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Herpetoculture is the keeping of live reptiles and amphibians in captivity, whether as a hobby or as a commercial breeding operation. "Herps" is an informal term that refers to both reptiles and amphibians. It is undertaken by people of all ages and from all walks of life, including, but not limited to career herpetologists, professional reptile or amphibian breeders, and casual hobbyists. It is considered by many to be different from pet keeping in that few of its practitioners consider their animals as "pets"; most herpetoculturists do not give their animals names, and most do not bond in the same way as pet keepers bond with their cats and dogs. However, some amateur herpetoculturists do treat their animals as pets and interact with them accordingly.
The origin of the word "herpetoculture" is credited to Tom Huff, who devised the word to distinguish what he, as a self-described "herpetoculturist", was doing—working to keeping reptiles and amphibians alive and healthy—from what herpetologists of that era were generally doing, namely, collecting specimens for preservation in museum collections.
As reptiles are cold blooded they generally need to be kept in climate-controlled enclosures, especially when kept in regions further away from the equator. A standard enclosure usually incorporates a thermostat and a heat emitter; either a 'heat rock' or an incandescent light bulb. Most reptiles also require some form of Ultraviolet radiation which can be provided through a UV bulb. The lighting can be set to a timer to simulate a day/night cycle. Heat emitters are usually placed at one end of the enclosure to allow for a temperature gradient, so a reptile may move to the other end of the enclosure if it needs to cool itself.
Many reptiles are oviparous and will lay eggs if successfully mated. Breeders may use incubators to increase their chances of successful hatching. Reptiles incubators generally consist of a thermostat and hygrometer. Unlike most avian eggs reptile eggs generally do not need to be turned; in the wild they are generally laid in mounds or underground and left to incubate.
Reptiles and amphibians can be either omnivores or carnivores. Omnivores can generally be fed species-depended mixes of plant or meat-based foods, with additional supplementation, most commonly calcium. Specialised carnivores may need live insects or whole rodents. Frozen rodents can generally be bought from pet shops and are then thawed before feeding.
Many species of reptile have a seasonal breeding cycle, for example in southern Australia, the Eastern Long Neck turtle brumates over winter before mating in spring. Herpetoculturists who wish to breed their reptiles may have to alter the environment in the vivarium to simulate seasons to encourage successful mating.
There are long-standing differences and disputes between herpetoculturists and professional herpetologists. With professional herpetology's increasing focus on scientific research, including conservation biology, some herpetologists believe that herpetoculturists are part of the problem: that collecting specimens from the wild for the live animal trade is having an adverse impact on wild populations. While many captive bred reptiles and amphibians are offered for sale at pet stores and reptile shows such as bearded dragons, corn snakes and leopard geckos, many animals sold are still removed from the wild. Complicating the matter further is the growing problem of exotic species escaping or being released into the wild where they occasionally establish populations outside of their natural ranges, part of the larger issue referred to as invasive species.
Herpetoculturists respond that with few exceptions, wild collecting is incidental and trivial compared to the losses resulting from habitat destruction and modification, highway mortality, and killing by people out of fear or ignorance. Herpetologists collecting specimens for preservation are also blamed for depleting local populations. Many herpetoculturists maintain that their animals are bred in captivity wherever possible and that their captive breeding efforts actually help to preserve threatened species. In addition, they contend that herpetoculture has saved some species from extinction.
- 1994 Breck Bartholemew, Intermontanus 3(1). Utah Herpetological Society. Reprinted from the International Iguana Society's Iguana Times, 1994 (1)2-6