagship animals we see in wildlife facilities around the world. The best we can do, in the absence of said research, is to study (physically if possible, but also in literature) our animals’ in-situ behaviours, relationships, distribution, habitat choices, geographical range, natural diet and any other information we can find, and use that, combined with our knowledge of captive reptile management to apply the best simulation of the wild state that a captive environment can provide.

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Image © Giu Vicente on Unsplash