26th June 2015
Grace's Rest has had a bit of criticism over the last 24hrs for opposing "pet parties" and "animal encounters". Our policy on these services is very clear: we believe that such services offer no educational value and are rife with animal welfare and human health and safety concerns.
When Grace’s Rest first opened back in 2013 I was heavily encouraged to provide these services by my business advisors. I was heavily opposed and to date have still never provided entertainment services at a party. However I did relent on a handful of occasions and take some of the creatures on “educational” visits to schools and children’s clubs. I have regretted this ever since and have not taken any more such bookings to date.
Here are my reasons for being against such services and why Grace’s Rest will not participate in these activities.
Whilst the children undoubtedly had a fantastic time, the animals hated ever minute. This was obvious from their behaviour. When taking into account that they had been removed from their comfortable enclosures (where they can bask, feed, drink, sleep, groom and generally do whatever they want); were packed into transport containers; shipped to the venue; publically displayed; handled by strangers; and then dragged back to base their reactions become totally reasonable. Remember that regardless of popular opinion, these animals are NOT domesticated. They are WILD animals that are habituated (accustomed to) being in close proximity to humans and we cannot expect the same reactions from them as we would from a truly domestic animal such as a dog or cat. Being out of their enclosure, where the environment is carefully controlled, for long periods will also have a detrimental effect on the animal’s health.
Fact retention was a major issue. Through repeat visits it became clear that the main things that stuck in the minds of the participants were “I held a snake”, “I saw a HUGE bug” and so on, not “Wow that creature is endangered in the wild” or “I didn’t know that about food webs”. Kids will be kids; it isn’t their fault that they go giddy with excitement when there is an animal in the room! This also begs the question; do these sessions hold ANY educational value? I could ask those considering booking such a service if they would take their children to the big top to learn about elephants or tigers. They are likely to vehemently answer that they would most certainly not. In which case, I postulate that they would not want to invite a travelling spectacle into their home where WILD animals are taken out of their comfort zone and shipped across the country day in, day out, to be exhibited and made to perform (even if in merely accepting handling from strangers) with little to no regard for their welfare needs. Is this really any more than a circus by another name?
So many "professionals" that I come across on a daily basis have little, if any, understanding of the behavioural needs of wild animals in the captive environment. Even more than this have a worrying lack of understanding of basic animal behaviour and stereotypic behavioural problems. One of the most common misconceptions relating to exotics stems from so called “glass dancing” – when an animal worries or scratches at the glass door of it’s enclosure. Such a repetitive, undesirable (and seemingly pointless) behavioural pattern is known as a stereotypy. This trait is witnessed in both reptiles and mammals. The behaviour is often misinterpreted as the animal expressing affection and wanting to be “cuddled” because it is only seen to exhibit the behaviour in the presence of the owner (naturally, you can’t see it when you’re not there!). In reality the animal is trying to escape the enclosure. It will associate the owner with the opening of the enclosure door and with the provision of food, it may have even learned that should it begin scratching that the owner will open the door practically on command! These animals are by no means stupid and are desperately trying to tell us what they want and need. An understanding of animal behaviour is vital if a “professional” is to be able to care for them adequately and subsequently educate the public accurately.
In my personal experience I have found that these sessions have exactly the opposite effect as that which is intended. “What is that?!” I hear you cry! Well, any presenter with a shred of conscience would be sure the emphasis that exotic animals are not suitable as pets. Unfortunately, they can say this as much as they wish but the sad truth is that in seeing a presenter with these animals (and knowing that they are easily purchased from the local exotic pet shop) the viewer will think precisely the opposite! In making a spectacle of these creatures the presenter makes it acceptable to own them even if that is not their conscious intent. This only serves to make the exotic pet crisis worse with more animals coming into rescues like Grace’s Rest when ill-prepared owners can no longer cope with them.
There is growing concern at the number of animal party/encounter companies springing up across the country. Even those already established in the business are worried and not just because they offer added competition to their trade. Such enterprises are woefully unregulated and require no formal training, certification or inspections to establish. By law aPerforming Animals License must be granted by the district council prior to trading however these only incur a nominal fee and require no inspection of premises, procedures or assessments of animal health or welfare. Fill in the form, pay your fee and the license is yours; you can even do it online! One would hope that every company is insured to a suitable level for public liability and professional indemnity as well as being fully cleared by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) however it is inevitable that some will avoid these practicalities for whatever reason. This is especially worrying considering the risks involved from being in close proximity to wild animals, particularly ones that are expected to be handled by people who they don’t know and who don’t know them and when the presenter could be responsible for children or other vulnerable people.
Some of the species used and the way in which they are displayed and handled are completely inappropriate. With competition between companies heating up the race is on to have more exciting, more exotic animals to exhibit. Needless to say that I could go into a LOT of detail here regarding specific species but I could write a thesis on this one! The risk of injury and disease to the public, other animals and our natural environment should be of utmost concern here.
There are many fabulous alternatives to “pet parties” and “animal encounters” which I will bring to you in a subsequent blog. In the meantime, please make the ethical choice by NOT booking such a service for your next event.
For young people and grown-ups why not consider booking Grace’s Rest for a guest lecture? We can speak on a HUGE variety of topics and we love to speak about how the rescue works, the animals we save and the challenges we face as we strive to improve welfare standards for exotic animals one day at a time. Our sessions are guaranteed to inspire, enthral and enthuse all who hear them while assured to be cruelty-free and with proceeds going towards the running of the rescue service.
Supported by Ladbrook Insurance, a specialist animal charity insurance provider.
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Meet the Owner-Operator, Clare Barnard BSc.(Hons)
Clare is a research scientist and PhD candidate at the University of Lincoln where she is studying wildlife conservation and the direct impact of the exotic pet trade on wild animal populations. She will be working from the Laboratory of Evolutionary Ecology of Adaptations. Clare has also been honoured to become part of the Global Amphibian Biodiversity research team.
Clare has almost 20 years professional experience in the husbandry of exotic animals a specialism in the genetics of British herpetofauna. She has worked with wild Adders (Vipera berus) and endangered Natterjack Toads (Epidalea calamita) under Natural England license conditions. Clare has worked as a zookeeper and within private collections including her own. She lives in rural North Warwickshire, on-site at Grace's Rest, with a whole host of animals!