With so much going on throughout the world these days, it’s hard not to be transfixed on the news. However, in between daily COVID-19 updates, analysis of the upcoming presidential election, and coverage of the nationwide protest movement, some significant reptile-based news has slipped in. And, most certainly, the new laws concerning reptile sales in Florida could certainly use an additional critique.
In March 2020, the Florida legislature passed a bill which would make it illegal to possess, import, trade, sell or breed both green iguanas and tegu lizards, both of which have been notable staples within the reptile trade for years. While similar bills failed to pass committee in 2019, 2018 and 2017, this bill was signed into law at the end of June by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Florida has a long and difficult history within the reptile trade, as the warm, wet climate is quite favorable to many species of snakes and lizards. As such, animals that have escaped or have been (unwisely) released into the wild, can unfortunately thrive and breed, pushing native species out of their native habitats. Burmese pythons, particularly, are viewed as an invasive species by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, but a special license has allowed inspected, heavily regulated facilities to conduct limited business with this and a few other reptiles species for over a decade. That successful program is also now banned under a separate condition of the new law and these businesses must close operations without compensation. The United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) has railed against this unconstitutional governance.
Unfortunately, this has had a detrimental affect on Floridian reptile retailers. In a February 2020 article in the Gainesvillle Sun, Underground Reptiles owner Rian Gittman estimated the loss to be so great that he would likely have to lay off upwards of two dozen employees, to say nothing of the possibility of criminal charges for his already extant stock of iguanas. While the passed legislation does grandfather in selected, previously-licensed reptile retailers, the economic impact of this bill is certainly detrimental to a still-burgeoning segment of the pet industry.
As pet retailers, we must continue to be diligent in advocating against these forms of legislations, as additional restrictions continue to push down the slippery slope of over-legislation. Even stores that do not stock tegus, iguanas, or pythons can see their businesses impacted by these laws, as they reshape the economic realities of reptile supply and demand. Stores that can no longer stock iguanas, for example, will likely move into other reptiles, increasing demand on those species, which breeders and suppliers are already struggling to provide.
However, further diligence must occur at the point of retailer-customer interaction. More than ever, it becomes imperative for pet retailers to ensure that a given reptile is the best possible fit for a given customer. Tegus, for instance, can grow to be particularly large—average size for these lizards is between three and four feet long, with some growing up to five feet long and weighing almost 40 pounds. While docile, their sheer size can make their future housing requirements, and the costs involved, difficult for those with limited budgets who live in small apartments.
The onus lies on us within the pet industry to match the best possible pet to the best possible customer. This means staying educated on the species you carry in stock. This means teaching your staff on how to speak to customers, how to intelligently question and provide animals of best fit to your customers. Fortunately, the tools and resources exist and are readily available via the PIJAC program Habitattitude.
In the end, as a pet retailer, you want a customer that will come back to your store time after time for their pet supplies. You want a customer with whom you can build a rapport, so that you can meet their needs while simultaneously serving as an expert, able to answer their questions accurately and intelligently. Yes, you may make an animal sale to a customer unable to provide the proper level of care or attention to their new reptile. But, in doing so, you set that customer up for disappointment, rather than love. And, in a worst case scenario, that leads directly to a former pet being left out in the wild, rather than kept in a loving home. Match the pet to the customer, and laws like those in Florida may never gain momentum.