How to Deal with "Bad" Pet Shops, Zoos, etc.
We all have our stories. We went to a zoo here or a pet shop there, and witnessed questionable and sometimes deplorable conditions: unhealthy animals, neglected enclosures that hadn’t been cleaned in days, empty water bowls, overcrowded cages, mixed habitats, improper diet, any combination of the above, etc.
If it is a pet store, the animal lover in us wants to immediately “rescue” all the neglected critters and/or call someone of authority. If it is a zoo or similar form of exhibit-like facility, our inclination is to find the nearest staff member and point out everything we see wrong. While our intentions are noble, these actions do not always garner the success we anticipate and rarely is any change made.
Before offering a series of helpful guidelines for dealing with such situations, I would like to briefly offer you a “big picture” perspective on both of these venues.
As a business, the retail pet shop is expected to make profit. Everything regarding the business revolves around that objective, even the livestock. Minute details include the amount of floor space devoted to a particular group of animals weighed against the average sales from those animals, or the maximum amount of a particular species can be housed together, etc. This sounds a harsh but it is the business of the pet industry. One thing to keep in mind is that the housing situation in a pet store is a temporary living condition for those animals
. Most only remain in the store for a matter of weeks. Those that stay longer eventually are discounted or put on sale, because the store wants to continue its turn-around of new animals. So while yes, the habitats may be a little cramped, and not quite as ideal, one can hope the end result is that the animal goes home to a more adequate, spacious housing than what it had at the pet shop.
Like pet stores, zoos can be hit-and-miss; there are some really good ones, and some really not-so-good ones. One thing to remember about zoos is that most are non-profit and operate on a shoe-string budget, while the pet stores depend heavily on retail sales from supplies and merchandise. And ironically, it takes a lot more money to run the average zoo than the typical pet store! Just feeding all the animals is a tremendous expense.
So to compensate, zoos depend on exciting and spectacular exhibits to attract visitors through their gates. While not always ideal, they are inclined to house more animals within a certain enclosure. Zoo visitors aren’t interested in seeing open, mostly vacant exhibits with only 1-2 animals in them. This practice often sparks heated discussions regarding mixed species habitats and whatnot, which is another topic within itself. Nevertheless, non-profit or not, the zoo is a business entity as well, at least in the sense that it must sustain itself enough remain open to the public. If it cannot remain open to the public, this cripples its ability to receive support, especially in the form of charitable donations. If the zoo closes, a large venue in which the public can see and observe various forms in wildlife in person is lost. Then there’s the question of what happens to the animals. So in the end, some small compromises can be made for the continued success of the zoo, and letting people
Now people often make the argument “Well, if they don’t know how to care for the animals, they shouldn’t keep them!” Fundamentally, I can agree. But the dissemination of proper care of a particular species may always be in flux; advances in husbandry are always being made, and it can be difficult to keep track of what the most “accurate” guidelines for some animals are, especially for reptiles. A lot of older zoos and pet shops are operated by “old school” hobbyists that are still reliant on obsolete information. It’s not that they don’t care; they may simply do not know any better, because they have been doing it the same way for decades. They don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, so they are not inspired to seek out whether their methods are current. Not the mentality I advocate, but I’m simply explaining the thought-process behind what you may see at some of these places.
Another thing to keep in mind for zoos and pet shops is that both venues routinely will take in unwanted or “donated” adult animals. In regards to reptiles, these are often in the form of larger constrictors, adult tortoises, green iguanas, and monitor lizards. Sometimes these animals may not be cosmetically perfect. For example, an adult 50-lb sulcata tortoise on display at a pet store with some pyramiding on its shell very likely did not get that way at the store. Most cases of pyramiding in tortoises occur within the first few months of the reptile’s life, and it is highly improbable that tortoise remained unsold in the same location from a hatchling for the better part of a decade. Yet I have seen more than a handful of instances where this scenario has been witnessed and the establishment in question is immediately blamed for the tortoise’s condition. So it is important to evaluate such factors before immediately passing judgment on said pet shop or zoo.
So we covered the general premise on which zoos and pet stores stand. Now let’s go over how one might deal with a genuine case of questionable husbandry practices by either establishment, even after taking into account the factors described above.
· Notify your local Humane Society.
- Carefully document what you have concerns with. Look around for a pen and paper. If you can’t find any, most cellphones have a notepad feature. Somewhere on the phone there is some way to type down notes. If all else fails, send texts to yourself (or a friend) if you have to, just so there is a record of your observations so later, you won’t have rely solely on your memory. If possible, take pictures! If you don’t have a real camera, use your phone if it has a camera feature.
- Compile your “evidence” by taking the information from your notes, outlining them more formally in a word document and matching the points to any photos you have taken. Make it as detailed as possible, as if you were submitting a report to a high authority (which you may end up doing later), but make sure to check for grammar, and summarily ensure the document is clear and simple to process. Keep any original files for yourself; give only copies to others.
- Take a copy of your report and approach the management of the establishment. As civilly and politely as possible, express the concerns you have as an animal enthusiast and show them what you have observed the last time you were there. In some cases, perhaps you just caught them between shift changes, or on a day when they were short on staff. In other cases, some of the issues in husbandry are just from ignorance, as described earlier. If you are civil, the management may be willing to correct their errors and work toward improvement.
- (optional) If possible, volunteer to help out. It is one thing to stand by and point out mistakes in others. But if you volunteer your time and/or knowledge, it goes the extra mile in showing the establishment in question that you do genuinely care about getting the animals properly cared for and helping the place get back on the right track. If there is online resources you think may benefit the situation, print out the information and/or give the link to the relevant parties.
- If the management/proprietors of the establishment are, for whatever reason, unwilling to change or improve their ways, then you have a number of options (see below). Be sure to offer any of them a copy of your report you did earlier. Like you did originally with the management, continue to be civil and professional as you convey this information to others. The objective is simply to inform them that this establishment is guilty of negligent treatment of some of the animals in their care, and when concerns have been expressed, they have not sought to correct it.
They may have clout, but the downside is that many humane societies have little knowledge in the husbandry of exotic pets, especially for reptiles. Without that expertise behind them, it is hard for them to enforce any kind of standard husbandry protocol for certain species.
· Notify any other local organizations that may be inclined to help (herpetological clubs, bird clubs, etc.).
These organizations may have sway that you do not, as well as connections to help inspire improvement in the establishment in question.
· Notify your local news media.
Personally, this is kind of a later resort if no other authority(s) have sought to rectify the situation. If the establishment is unlikely to improve, then you can persuade others from giving it business.
· Word-of-mouth / Social Media, etc.
Like informing the local news, this is more along the lines of simply discouraging others from giving business to the establishment.
Any combination of the above
- Follow-up on progress. Notify relevant parties if progress is not being made.
One thing I commonly see in these situations is that a pet hobbyist may see a neglected animal that is not kept ideally in a pet store, and their impulse is to buy it immediately, therefore “rescuing” it from the bad pet shop environment it was living in. Now, I can’t tell people what they can or cannot do with their own money, and if they want to get a particular animal for a pet, and they want to get it at a pet store, that is their choice.
However, if your objective is to help improve the husbandry practices in the pet store, you have done nothing to achieve this goal. In fact, you have essentially done exactly what the pet store wanted: purchased the animal so they can order another one to fill its space in the exact same improper habitat you took the first one out of. Many well-intentioned pet lovers do this, but they are just part of the cycle and changing nothing. When people continue to buy the animals, it just indicates to the company that those animals sell well, and they will just order more. Rescuing one poor neglected critter after another will not change anything, because to them, you are just another good customer who keeps coming in to buy animals!
My advice? Jump off the merry-go-round and end the cycle! When you don’t give them your money, THAT sends a very clear message to any business. Be sure to tell them why you are not spending your money with them. If they want your money bad enough, they’ll reevaluate how they do things. That’s how things are going to change.
Hopefully this is helpful to a lot of people. Again, I’m not trying to convince everyone to never go to a zoo or buy at a pet store ever again. There are plenty of good zoos and awesome pet shops out there. But once more, there are also a lot of bad ones as well. If we want those bad ones to convert into good ones, we need to show them how they can change.