The National Centre for Reptile Welfare

Getting things done is usually easier if you have some help. Here’s a story about how different parts of the reptile pet trade, a national charity and a college have worked together to help solve one of the inevitable problems associated with pet ownership – rehoming pets.

The National Centre for Reptile Welfare (NCRW) will officially open its doors to the first inhabitants in July, marking the launch of a remarkable endeavour to solve one of the challenges facing the hobby – rehoming. As the number of reptiles kept as pets in the UK has risen, so has the inevitable number of animals requiring rehoming. Although the number of reptiles requiring rehoming is tiny compared to other types of pets, the usual animal welfare charities lack the expertise and insight required to successfully rehome unwanted reptiles and amphibians.

Something needed to be done to provide a specialist rehoming and rescue across the whole of the UK, and so the idea of the National Centre for Reptile Welfare (NCRW) was born. Located at Hadlow College in Kent, the NCRW has cost an estimated £500,000 to build and is a joint collaboration between The Pet Charity and Hadlow College, with the project being managed by Chris Newman, the chairperson of the Reptile and Exotic Pet Trade Association (REPTA) and a trustee of The Pet Charity.

Having watched the reptile rehoming issue become a growing challenge over the last 20 or so years, Chris knew that a solution was necessary before the problem grew too large. “The reptile keeping hobby has a much smaller rehoming problem than other taxa.” says Chris. “According to figures from the RSPCA, rescued dogs outnumber rescued reptiles at a rate of twenty to one – largely because keeping the most common species of reptiles is easier than keeping most traditional pets.”

It’s an interesting point, but just because reptile rehoming isn’t a big a problem doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Seeing the problem growing made Chris realise that a solution was required and that the solution would require collaboration that had previously been difficult to achieve. The crossover between rehoming and the trade has been slight until now, with many viewing rehoming centres as nothing more than unlicensed pet shops and competition to legitimate trade – but the new centre aims to bridge that gap. In addition to rehoming animals, the Centre also aims to address the core reason these animals needed rehoming in the first place. By recording the circumstances which created need for each animal to be rehomed the Centre will be able to compile a database. This data can then be used to ascertain the most frequent causes of rehoming, thereby enabling the trade to deal with these issues at source.

A good example of this principle in action is the case of the Green Iguana. Iguanas were, at one point, a large part of the trade with many thousands being imported into the UK each year. While baby Iguanas are a great pet, they aren’t suitable for most people when they reach adulthood. REPTA was able to advise importers and wholesalers of the situation and recommend the trade step away from importing and selling Iguanas in favour of other, more suitable species. As a result, Iguanas are a tiny fraction of the trade today. This scenario demonstrates the trade’s ability and willingness to react favourably when such information is made available, and so the work being done to harvest this data and thereby address emerging problems will be invaluable.

Reptiles and other pets can need rehoming for a variety different reasons. Their keepers may have died, become ill, lost their job, moved to new accommodation or have changed family circumstances to name but a few of the most common causes. At the moment it is unclear exactly what proportion of animals require rehoming through these sorts of unavoidable circumstances, and how many are rehomed due to neglect or mistreatment. Anecdotal reports suggest that few cases are caused by neglect or mistreatment, and so to use the word ‘rescued’ would seem to be inaccurate in most circumstances. However, many rehoming centres portray themselves as ‘rescue centres’ in order to pull on the profitable heart strings of their potential donors and, where a remit to inhibit trade is present, a rescued reptile is more convincing than one which needs rehoming for a more benign reason. This is why the NCRW prefers to use the term ‘rehoming centre’ instead.

How it works

The rehoming issue affects the whole of the UK, making transportation logistics the main challenge facing the NCRW. An unwanted Beardie in Glasgow might find a loving home in Brighton, but moving the animal from one place to the other could be costly and difficult. That problem was solved by the two large reptile wholesale companies, Peregrine and Monkfield, whose delivery vans supply reptile stores up and down the country. Both companies were eager to help.

With the transport logistics network in place, the next challenge was finding the expertise and the locations for the efficient handover of the rehomed animal at each end of the process. That’s when the reptile pet stores stepped in. “We needed the help of reptile shops if the plan was to succeed. Each rehomed animal needs to be somehow received from the original owner and then handed over to the new owner.

 

New owners would also need to be vetted to ensure they had enough information and equipment to keep their new pet animal well. We contacted a few reptile stores in strategic areas around the UK, and most were happy to help.” explained Chris. As the centre becomes better known and the UK’s rehoming needs become more defined, more stores will hopefully join the rehoming network.

Building the Centre

Although the idea for the Centre had been forming in Chris’s mind for some years, the potential to build the facility only became a viable prospect last year as several pieces fell into place at the same time. Hadlow college had a building that was suddenly vacant, and they also had the desire to increase the facilities available to their students for reptile related experience and education.

The trustees of the Pet Charity agreed to provide funds for the initial build and to run the centre for the first year and at the same time, as part of a refurbishment plans at Pets at Home (most stores no longer stocking reptiles), over 300 enclosures and related equipment became surplus to requirements – available for free if they could be collected from PAH stores around the country. Chris and his team visited over 80 PAH stores in eight months, following the refurbishment team as they stripped out the units. With hundreds of vivariums and van loads of electrical equipment now being available work could begin to make the idea a reality. As news of the NCRW project spread, many companies and organisations from all parts of the trade provided products and services to help build the centre.

The Centre features a quarantine room where all acquisitions will be monitored and routinely treated for mites and common pathogens before being relocated to the holding facilities, which can accommodate virtually any kind of reptile, amphibian or invertebrate. The Centre also features training facilities for venomous training, local authority licensing inspectors and animal management students, and there’s even an exhibition area planned to highlight the story of reptile pet keeping in the UK.

More than just a reptile rehoming centre

As if solving the UKs reptile rehoming issues wasn’t admirable enough, the Centre will also host and organise several other reptile welfare related projects. The Centre will provide reptile-specific training for local authority inspectors tasked with administration of pet shop licenses under the new Animal Activities Licencing laws.

The Centre boasts an area colloquially called ‘The Pet Shop Simulator’ which is kitted out to demonstrate the types of environments inspectors are likely to experience while assessing pet stores. The simulator, along with guidance from REPTA, will help to formulate efficient and consistent standards of inspection for stores across the whole country.

The Centre will also work closely with Hadlow College to provide resources for students’ studies. Students studying Animal Management courses will be able to use the Centre for learning and research. It also aims to provide resources for students wishing to research animal welfare and husbandry which could further our understanding of reptile care, helping the college to build a reputation as a centre of excellence for academic reptile-related training and research. “If a student wishes to conduct research into, for example, whether Leopard Geckos need UV light, or find out the ideal amount of vivarium space a reptile needs for welfare, then the Centre can provide the facilities and the animals in order for the student to do that research” says Chris. “We’re also talking to the Durrell Institute and Lincoln University to develop exactly these types of relationships.

It’s all very exciting and the potential is enormous.” Venomous training will also be available at the Centre via a custom-built facility with a glass fronted viewing area and two-way intercom, although those looking for a social media selfie as part of their training will be disappointed.

What’s next?

The Centre opens officially in July and is already receiving animals. It is currently home to around 130 specimens, from Corn Snakes, Leopard Geckos and Van Dam’s Girdled Lizard, with more arriving every day.

A website featuring the animals available for rehoming is currently being developed, grouping them by species in categories A, B and C, according to how difficult they are to keep.

• Category A is any species which is considered an easy to keep pet species, such as Bearded Dragons, Leopard Geckos, Crested Geckos, colubrids, Mediterranean Tortoises and Royal Pythons.
• Category C groups those species which are considered suitable only for accomplished specialist keepers, including any venomous animal.
• All other species will be classed as category B and suitable for those keepers with some experience.

Once the website is live in August the Centre will begin to rehome animals to their new homes with suitable new owners, but the future of the Centre is reliant on funding being available for its continued upkeep. Revenue from training programs and rehoming fees will go some way to paying the Centre’s estimated £125,000 annual costs, but further funding is likely to be necessary.

If you would like to donate to the Centre’s upkeep you will be able to do so via the NCRW website, or you can donate direct by emailing info@ thepetcharity.org

The reptile trade has done an outstanding and commendable job in contributing to the NCRW so far. Seeing the Centre continue to thrive under the good will and kindness of the reptile trade would be a most fitting end to this heart-warming story.

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